Category Archives: Politics

Total Eclipse in a time of Extreme Political Angst

According to Annie Dillard a partial eclipse bears almost no relation to a total eclipse; rather it is like the difference between kissing someone and marrying him. I didn’t quite get the analogy until I experienced one myself, and since then I’ve decided everyone should witness a total eclipse.

For one thing, it was the first time in a long time I found myself in a crowd of strangers not holding a sign and protesting. For days afterwards I felt an exhilarated peace with our world, and I couldn’t even bear to watch the news. Much of the fun came from the party atmosphere and the surrounding fanfare, but I must admit – I didn’t expect to be so wowed. Thanks to Annie Dillard’s 1979 essay, my expectations were exceedingly high, and I thought surely they could not be met.

At the Piney Creek Nature Reserve in southern Illinois, we trekked up a half mile tractor path in the 90 degree heat to an open clearing. The sound system blared themed songs like “Here Comes the Sun” and “Moondance.” The burgers on the grill were donated by a local farmer, as were the heirloom tomatoes, and a nearby winery sent cases of wine. The festive atmosphere was something I hadn’t expected, but then again, most crowds I’m a part of these days are marching and chanting loudly against Trump and fascism.

It seemed to happen slowly at first; we all donned our NASA-approved sunglasses and sat in lawn chairs, sipping wine and commenting on the progress of the heretofore unremarkable Great American Eclipse (how it became our eclipse I don’t know). Then things started to change ever so subtly. The light and the very air took on an eerie quality. The oppressive heat remained, but I no longer felt like the skin was burning off me. The atmosphere seemed just slightly ominous, taking on a green-ish hue as in just before a storm. But unlike the pre-storm sky that sends us heartlanders running to the basement, it seemed to heighten the anticipation. Looking around me, I had the sudden idea I was in one of those dioramas at a museum that I loved so much as a kid (before holograms and 3D experiences). It looks real but the lighting was somehow off-kilter, the colors from a palette that’s not quite life-like and not quite real. A bit like technicolor, or the anti-thesis of technicolor, which is too contrast-y and suggesting of an alternate reality. This tinge in the air contributed to the feeling that something magical was happening.

What followed was a beautifully orchestrated and harmonious event that left me quite breathless as it unfolded as neatly as the notes on a musical score rise to a crescendo. Darkness descended gradually, like a curtain dropping, and the cicadas came up on cue just as you realize the birds have gone quiet.  The excitement of the crowd was like a drumroll until somebody yelled “Now! Take off your glasses!” The joy around me was as total as the eclipse:  happy people shrieking and cheering and whooping and simply enraptured as they whip off the eye protection and gasp at the corona – this shimmering narrow orb perfectly positioned behind the geometrically flawless black circle.  Then as quickly as it began, the light comes back up and the birds come swooping back like a grand finale.

Then just as suddenly, as you look at people in this dim and other worldly cast amid gasps and laughter and clapping, the light slowly returns, and the birds come swooping back like a grand finale.

And when you look again through your NASA-approved eyeware you see it is only a tiny sliver still, slowly making its way across the sun, and you marvel that such a tiny glimmer could bring that much light. You realize what a powerful start the sun in fact is

So back to Annie Dillard’s analogy: A marriage is a commitment – a powerful and life-changing event not to be taken lightly. A kiss is a passing whimsy that may or may not be remembered. When called to mind most likely it’s wistfully or fondly – perhaps with regret – but not with much lasting impact. A total eclipse is a powerful act as well, but unlike marriage it has a force completely beyond human control.

Perhaps there’s something about nature doing its thing in an unexpected way that can leave one awestruck. We usually only get that feeling during a tornado or an earthquake or tsunami or some other destructive phenomenon. This event left us elated, not terrified, and with a profound sense of community not just at Piney Creek but on social media and various people texting photos. A bit like how everyone comes together to clean up after a natural disaster, but the euphoric bond of seeing this incredible thing and appreciating the planet and humanity in general is something I think we badly needed.

So I kept the news off …. for a couple of days as a reminder that there is power in beauty and good despite our catastrophes, but natural and manmade.


We Want Harold (again)

These past few weeks as I’ve watched government operate at the local level, I can’t help but think that Harold Washington would be rolling in his grave. As we’ve been  commemorating Harold’s all-too-short realm of openness and fairness, so-called “open hearings” these days appear to be open to officials and legislators while the voices of the community go unheard.

On November 20, the City Council Committee on Education and Child Development held hearings on potential school closings. As reported by Substance, while several alderman asked probing questions (such as what happens if a school is closed and parents have missed the selective enrollment deadline), the dozens of parents and community groups  in attendance were not allowed to speak. Similarly, at a raucous Springfield hearing that granted CPS an extension on the Dec. 1 deadline to announce school closings, the hundreds who showed up were also not given a chance to testify.

In the meantime, Raise Your Hand released their survey of recently compiled data from ISBE 2011 report cards shows that 76% of CPS schools had a grade that exceeded CPS’ recommended class size limits in 2011.  CPS claims the district has 500,000 classroom seats for only 400,000 students.

New CEO Chief Barbara Byrd Bennett promised a five-year moratorium on school closings if the General Assembly extended their school utilization deadline, a move Parents United For Responsible Education (PURE) likened to saying, “I promise to stop beating you after I get in this last round of punches.” Both the SunTimes’ and the Tribune’s editorials questioned the Boards ability to keep that promise.

The Commission on School Utilization’s first community meeting will be Monday, December 3 from 7-9 PM at Salem Baptist Church – 752 E. 114th Street.

Red State/Blue State

I’ve spent the last three days in Kenosha, Wisconsin for the final push in this long 2012 election year. We thought we’d be in Ohio but in the last few days, everyone from Illinois has been sent to Wisconsin.

Near Downtown Kenosha, WI

But we’re also working for Rob Zerban, who is challenging Paul Ryan, so as we go door-to-door we tell people, “You get to vote against Paul Ryan twice!” Wouldn’t it be nice if it came to pass that Ryan actually did lose twice?

In some of the neighborhoods we’ve been in,  I feel like “wow … they need to be voting for Obama.” But then as we’re talking to them and hear how they’re traveling 90 miles for work (and these are the lucky ones) or see the number of houses in foreclosures or abandoned buildings you do understand the absence of hope.  While I can talk about how Obama opened the door on his presidency to the messy pile of excrement left by de-regulation and bad wars from previous administrations, one can understand why election day is not necessarily on the frontal lobe in much of Kenosha.

History is mostly fabulous because of firsts, and in 2008 it was an almost unbelievable first but we dared to believe. I’m not bothered by the lack of “enthusiasm” that some papers are focusing on … I am just concerned with results. And the next four years so we CAN see some change.

A Tale of Two Strikes

In the 1980s I covered three Chicago teacher strikes as an education reporter for a community newspaper. Today, twenty-five years after the last strike I reported on, I am watching as a parent.

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what is different about this strike, and I’m not sure that watching it from this parental angle is what makes it different.  Two things have changed: In the nineties most of the issues were around salaries and benefits. And in those days parents were largely on the sidelines and the children were in the middle .

Today, both the teachers and the Chicago Board of Education say that it’s no longer about the money. It’s about class size, standardized testing, charter schools, and teacher evaluation.  It’s about a steady stream of policies – from charter schools to more tests to abruptly shutting schools without parent involvement. Parents understand  gang boundaries; the suits downtown do not.

Parents get it. Most have experienced that hollowed out feeling on the first day of school when leaving a wide-eyed six year old in a classroom with 35 other six year-olds and one adult. We learn about “high stakes testing” when  we see the ten year old worry  over a test that will determine whether or not he or she gets into a selective enrollment middle school, which would ensure a similar enrollment in high school, which would have a direct impact on where he went to college. For some kids, it determines whether or not they go to college.

And they want more tests? Parents see how these tests shape their education long before they even have to take them. Preschools and kindergarteners suffer lockdowns with no recess, quiet lunches, no music, or dancing or loud talking while the Big Kids take the test. They practice filling in scantrons and watching the clock in first grade. I told my frustrated first grader to take his time with his math homework, and then learned he was just practicing timed tests. We understand “Race to the Top” better than our elected officials think we do.

When the 1987 strike ended,  some say it was parent outrage that forced the two sides to settle. But that happened three weeks into the strike. Parents have been angry about tests and class size for years, and seeing this taken to a national discussion has been somewhat cathartic.

On the third day of the walkout, parents from the University of Chicago Lab schools –  where Mayor Emanuel sends his kids –  joined  teachers on the picket line at the school where Education Secretary Arne Duncan sent his kids before he went off to DC.  They volunteered at the hastily organized camps in a nearby neighborhood club for parents who don’t want to cross the picket line. “Our teachers don’t get subjected to these evaluations and our kids don’t get tested the way they do in public schools,” a parent told me.

Apparently Emanuel’s disconnect extends beyond public schools teachers and parents.

These past few days have been difficult as parents scramble for short term solutions and pray for longer ones. I won’t predict how long the teachers will stay out, or what the outcome will be, but I hold out hope, remembering  that the long strike in 1987 resulted in school reform. That reform created Local School Councils (LSCs) where parents worked with teachers, they hired (and fired) their principals, and approved  the school budget. The long-term result is that parents are very involved and have a lot invested in the issues on the table. Mayor Emanuel doesn’t understand that the outrage of parents won’t come three weeks into the strike; it’s already there.

This appeared in the Christian Science Monitor’s “Modern Parenthood” column on September 12.