By Michael Miner

We Are Teachers, Hear Us Roar

When underdogs topple the establishment at the polls, the press normally can’t wait to tell us how and why. For want of a snowplow in 1979 CTA trains didn’t run on time, and for want of a train Michael Bilandic lost City Hall to Jane Byrne. You can look it up.

But in late May a victory almost as dramatic as Byrne’s occurred, and the press still hasn’t dug into how it happened or what it means. Call it honest anger or a petulant sulk, but Chicago’s 33,000 public school teachers elected an insurgent, Deborah Lynch-Walsh, president of the Chicago Teachers Union. Lynch-Walsh handily defeated the incumbent, Thomas Reece, whose wing of the CTU–the United Progressive Caucus–had ruled since the 1960s. The old guard was routed: Lynch-Walsh’s running mates on the ProActive Chicago Teachers and School Employees (PACT) ticket won 38 of the 48 seats on the CTU’s executive board.

Lynch-Walsh has a big snow of her own to thank–the blizzard of edicts called school reform. In running against Reece she was running against schools CEO Paul Vallas, and, after a fashion, against the media. Her victory announced that the leadership of Chicago’s school reform–acclaimed as a model for the nation–had been repudiated by its teachers.

The teachers reacted to the conventional wisdom that Vallas faced no bigger obstacle in shaping up Chicago’s sorry public schools than the burned-out teachers who work in them. “We put the blame for that straight at the feet of Mr. Reece,” Lynch-Walsh tells me. “He had no presence in the media. Our members did not have anybody speaking up for them. He sounded like an apologist for the Vallas administration.”

Did the media fail to state the teachers’ case?

“Yes,” says Lynch-Walsh, “but the president is our elected spokesperson.”

Consider the biggest weapon in Vallas’s arsenal for bringing wayward schools to heel: intervention. Teachers despise intervention, but to the press it can look like tough love. A few days after Lynch-Walsh’s victory, Tribune education reporter Michael Martinez wrote that she’s “expected to unleash labor’s most vocal assault yet on initiatives originally designed to bring more accountability to teachers and their schools: academic probation, re-engineering and intervention. These crackdowns put the worst teachers in the worst schools on notice, if not the chopping block.”

That’s the theory. In the real world, say Vallas’s critics, intervention puts the best teachers on notice that their schools are about to be turned upside down and they should get out while they can. After tracking intervention for a year, Catalyst, a monthly magazine devoted to Chicago school reform, reported in its June issue that intervention will continue “despite dismal test scores and an exodus of teachers at intervention schools.”

It has seemed to teachers that they had no rights a reformer was bound to respect. Whether it was intervention or any of Vallas’s other stern measures, Reece failed in teachers’ eyes by never taking him on publicly as their friend in court. Vallas endorsed Reece. So did the Sun-Times, in an unprecedented editorial that didn’t bother to mention Lynch-Walsh by name. “There were only two people running,” she says, “and they endorsed one without ever speaking to the other one. You’d think they’d have gone through the motions of talking to both candidates.”

Maybe God gave us personalities so newspapers would have something besides issues to write about. Vallas resigned as boss of the public schools a few days after Lynch-Walsh’s victory, and the press promptly framed his fall as what happens when a vast ego collides with an even vaster and more powerful ego–Mayor Daley’s. The way the story was set up, Vallas got plenty of sympathy.

The Tribune focused on a “growing rivalry,” and its editorial page concluded: “He violated Lesson One: If you’re invited to the Daley Dance, never stay too long. And never draw bigger headlines than the host.” John Kass wrote, “Make no mistake about this. He didn’t want to leave. He was pushed. By the mayor and his stooges.” The Sun-Times’s Cindy Richards told us: “The major reason Vallas is out the door is that when people across the country talked about the Chicago Public Schools, they talked about Paul Vallas, not Mayor Daley. And that simply wouldn’t do.”

And so the liberator of Chicago’s schools left the arena, a hero who fell on his sword. This highly romantic view of Vallas left the dailies with little room to examine the CTU election for reasons it might have been time for Vallas to go.

For six years he blew through the school system like a force of nature. He was a man of vision and courage but a terrifying implementer, an executive whose judgments were impulsive and erratic. “The people the system thinks are really good–you know they’re not,” says someone who watched him closely. “If they think highly of somebody, get worried. The people they go after are sometimes pretty good.”

Lynch-Walsh ran for CTU president three times before she and her PACT slate finally swept to victory. In 1996 she got 28 percent of the vote. In ’98 she won 42 percent of the vote and all six high school seats on the executive board–high school teachers have always been the most militant in the system. This year, according to Catalyst, she won “a whopping 72 percent of the high school vote and 53 percent of the elementary school vote. Overall, she got 57 percent of all votes cast in the election.”

“It’s terribly insulting to be a Chicago public school teacher right now,” says Esther Lieber, a north-side high school teacher who interprets the election as, among other things, a referendum on Vallas and on “testing mania.” She says, “I keep hoping we’ll reach the end of the pendulum swing on testing. I keep wondering when they’ll realize what Daley seems to perceive–when they’ll stop just teaching kids how to take the test.”

One important ally of Lynch-Walsh’s was George Schmidt, the former Bowen High English teacher who publishes the muckraking monthly newspaper Substance with his wife, Sharon. In 1999 Vallas fired Schmidt and sued him for $1 million after Substance published portions of the Chicago Academic Standards Examinations, which Schmidt wanted to discredit. Schmidt had run for CTU president on a rebel slate three times himself before stepping aside in 1996 for the more electable Lynch-Walsh. He threw his newspaper behind her. Its normal press run is 4,000 copies, but last February he raised that to 10,000, and by May it was up to 34,000 copies, with Schmidt covering the $30,000 in extra printing and mailing costs by taking out a line of credit. He mailed the papers to the city’s teachers at their schools, where they had an impact.

“I always read the union paper–that slick four-color one,” says a north-side elementary school teacher who lives in the suburbs and never took much interest in school-board politics. “We started getting those Substance newspapers in our mailbox in January, and the first time I read one of those I was shocked. It was such different information, and the tone was so different. It certainly opened my eyes.”

This teacher works at a magnet school, one of the system’s high-achieving success stories whose teachers don’t have much to complain about. “We were fine with everything,” she says. But on election day “everybody voted for the new party.”

Even the school’s CTU representative–who was supposed to be Reece’s eyes and ears–went over to Lynch-Walsh. Why? “We need not to be blamed for the problems of the school system and society in general,” says the rep, who asked not to be identified. “When students don’t achieve in school, where does the finger point? It’s at the teachers. It all comes back to the teachers.”

Achievement, the CTU rep reminds me, is relative. No matter how high test scores rise, “there still are people who think that’s not good enough. When students don’t achieve, teachers aren’t doing their job. Teachers have very low status these days. I can’t tell you how many people talk to me like I’m their maid, not an educator.”

Remembering Those Who Dodged

“I thought we’d seen the last of that terrible scourge,” said A.E. Eyre. “Now here it is again, more virulent than ever.”

What scourge is that? I wondered, settling in beside my brooding friend at our corner tap.

“Vietnam Nonveteran Syndrome,” said Eyre sadly. “Back in the 80s it cut a wide swath through America’s graying men of letters. Many a powerful essay strained to describe their torment at never knowing combat, the remorseless nightmare they wakened from in sweat-drenched beds, forever haunted by the indelible memory of graduate school.”

A lost generation, I supposed.

“Truly,” said Eyre. “Aside from the boys who came home in body bags, and the ones who survived as crippled, junked-up psychopaths–and that’s not to mention the boys who wasted the best years of their lives in exile or prison–there were no more poignant victims of the Vietnam war than its conscience-stricken nonveterans.”

Who were green with envy for those who went?

“For some of those who went,” said Eyre with his usual precision. “I don’t recall that any of them actually envied the dead. But they were deeply jealous of the guys who sauntered home sound of mind and body and on the best of terms with their manhood. When they thought about those guys they got really pissed.”

And what’s happened to them all?

“They got on with their lives as best they could. Many searched high and low for a moral equivalent to the war they’d dodged. For some, impeaching Clinton served that function. Sociologists eventually lost interest. I’d frankly supposed the worst was over, but now here’s this Joseph J. Ellis, this Pulitzer Prize-winning historian. The wretch has gone everyone one better. He not only told his students he’d fought in Vietnam when he didn’t, but he also said he’d become a leader in the antiwar movement when he got back. Nobody remembers seeing him around at all.”

So he wants it both ways?

“Yes,” said Eyre. “He not only suffers from Vietnam Nonveteran Syndrome but also the Wallflower at the Revolution Syndrome. It’s a lethal combination of neuroses occasionally found in boomers whose children keep asking them to tell stories about the 60s and slowly come to realize their parents didn’t do a goddamn thing.”

It was a terrible decade to waste, I said.

“Utterly tragic,” said Eyre. “And it goes without saying that I’m describing you to a T, except that you lack the imagination it takes to accumulate a robust set of delusions.”

Eyre had the goods on me. He knows I’ve spent my life on the sidelines, where journalists flock like pigeons. Eyre’s a man of action–and I suddenly realized I had no idea what he’d been up to during the 60s. So I asked.

A look of immense melancholy gathered on my friend’s face. He slowly swirled his glass and stared bleakly into the vortex of its amber. His voice dropped to a whisper: “It’s something I’m still not able to talk about.”

News Bites

In May I examined the dimming heyday of photojournalism at the Fox Valley Press in northern Illinois. This string of daily papers in Aurora, Joliet, Elgin, and Waukegan, the triweekly Naperville Sun, and 13 Sun suburban weeklies, has been winning major press-photography awards hand over fist in recent years. But last fall Hollinger International bought the papers from Copley and immediately began making layoffs. To the gimlet-eyed accountants who guard Hollinger’s bottom line, photography was an extravagance. The old standards were more likely to be maintained at the Sun papers than the dailies, I reported, because the Sun chain’s publisher, Greg Mellis, is himself a photographer.

But on June 1, Mellis announced layoffs of his own. Two photographers and one photo editor were sent packing, as well as a regional editor, the Naperville city editor, and four other employees. Under Copley, photojournalism at the Sun chain had been supervised by a visual director and five photo editors, and each weekly had a photographer of its own. The Sun chain’s now down to two photo editors and no visual director, and the photographers operate out of a pool. “I feel good about our photography,” says Mellis.

Most intriguing recent photo caption. From the Sun-Times’s “Around Town” page on June 20: “William Petersen and Hope Abelson helped to salute Hope Abelson.”

“The Sunday newspaper is lying on the ground. The loud thump as it hit the doorstep frightened the cats, and they ran. They don’t need to read the newspaper. Do I? I’m hooked on being well-informed. But what a lifeless world I read about, stripped of mystery. If I didn’t know this was a blue-green planet, if I didn’t know it was indescribably beautiful, if I didn’t know it circled a burning star, would the headlines give me a clue?”–Sy Safransky, in the Sun magazine, April 2001.

As Exquisite Azure Sphere Hurtles Along Celestial Orbit 3 Die in 8-Car Pileup

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.