Tuesday, September 11, 2012

If You Really Want Action Now, Stand with Teachers on the Picket Line

I literally almost had a stroke on Sunday night when Rahm Emmanuel got on television and said that as a result of the longer school day, Chicago Public School students were getting an hour of reading and an hour of writing each day.  Well, I am the reading and writing teacher for most of the sixth, seventh, and eighth graders at my school, and based on what is happening where I teach, that is plainly a lie.

I have one hour in which to teach BOTH reading AND writing. One of my classes is broken into two sections – 30 minutes in the morning and 25 minutes at the end of the day.  There are 41 seventh graders in one classroom, and since I have only 31 desks in my room, we have to start the period by borrowing chairs from two or three different classrooms.  Oh, and the solution to an overcrowded class of 41? No, no, it is not to hire a new teacher.  It is to take ten seventh graders out of their seventh grade homeroom and add them to my eighth grade homeroom, making a seventh/eighth grade split class.  For me, that essentially means teaching four different classes in the same hour.  If reform is the order of the day, start with the radical reforms of reducing class size to 20, providing enough teachers so that each grade level can have its own instructor, and providing an instructional period for every subject.

Let’s not even talk about the fact that I could not give each student a literature textbook because I do not have enough of them or the fact that many of the books I did distribute were missing covers.  I will spare you the details of the email I received from my principal telling me that I have to teach my students fiction story elements that was followed by an email telling me that I am required to use nonfiction books on the Industrial Revolution in my instruction.

Last year my students had both a reading class and a writing class.  This year there is just a reading class.  Last year my students had Spanish three days each week.  This year they have it once.  Last year my students had P.E. two days each week.  This year they have it once.  My students are definitely getting a longer day, but I am hard pressed to see how it is a better one.

To add insult to injury, my classroom was a blazing inferno last week, I was not even given accurate lists of the names of the students in my five classes, and did I already tell you that one of my classes is broken into two discontinuous sessions? 

This strike is a strike of no choice.  When the mayor gets on television spinning fairy tales about the conditions in our schools and does so with conviction, when my professional judgment is preempted by illogical instructional mandates, when my students and I are given challenges to overcome in the place of the resources we need to excel, and when the Board sets me up for failure and then evaluates my performance based on test scores, I have been left with no choice. 

You picked the wrong union to try to bust, Rahm.  You are not going to create the perfect conditions for failure, close our schools, and sell our students to your political cronies and their corporate educational outfits.  Teachers, united, will never be divided.  I will be shouting that from the picket lines for as long as it takes to get teachers a fair contract and for as long as it takes to get students the schools they deserve.

Leslie Russell
CPS Teacher & CPS Parent

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Didn't Want to Catch; Can't Release

Frustration wells in the center of my chest
A garbage compactor around my heart
Crushing closer emotions better discarded
More suitable for release
Never shoulda been caught
But there they are
my soul

"Loving you is like a battle, and we both end up with scars..."

Loving you is like a battle,
like a battle,
like a battle.
Loving you is like a battle,
a battle for...
loving you is like a battle for the most.
The most sacrifice, the most hurt, the most pain, the most inertia.
Loving you is like a battle,
like a battle where we both end up prone,
still trying to battle while bleeding on the ground.
Loving you is like a battle.

I wish all it left were scars.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Tell the Truth, Ruth! A Cautionary Tale

This is the story of Ruth...

...who told lies and never told the truth.

When Ruth was a baby, she pointed to her sister when her mom asked who threw their peas on the carpet. And everyone said..."Tell the truth, Ruth!"

When Ruth was a toddler, she said, "Mary!" when her dad asked who put toothpaste all over the rug. And everyone said..."Tell the truth, Ruth!"

When Ruth started school, she told the teacher, "It was John," when Mrs. Moore asked who put french fries in the fish tank. And everyone said..."Tell the truth, Ruth!"

Whatever Ruth thought, Ruth said...
...I saw a whale walking down main street!
...Look! A flying saucer! Aliens are coming!
...The sky is falling! The sky is falling! A piece just hit me in the head!

And everyone said, "Tell the truth, Ruth!"

"The truth will save you."

One day, Ruth's class takes a trip to the farm. On the bus Ruth says she sees the Lochness monster driving the car in the far right lane.

At the farm, she points to Danny when she knocks over the chicken feed.

Then, she tells Farmer John that she knows how to operate the hay baler. And everyone says..."Tell the truth, Ruth!"

"The truth will save you."

Ruth even tries to convince Farmer Bill that she is a professional bronco breaker. Everyone screams, "Aghhh!"

"T-tell the t-truth, R-Ruth!"

"It will s-save you!"

But Ruth runs away to the fallow field where Farmer Joe is setting up for the County Fair. There she spots the pig sty and the pig wrestling tent.

"Ah!" thinks Ruth. "I am the greatest pig wrestler on Earth!"

So she climbs the fence into the pig sty...
...where there's NO ONE to say...
"Tell the truth, Ruth! It will save you!"

When it's time to go home, Ruth is nowhere to be seen. Then Leslie gasps and points.

And everyone says..."Tell the truth, Ruth!"

(Imagine a little girl's arm and leg sticking out from under a huge pig who's covered in mud, looking satisfied and munching on a corn cob. Also, picture the Pig Wrestling Winners' List on the wall of the tent, the first place winner's name crossed out and Ruth's name written in its place in childish script.)

But it is too late.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

For the 11-Year Old Haitian Girl Pulled from the Rubble

I was playing with my dolls
I was washing up the dishes
I was doing my math homework
I was talking to my friend

I was crushed

I was crying out for help
I was screaming from the fright
I was shouting for my mommy
I was hoping for a savior

I was found

You were giving me some water
You were washing off my face
You were stroking my hair back
You were telling me I'd live

I was freed

They were rushing me to help
They were setting my broken bones
They were giving me fresh blood
They were saving my young life

I died

We all cry for what is lost
We all mourn for what could've been
We all think about the precious times
We all wish it had been different

I live

In our collective action
In our collective strength
In our collective care
In our collective love

I live


Tuesday, May 11, 2010


Although her bruises were dark purple, the same dark purple as the angry storm clouds whose rage we heard as muted music inside the car, she didn’t seem to be in pain. And although she was seven months pregnant, and he had tried to beat the baby out of her, she didn’t seem to be in despair. Peggy was that kind of person. No matter that the heat had to be on in the car in the middle of a frigid June. No matter that we were parked in front of her childhood home, her dead grandmother’s home, and she couldn’t go in until her father finished his crack cocaine party. No matter that she had to go to a friend’s or neighbor’s house to feed her pregnant self and her two-year-old son. Peggy was that kind of person.

“Do you want me to take pictures of the bruises?” Do you want me to take pictures of the bruises? So. Woefully. Inadequate. I can’t believe I actually said that. Do you want me to take pictures of the bruises? Seriously?

“Yeah. That might be a good idea. I made a police report and everything.”

Peggy leans her neck back as I raise the camera and look at her through the screen of my fancy Kodak. Yep. Peggy is that kind of person. She just leans back as I take pictures of the hand prints around her neck, fingerprints like so many beads on a necklace.

Snap. Flash.

“I just don’t know what’s wrong with him.”

Snap. Flash.

“I mean, things were going so good. We have a place and he’s the one said he wanted me to have the baby.”

Snap. Flash. I motion and she turns her neck.

“I was gonna have an abortion, but he was like, ‘Naa – that’s my son.’”

Snap. Flash. She sighs and shifts as much as her heavy belly and the seat belt allow so I can get a picture of the back of her neck.

“I did everything for him. Everything. Fed him when he was hungry. Gave him a place to stay. I didn’t even ask my aunt if he could stay with me over her house. I just said, ‘Come on.’”

Snap. Flash. I scroll through the pictures I’ve taken, pictures like frames in a horror film. You know. The scene where they discover the mangled body of the first victim.

I never transferred those pictures off of that camera, and I never deleted them either. I never took another picture with that camera, and I never saw Peggy alive again after that day.

Won't You Be My Neighbor?

Siren wails, car door slams, foot falls, and staccato voices regularly mar the late night peace on my street. Sagging pants, tilted hats, dress-sized shirts, and loosely laced gym shoes perennially intrude on my daytime view of the park across the road. Cars fly through my neighborhood, speakers bumping. I once heard the following declarations outside my window at 11:30 on a Wednesday night:

Woman 1 (Crescendo of car door slams converge on a footfall chorus): “I can’t WAIT till I get a job. Then, I’ma give EE’BODY back they money.”

Woman 2 (Nighttime symphony crests just at my front porch): “Me, too, girl.”

Woman 1 (Footsteps fade, a decrescendo into the darkness): “Lon, Pook, EE’BODY. I ain’t gon ask nobody for money who don’t want to give it to me.”

While unloading a Prius full of Trader Joe’s goodness one unseasonably warm Spring night, this music from a few gentlemen across the street met my ears:

Man 1 (Fist sweeping a wide arc through the streetlight’s eerie glow): “Loser b&*%h! Man, I f*^%&d it up!”

Men 2 & 3 (laughter, inaudible mumbles)

Man 1 (Shadow boxing): “I’ll do that s*&t again too, mu-f(*k!”

Surely, you have formed an image of my street. You have raced the people, wondered at the difference between the syntax of my writing and the depressed income of the neighborhood, imagined the unkempt lawns and dilapidated houses – if there are houses because this surely must be a remembrance of the projects, wondered how many of your tax dollars are paying for my neighbors’ food stamps, lamented the certain ignorance of the area’s fatherless school children, and wished you knew where I lived so you could avoid the area.

And this, Dear Editor, is the reason I am writing.

Undoubtedly among your readership is a population of educated African-Americans who are connected directly or generationally to a neighborhood like mine. I extend to them this entreaty:

I earnestly implore you to move into any one of the abandoned homes or vacant new construction properties or build on any abandoned lot in my neighborhood. Come and be our neighbor.

Before you answer, indulge me a few paragraphs more.

A developer took an interest in the area several years ago, buying homes from area residents, razing them, and erecting brand new dwellings in their places. Such new homes stand on every block in the area, some occupied, some not, some half-finished victims of a work halt. The underperforming school on the corner that serves almost all of the local children will hopefully improve with the School Based Change process, and one block from the school a green construction fence sports a sign thanking the mayor and alderman for the new library that might be complete in December 2010, three years after breaking ground. A park outfitted with jungle gym, basketball and tennis courts and baseball diamond forms a courtyard between my block and a street two blocks over. They are really very good about fixing the cracked slide and broken swings within a month or so of each unfortunate incident. Did I mention the community center around the corner, the high school being built three blocks down, or the farmers’ market that assembles every summer Saturday? If you eat the fruit the day of purchase and cook the vegetables within two, you will hardly notice the produce’s quick decay. For your religious fortification there are three churches in a three-block radius and a mosque just five-minutes away. Sadly, there is no full service grocery, but a discount food seller is just a mile away with a corner store and gas station convenience shop within a two-minute walk.

I think the neighborhood has potential.

What we need is you. You who wakes early every morn and carpools in your trendy VW or sleek Benz to your fancy job secured with your privileged education. We need someone like you, someone who will require all offspring to play in the backyard and follow the streetlight rule. We need you, someone whose friends will close their cars with a gentle tap and confine their outdoor conversations to inaudible whispers. We need you, someone who will refrain from littering her or his own stoop with candy wrappers and chip bags, someone who cannot stand in front of the dumpster across the street engaged in late night bragging about past criminal pursuits because the work day begins at 8 A.M. or before and on whom the symbolism and irony are not lost. We need you.

I implore you, please, consider my invitation. Your stabilizing influence is what we need to anchor our community in the notion that we are somebody and that education is the key to success where we come from, not just wherever we go. Your experiences are valuable because they serve as windows through which the community can experience the world. Your work ethic and education are examples we can strive to achieve. Your absence means our rapid descent into anarchy born of a siphoning off of our most promising minds. Your presence will help us grow into an egalitarian meritocracy where circumstance does not interrupt opportunity.

We need you.