Monday, February 21, 2011

What About The Children of Wisconsin?

In case you've taken a Waldenesque break in the woods and don't know it, there is quite the uprising being played out in the Wisconsin legislature these days. You can read about it all over the place, but you may get different versions depending on who's doing the reporting.

Some say the Governor has rushed to pass a budget that will strip unionized workers, including teachers, of their collective bargaining rights. The Governor says Wisconsin is broke, and he has no other recourse but to take away benefits and union bargaining rights from public workers.

One side says Wisconsin wasn't broke until this rookie Governor gave tax breaks to his big-business pals. The other side is pointing fingers at fourteen legislators who have fled town so that a voting quorum can't be reached.

The blogosphere and Twitterworld are hot right now, with points of view being fired off from all directions.

And then this morning, an intelligent former student, an adult now with a child of her own, posted on Facebook in a respectful manner:

"Are there scab teachers teaching the kids in Wisconsin? If there is no one watching out for the education of those children, shame on those teachers. I admit that I don't fully understand what they're protesting, but can someone explain to me what it is that's more important than the future of the children that are being left out in the cold?"

She continued with a comment to her own post:

"Please do not think that I am anti-teacher in any way. I am just trying to figure out why the kids are of such little importance. Please someone help me understand this."

Here is my response to her:

Dear Kristen,

Because we live in a Right-to-Work state, teachers here in North Carolina have a hard time understanding the ins and outs of collective bargaining. We don't have teacher unions and, therefore, are at the mercy of our education associations (and their lobbyists), our governor, and our state legislators when it comes to benefits and pay. We have to hope that we've voted the right folks into office.

So I don't claim to be an expert about what's going on in Wisconsin. But I know teachers in Wisconsin, and I know children in general. I have to believe that what the students are learning is more powerful than any history lecture they may have had the opportunity to hear in the past.

I've taught the Civil War, I've taught the Civil Rights Movement including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr's I Have a Dream Speech, and I've taught all about apartheid in South Africa. Although my students have always appeared somewhat interested, it has been apparent that they are so far removed from either the place or the time (or both) that they don't really grasp the meaning. Oh, I try to make these events relative. We stand in a circle and hold hands - Black, White, Hispanic alternating - and I tell them that when I was in elementary school, this type of activity would have been illegal in the South. They don't get it. They don't believe it. It feels like a story to them. Fiction.

To the students of Wisconsin, this isn't a story. This is a real civil rights issue. And even if they don't know exactly why their teachers are missing, they do know that they are off fighting for what they believe in. Some students, referred to as the "soul of the protests," have even joined their teachers, staging sleepovers in the legislative building and waging war via social media. Some are joining forces, linking arm-in-arm to cheer like it's a Friday night football game:

"Everywhere we go-o-o-o,
people want to know-ow-ow
Who-o-o-o we ar-r-r-r-r-e,
a-a-a-a-nd we tell them,

We are stu-u-u-u-dents,
mighty mighty stu-u-u-dents.

The students of Wisconsin are learning the valuable lessons of free speech, standing up for a cause, and basing opinions on carefully sought out facts. I saw one of the fourteen legislators on the news this morning. Interviewed in the "undisclosed" hotel in Illinois where she was staying, this mother of two small children answered to leaving them at home by saying she hoped this experience would teach them to stand up for themselves some day.

I have a friend who teaches in Madison. You'd never meet a more open-minded, talented educator who loves everyone and embraces all types of ideas. This week she has been at the protests, subjected to name-calling and other harsh opposition. She believes she is representing what's best for her students, her family, and her state. But she has been called selfish and greedy because she merely wants to be able to advocate for herself when it comes to salary and benefits. Is this not a practice that occurs in the business world daily? Are teachers some type of sub-citizens, unable to make the same requests?

My friend, the peacemaker, has even stepped in between opposing protestors on the steps of the capitol in an effort to defend everyone's right to free speech. She has been called an idiot, a terrorist, a spoiled brat, and a knuckle-dragging mouth-breather.

This is how Americans are treating Americans. (Remember the Civil War? Now is it relative?)

Yes, Kristen, there is much for the children of Wisconsin, and the United States of America, to learn. I hope the parents of school age kids are talking to them about what they see on the news. I hope they will participate by sending emails to their elected officials or maybe even visiting the capitol themselves. History is happening in Madison, Wisconsin, and although the subject matter may be a history class lecture in a few years, right now it's real.

And I hope students there will never look at the Civil War or the Civil Rights Movement the same way again. Those events aren't just stories either.

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