I have felt disappointed recently in people that I know. It is not personnal, but it has caused me to think about what it is we all strive to be.
The first conversation was with a fellow teacher.
Here in Ohio, a local teachers’ union recently decided to strike. After a two-year contract where the teachers agreed to a pay freeze and other concessions, the Strongsville teachers started this year without a contract. They did not want to start the year without a contract, but they did. However, every negotiation to try and reconcile th esituation of no contract was futile. They tried to engage the Board and it was met with negligible enthusiasm. After many failed meetings and a considerable amount of no-shows by the Board at scheduled meetings, the Board of Education for the city of Strongsville presented a best and final offer. The Board refused to negotiate on any points. After countless efforts to continue talks were denied, the teachers Union voted to strike, and it has been going on since the beginning of March.
A few days after this happened, I ran into a friend who is a teacher in another local school system. We talked about the strike and how each of us would have handled the situation had been one of our districts.
“What do you think of it?” this teacher asked me. The tone of his voice was odd. It was almost as if he condemned the strike.
I did not exactly follow the question. “I think they were backed against a wall, and they need for the Board to realize that they are a strong staff.”
“So you would picket?” he asked me.
“Yes, I would picket. As a member of the union I would do whatever the union voted to do,” I said. “You wouldn’t?”
“I have a mortgage and a family to think about,” he said.
“And so do the majority of teachers in Strongsville,” I said defensively. “As a union member, you are supposed to stand with your union.”
He shrugged his shoulders complacently.
I was flabbergasted. No one, I mean no one, wants to go unpaid, but by joining a union, you are pledging your allegiance to that union. You are saying that you are willing to fight together to benefit all. The idea of crossing a picket line never crossed my mind when the strike started. I thought if I was in the same place, I would probably be looking for a waitressing job or a job at Kohl’s in the evenings to supplement the lost income.
“You realize those who cross are pariah,” I warned. The look on his face tightened. I could tell that didn’t seem to matter.
I felt disappointed. Too many people in my age group built mini-McMansions and got behind a mountain of debt. Too many people in my age group saw the American dream as 3000 square feet and a three car garage. Thus, when it is “fight for the better cause” or “take care of myself”, myself wins. Instead of looking at the long-term benefits of sticking together as a union to insure proper class sizes, proper planning and collaboration time– this person was looking at his personal bottom line. Of course, each person has to make that choice for himself or herself. Personally, I would stand by the union and fight with my team.
The second scenario happened right before Spring Break. A former student came back to the high school to visit some of the teachers. I find it ironic that the students who seem to want to come back to visit are often times the wayward students who barely made it through: the kids who turned in less than half the assignments and were stoked when they didn’t fail an exam. These are the students who like to come back to relish in their successes.
This young man happened to find me. He graduated two years ago. I asked him what he was up to lately. “Well, I got a pretty good job at Speedway. I work full-time, and I make more than minimum wage and I get benefits,” he proudly announced.
“Well, that’s good,” I said. “What else?”
He shrugged. I then remembered him expressing interest in a Vet Tech program at the local community college. “Have you looked into that program at Tri-C you used to talk about?” I asked.
“Yeah, I looked into it, but it is really time-consuming, and with my work schedule, I don’t think I could take classes,” he rationalized.
I remember him writing an essay about how much he loved animals, and he often talked about how cool it would be to work in a vet’s office. I gently tried to goad him. “I am sure you could talk to your boss. Maybe you could try just one class and see what you think? You do not have to get your associates in two years. You could take as long as you need,” I suggested.
“No, I sometimes work nights and sometimes days. My boss relies on me; I don’t think I could fit it in my schedule,” he repeated.
I did not press the issue. His mind was obviously made up. I felt like this kid wanted to find an excuse to avoid going to school because I think he was afraid of failure. He had not been the best student in high school, and I think he worried that college students would laugh him out of class. Instead of buckling down and challenging himself, he was going to let opportunity after opportunity pass him by.
For days, these conversations have played in my head. I have grappled with my own work ethic while trying to wrap my mind around the work ethic of others. I have always been a hard worker, and so the thought of working harder does not shock me. I have had periods of my life that I worked two almost full-time jobs and went to school. It was what I had to do.
It was not until I got in an argument with Maggie that what was really bothering me hit me.
Maggie got in trouble for calling her sister a name I care not to repeat. After confining her to her room for two hours and canceling our trip to the rec center, I said to her, “I don’t get you Maggie. Life is about choices, and you seem to be making the wrong ones.”
She looked my dead in the eyes and said, “I can’t help it. This is just the way I am.”
At that moment, it hit me. I knew what was bothering me: the willingness to acquiesce to mediocrity. Too many people are willing to throw in the towel and say, “Eh, I don’t want to fight for a better life.” Too many people are living in the moment and unwilling to look at the big picture.
I gently grabbed Maggie’s chin and pulled her face close to mine. “You listen to me, and you listen good. You are never to make excuses. You are not going to wake up one day regretting your life. I want you to think about how you treat your sisters, others, and yourself. You have to try hard at life not because I want you to but because you should want to for yourself. Think about others. Do not ever feel it is okay to be mediocre. Learn from your mistakes. Work hard.”
At this point tears were streaming down her face.
“I only want what is best for you, and I need for you to only want what is best as well.” I leaned down, kissed her head, and then I shut the door to her room. She was still in trouble, but at least I left her with some fodder to chew on while she sat in her room.