The Chicago Teacher’s Strike
I’ve been watching the Chicago teacher’s strike closely because I know a lot of people on the picket lines. It’s the city where I went to grad school for creative writing. Very few of my peers ended up rocketing to the top of the bestseller’s list (0), but many of them did become teachers in the city’s school system.
I can’t say with any certainty how much their salary is or what their benefits package is like. I can say, with absolute certainty, that they’ll be paying off those graduate school loans for a very long time to come.
I went to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago—known for being one of the most innovative and celebrated art schools in the country. Alums include Georgia O’Keeffe, David Sedaris and Hugh Hefner (who I assume didn’t take a women’s studies class while he was there). I considered myself lucky to be able to attend SAIC, even after someone in a writing workshop told me that I should do everyone a favor and stop writing.
I was more than lucky. Due to the fact that my grandfather put education first above everything else, and that he was the cheapest man alive, every cent of my graduate school was paid for. It took him an entire life of clipped coupons and quick sale meats to buy me an MFA. All that innovation and celebration costs a lot of money. Like, I-could-have-put-the-downpayment-on-a-house-and-had-enough-left-over-to-buy-a-new-car.
Yes—I lived on veggie dogs and off-brand soda and beer for two years. Yes, I lived in a tiny studio apartment in which my bedroom was, literally, a closet and my mattress was filled with air (which never lasted through the night). I didn’t have the luxury of air-conditioning or a nice dress to go to dinner in. This is the student’s life. Stay in, microwave soy dog, drink cheap beer. Oh, and sit your butt down every night for a f*ck-ton of work.
Given the amount of money, time, and poverty this experience required, some may think I have regrets.
The minute I got out on the job market and a potential employer asked me what an MFA was, I realized that all I had purchased was an extremely expensive pair of letters and a paper with a few signatures that my mother could frame. My career has changed tracks more than an El train: teacher, personal trainer, aid to Autistic children, make-up artist, pretentious record store hustler. None of these positions had anything to do with those three letters.
I have mountains of regret, but not about my years as a student. When people ask me why I wasted my money on something that had no job potential, I tell them that they are doing the very same thing at the bar on Friday night. They are doing the very same thing when they buy a purse that cost so much they have nothing to put in it except Altoids and an old, cracked iPhone.
It was an extravagant purchase, but one that I thought would add to my quality of life.
I wanted to learn from and work with the most interesting and creative students and faculty available. I wanted to train my mind to bob and swerve like Muhammad Ali.
Which comes in handy when your life sucks. When I’ve been lonely, when I’ve broke, when I’ve been living in my mother’s house, promising I’ll pay her $150 rent, those three letters have been my life raft. It’s not the degree, but all the hours it took to get there. It’s the writing workshops that induced diarrhea, and the William Blake seminar that drove me to almost purchase a paper on-line (I spent the money on a therapist instead). It’s discovering that I could write really strong, vibrant dialogue for weak, clichéd characters. It’s being able to spar with 10 other artists on a daily basis and not get your brains bashed in. It’s a feeling of triumph-if only because I survived it.
There is, for me, no greater high than sitting in a classroom, book open on my desk, pen scratching out illegible notes in a fresh notebook. Crack is wack and even a good bottle of wine gives you a hangover. Extreme sports are, well…for extreme douchebags. None of these highs compare to having your ideas and certainties called into question by Virginia Woolf’s Orlando or Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep. It’s not a temporary high either. It burrows into the deepest parts of your heart and mind—that you can access no matter how underemployed.
As the world becomes increasingly more hostile and uncertain, we need to give children the strongest minds possible.
They need critical thinking skills when they get a credit card offer in the mail with the low, low interest rate of 20 percent. They need to be able to decipher a crappy benefits package when it’s placed in their hands with a smile. They need to be able to speak against injustice and intolerance.
What seems to be happening is that they cannot speak that truth because they are being robbed of the tools for expression. Being bad at math is an inconvenience. Being bad at thought and expression will guarantee your invisibility.
Especially as an adult, I find myself looking for teachers who can help me navigate this insane world. This happened recently when I developed an injury that prevented me from running. For those who hate running, this might not be a big deal. For those who love running, this is a recipe for a very humbling, very depressing, very melodramatic meltdown. Running is my meditation, my solace, my chance to bond with the earth one footfall at a time. And it keeps me thin.
So with that injury came self-hatred, anger, bitterness, and a very tense girl’s spa weekend that almost ended in a temper tantrum over a basket of vegan muffins. I pitied myself almost as much as I pitied the friends and family that had to be around me. They had to dodge muffins and running shoes and some of the most self-indulgent behavior since the last episode of The Kardashians. After a few months of chewing up the scenery, I decided to stay away from those I loved.
The one thing I couldn’t stay away from was my yoga practice. Though I have a home practice, I think it’s crucial for me to take classes at least three times a week from different teachers. As a teacher myself, I know that my form is guide for those that I teach. If my form is bad or incorrect, I need to know so that I don’t teach it to others that way.
So here I am in class, hating my body for all its failings and disappointments. It taunts with me with a forward bend that wouldn’t pass the presidential standards. It can’t lunge deeply or at length. My Warrior I., is shakier than a addict with the DT’s. It’s a good thing I’m sweating so profusely so that no one can see the tears.
And here are my teachers: Elany and Mackenzie, adjusting me, gently. Here are my teachers pushing my hips back in Down Dog so my heels touch the ground, a much needed stretch to the Achilles that allows me to walk, pain-free, for days. Here are my teachers chanting and reading passages from books that felt so personal—so deeply true. They could tell, I think, by the tightness in my glutes and my hesitancy with certain poses that I was suffering. I didn’t want to reveal my injury (do as I say, not as I do!), but they are such good, empathic teachers that I’m sure they had some inkling.
These teachers put me back in my body. They adjusted me in ways that showed my body where to go and how to move in order to heal. They gave me the tools to survive this difficult phase of my life. They told me to love myself through my practice—to engage in a conversation with my body instead of ignoring it.
How can I say what teachers have done for me? This blog would be a book—in installments. It would make Lonesome Dove like an Us Weekly article. It’s because I was taught good and hard and with love and passion that I can be so verbose. My mind has the map to truth, my body knows where it is in the vastness of this universe. I am who I am because of my teachers: the academics and Swamis and friends. You can pin the blame on them.
And while you do that, give them great benefit packages and up-to-date textbooks and fair pay and respect.
To the teachers of Chicago, to the teachers of the world: Namaste.
Editor: Brianna Bemel