Pandemic Pandemonium

My mayor stepped onto a plane headed for Mississippi to visit his family for Thanksgiving in the midst of a level-red, please-don’t-travel-Denver pandemic. My mayor graduated from the same high school as me. My mayor worked to shut down the high school he graduated from. My mayor told me I was racist for walking along a picket line after fighting for fifteen years for a decent wage. My mayor thinks education reform means shutting down the only good thing that most students have: a public, comprehensive school that accepts all students regardless of ability, ethnicity, or work ethic.

Is this why my Sleep Number tells me each morning that I have a shitty sleep score, that I have been restless most of the night?

Or is it because I brought an immigrant boy into my home, a boy who had never laid eyes on a computer, who, two months later, was forced to do online schooling for the duration of his time here because people like my mayor keep getting on planes?

Is it because I have four teenagers in my house, all at one level of depression or anxiety after nine months of pandemia, and I worry that if I don’t let them see their friends I am going to wake to their wrists slit, them hanging in a garage, a bullet to their head? That I spend my early morning hours walking my dog and playing, replaying every fucking scenario. If we get tested today and are negative and promise not to go anywhere or see anyone for two weeks, can they see their friends? But wait… won’t their friends and their friends’ families have to do the same? But wait… my husband has to go to work every day, so… But wait… I have to buy food for these endlessly hungry mouths, so… But wait…

I’m sure my mayor was thinking along the same lines when he threw our elected school board and our teachers under the bus for our superintendent’s sudden resignation.

During the strike, I was in charge of Valentines on day three. We were writing love notes to Susana Cordova. My job was to censor, to ensure no cuss words were present.

“But wait,” a teacher held up her, I’m-gathering-the-class’s attention-now finger, “What if I want to say, ‘Susana, I fucking love you'”?

And how could I say no? How could I explain to my mayor that Manual High School changed my life and opened my eyes to what the world could really look like, and why did he think he needed to shut it down?

How could I explain to my mayor that I, too, am a DPS graduate, and DID YOU EVEN HEAR WHAT WE WERE STRIKING ABOUT?

How could I explain to my mayor that I fell for his Democrat-reformer propositions, that I sent two of my girls to his beloved charter schools, that they were put in lines and held silent in the hallway and had to write essays in their hour-long detentions for forgetting a fucking eraser on a pencil???

That if you weren’t academically the best, you were just forgotten?

Maybe he wasn’t there with me last night, tossing and turning. Maybe he didn’t follow my girls to the public high school where the teachers take the time to get to know their students rather than teaching them a rote routine of conformity. Maybe he doesn’t understand that test scores–how he measures success–are meaningless to a teacher of immigrants whose students carry two languages, two cultures, two views of the world, two experiences in America, two lives insides their souls.

Maybe he’s never been outside of the bubble of Denver, the whitewashed, integrated Manual, the real world for our kids.

Maybe he hasn’t seen a sixth-grader have a panic attack because she forgot to put a proper MLA heading on a piece of notebook paper.

Maybe he haunts me in the night, two days before Thanksgiving. Maybe he has another agenda in his third, lame-duck term.

Maybe I should have Thanksgiving with my parents who live fifteen minutes away.

Or maybe I should just sit down. Breathe. And be grateful that I will always apologize when I have made a stupid choice, as a parent or a teacher, and not try to blame my mayor for taking away a wink of my sleep.

One Box of Paper

That’s right. You are witness to this. That is one box of paper. It costs $28 on Amazon, according to the research of ninety-two teachers who’d Googled it by the end of the afternoon.

One box of paper to last each one of us the semester. One box of paper that the new facilities manager surprisingly found out he had to deliver to every classroom and teacher office in addition to his regular duties of CLEANING AND REFILLING SUPPLIES FOR THE ENTIRE SCHOOL.

One box of paper that will probably, without a curriculum or a single textbook, last me a month.

One box of paper that won’t even make enough copies for one of the two SAT practice tests our school thinks we must administer to students who have yet to write a singular cohesive sentence in English.

One box of paper to “save on resources” so that we can “better serve our students.”

This is what it has come to.

“It’s going to be like cigarettes in prison.”

“I’m sorry…” nicest person in the building says to a teacher in the copy room, “I just can’t let you have any of my paper.”

Every office, every classroom, every kid knows and is talking about this paper.

This. One. Box. Of. Paper.

It’s almost as if the dictatorial mantra of Trump has trickled down into my classroom. Should I bomb Iran and destroy hundreds of lives to distract them from my impeachment? Should I allow states, especially border states, to choose whether or not to accept refugees? Should I take away one of the few resources that teachers have left?

Why the FUCK NOT?

“Use your Chromebooks. We’re a one-to-one school.”

The Chromebooks that have books on them that the kids won’t read because three tabs later there are twenty games and a soccer tournament?

The Chromebooks that my Newcomers can’t small-motor-skills manipulate because some of them have never even learned how to hold a pencil?

The Chromebooks that enhance every screen addiction that has taken this generation away from face-to-face conversation?

One. Box. Of. Paper.

What else is there to say? I better stop typing now, because if you were interested in printing this post, I don’t think it would fit on one page, and every page is worth a lesson.

And I only have one box of paper.

 

A Quick Email to End 2019

My creative writing teacher (I will always refer to her as such even though I graduated nearly twenty-five years ago) asked us (her forever students) to send her a quick email about an important gift we gave or received this holiday.

Maybe I could snap a quick pic from the tree on Christmas Eve, filled with makeup, watercolor markers, jeans, and long-sleeved blouses for my three teenage daughters. Or of Christmas morning with the magical Apple Watches, so coveted by my Apple-only family.

Or the earrings my mother made me or the gift card to Colorado Gives from my sister.

Maybe I could capture a quick pic of my 2019 accomplishments: Writing about, and participating in, a teachers’ strike that led to a life-changing raise.

My first paid-for post. My hundreds of hours of work wrapped up in a National Board Certification. My ever-intricately-planned summer road trip across seven states.

But none of these things could begin to compare with the gift that this year has given me. The gift of this man in my life who would do anything, anything to prove his love to me. Marry me when I was just a baby. Follow me to Spain. Learn how to ski nine months and one lesson after tearing his ACL. Read every post. Drive overnight through the midwest so the entire family could sleep.

Take into our house a boy who doesn’t belong to us and in every way belongs to us.

You have watched the news. You have seen the stories. You have donated money. You have screamed in frustration at the cruelties and injustices inflicted on others by our government. By ourselves.

But have you stood in front of fourteen Newcomers and come to understand how brightly they still see our country? Have you had a hallway conversation with a boy who informs you that, after five days of walking, twenty-five days of train-hopping and pigeon-killing, two days of washing windshields in Mexico City, five days waiting to cross the Rio Grande in the middle of the night on a raft, one week in a detention center and four months in a home for unaccompanied minors, and four months in a homeless youth shelter, he is still looking for a home?

And that, no matter what, he cannot, will not, return home?

What would you do? What might you ask your husband to do? Your three ever-spoiled, ever-adaptable, ever-loving teenage daughters?

Would you keep scrolling past the images of children under space blankets on concrete floors?

Or would you realize that this boy is standing in front of you, in your school, in your class, in your life, without a home? A family? And do something? Anything?

I cannot take a quick pic of the past two weeks, the entire time that has passed between my knowledge of his status and his soon-to-be permanent placement in our home. The phone calls, the emails to every last human I could think of who might help him. The two-hour meeting with the Department of Human Services, his Honduran father on the line, ready to relinquish all rights. The background checks, fingerprints, home visits, all within a day. His arrival to my home with three garbage bags filled with clothing and no coat. The shy first meal that he took to the basement to eat. Alone. His quick smile and ever-present hope that this place must be a better place. His immediate love of our three pets.

I cannot send Mrs. Clark a quick email about my gifts this year. There are too many to count, they are the uncountable nouns I teach my Newcomers: love, hope, future, desire.

They are all in this union that the caseworker asked about today: “Married for almost twenty-two years? Tell me, how do you do it?” “Patience and love. Patience and love.”

They are here, in this boy, unwrapped, ready to be our brother, our son, part of our world.

These are my gifts. I’m sorry this is such a long email, Mrs. Clark.

 

 

Two-Sided

The Eritrean immigrants asked me, and then apologized profusely when I told them I turned 41 yesterday, for my ID at the liquor store today.

“Just because I am wearing a high school T-shirt does not mean I am in high school,” I attempted to joke. “I am a teacher at a high school, not a student.”

I tried to reassure them. “You’re just doing your job. Don’t apologize.” I hadn’t pulled in an ounce or a sip of wine yet. I carried my Riesling and 12-pack of Blue Moon the six blocks back home, gathering all my steps and burning all my calories before settling into a flurry of Friday tears.

My puppy and my daughters awaited me, pestering me for kisses (puppy) and dinner (teens). Mythili, as always, took charge, grilling pepper jack and cheddar-with-jam sandwiches, heating up our Friday-cop-out tomato soup while her mother paced the living room with her Riesling and screamed and cried, transcript search coming up empty, Facebook chat verifying that sixteen years into teaching, a master’s degree, thirty-six credits beyond a master’s degree, and a three-day teacher strike, had led her all to a salary less than what she’s making now.

The form to verify my “lost” credentials requires a two-sided copy of a transcript that I hand-carried six years ago and placed in a human resources officer’s hands.

The waiting period for the said transcript, if ordered today (done) from the university is fifteen business days.

The time I have to post a double-sided grievance to my school district is thirty actual days.

On the backside of a transcript is a watermarked imprint of how any given university determines eligibility. A description of credits. A copyright. A promise of authenticity.

But no. Actual. Credits.

Words.

Truths.

My school district, my world, our America, is two-sided.

Get your education… so you can pay loans for the rest of your life. 

Advertise (through movies and media) to the world how attainable the American Dream is… until anyone with a skin tone darker than Northern European comes and realizes that slavery is real, present, and unforgiving. 

Jump through every damn hoop to save a section of your soul with 150 kids every day… just so that bureaucracy can take it away.  

Upload your life into a system so unforgiving that you will wonder why you teach… Until, two sides later, you remember why you teach:

Your daughter dancing with the rainbow of humanity at this high school.

Immigrants’ voices sharing their poetic souls all day long so that even the most disengaged students put their phones away. 

Students celebrating art with as much gusto as cheering on the soccer team.

How two-sided the soul becomes when asked, Why do I teach? 

Why do I put myself through this constant criticism?

Why do I accept such a pathetic salary?

The answer is two-sided.

Because I love them more than money.

Because I spent the money to be here with them.

It’s not really a coin or a toss. It’s just the other side of the story.

Choose Students, Not Charters

For most of my daughter’s sixth-grade year, I hated 2:00 p.m. Like clockwork, I’d receive a call and an email at 2 telling me that she had to stay after school for some form of detention, euphemistically labeled college prep, mandatory tutoring, or refocus.

My husband and I, both working parents with inflexible schedules, had to scramble to figure out something.

At 4:00, she’d have to sit in a room with all the other misguided students and compose essays about why she forgot her MLA heading on her paper, why her computer wasn’t 80% charged at the start of the school day, why her belt was brown and not black, why she DIDN’T HAVE AN ERASER ON HER PENCIL.

At 5:00, I’d have to fight rush hour traffic, carpool absent because of the delay, trek across town to extract her after a 9-hour school day and sit with her as she cried over ninety minutes of homework.

These are the hoops “involved” parents jump through to get “the best” charter school education.

Imagine these hoops for single parents, parents without this school near their neighborhood, or parents of special needs children who struggle with remembering things.

Imagine students of color being held after more than all the white kids combined as they groom them to obey the norms of white society.

You don’t have to imagine it because the majority of families at these charter schools have helicopter parents whose sole goal is COLLEGE. At any cost. Even the cost of shutting down neighborhood schools, stripping Black and Brown neighborhoods of their sense of community and teachers of a decent salary.

Imagine a typical public school, where we open our doors to every student, and we don’t make parents sign contracts where they agree to last-minute detentions because we work with students on second chances.

Imagine students of every demographic and race, every language, whose family circumstances prevent their parents from being as involved as the parents at these charter schools, finding a teacher who will give them an eraser, a teacher who will forgive their missteps, a teacher who will listen to their whole story and guide them to wherever their future might be, college or elsewhere.

Imagine if there was a regular public school in every neighborhood, some with magnet programs, some with choice-integration bussing, and all with teacher salaries with public pension retirement plans that hold them in the profession years longer than their Teach-for-America counterparts promise.

Imagine if our school board put their vote of confidence in those students who don’t have involved parents instead of putting money into the pockets of charter-bond-selling millionaires and charter CEO salaries.

Imagine if school choice was just one word different: student choice.

Choose students. Not the broken promise and the disruption to our day, our lives, and our public education.

DPS: Three Strikes. You’re Out.

Denver Public Schools is beginning to look like the nail-biting ninth inning of a baseball game with its quarter-century pattern of three teachers’ strikes—1969, 1994, 2019—and I am anxious, as a former DPS student and current teacher and parent, for our district to stop throwing curve balls at our profession.  

I was a junior at Manual High School in ‘94 when I arrived at school and saw my teachers walking the line, holding up signs, and telling me not to go inside. Not knowing what to do, I spent five days, before deciding to leave early each afternoon, in and out of the chaos of auditoriums led by scattered subs, completing pointless worksheets, and witnessing which teachers would cross the picket line.

My teachers were fighting for smaller class sizes, duty-free lunches, more uninterrupted planning time, and a 40-hour work week in addition to a measly 2.15% pay increase. Governor Roy Romer had to intervene in three days of intense negotiations between the Denver Classroom Teachers Association (DCTA) and Denver Public Schools.

In 1969, teachers in Denver struck for 14 days over many of the same issues—better pay, better student services, and improved equity in our schools.

So why are we here, in 2019, still fighting the same fight? Why did the Denver school district threaten my striking teachers with $100/day fines in 1994 and, 25 years later, ask the state to intervene to prevent current teachers from walking the line?

Perhaps, like the head of the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment, DPS thinks we are actors on a “political theater” stage. That we are flooding the streets in #Red4Ed shirts, bullhorns in hand, chants memorized, teamsters and firefighters and construction workers and students and parents in support… to win an Oscar?

What has brought me to this stage?

When we were down on our luck in rural America, my mother uprooted us to move to Denver when I was 11. Contrarily, her own parents had ripped her from Denver’s Park Hill Elementary at the same age 25 years prior during the 1960s “white flight” migration to the suburbs. Always burdened by her parents’ blatant racism, my mother told us, “We’re moving straight to Denver, NOT the suburbs, and you girls will learn the value of diversity.”

Unlike my tiny town in upstate New York, DPS offered me a side of society I’d never seen: racial violence in forced-integration hallways, a Chicano Mathletics coach, a Black science teacher, and a set of friends from multiple races, language backgrounds, and family dynamics. Manual High School offered me a spotlight into the world of LGBTQ acceptance and the privilege of the most inspirational teacher anyone could ever imagine.

That teacher, and DPS, are the reasons I became a teacher and the reason I came back to this district after teaching stints elsewhere. And my mother’s fierce attitude about the value of diversity is why my daughter walks with me into Denver South High each day and takes classes alongside refugees and immigrants, students of color, and every religious belief the world offers. Why I thrive on working at one of one of the nation’s most diverse schools with its Newcomer Center, LGBTQ alliance club, Muslim Alliance, Black Student Alliance, Latino Alliance, and staff members whose faces and backgrounds represent the faces and backgrounds of our students.

So why am I, why are DCTA and the majority of Denver’s 4,600 teachers, fighting against our beautifully diverse school district? Because we have been negotiating our master contract for 15 months. Because the voter-approved ProComp pay system, unlike any other district in the state, offers shifting and unpredictable bonuses and pits teachers against each other depending on the “priority” label the district assigns them. Because the reform movement has gripped our city and shut down all but three of the comprehensive high schools I grew up with, charterizing the rest and stripping teachers of public retirement pensions. Because DPS spends millions on administrative bonuses instead of on teachers’ salaries.

Because I could never afford to live in Denver on the salary I earn today.

Because I have 28 students with one to two essays due EACH WEEK in my latest University of Phoenix class, my second job that pays $225 a week on the occasional basis that I am granted a section.

I keep this job to fund the $2000 I’m paying, in addition to doing hundreds of hours of work, to try to obtain National Board Certification, the only possible way for me to get a raise in Denver without investing thousands of dollars on a third degree.

The disheartening reality of what every teacher I know does to survive is that we must jump through every hoop imaginable to make ends meet.

We teach summer school. We do home visits. We coach. We spend our own money on advanced degrees with the hope of improving our instruction and earning mediocre raises.

This is on top of the 50 or more hours a week we work to plan and teach lessons, grade papers, collect data, counsel students in trauma at lunch and after school, and attend meetings, sports events, professional development, and student recruitment events (because we have to sell our schools now).

So, when my state, my “blue” but really purple state, calls us actors on a “political theater” stage, I am at my wit’s end:

“Criticizing the most recent teacher pay bargaining session as ‘political theater,’ the head of the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment urged the Denver school district and its teachers union … to work harder to find common ground” (Chalkbeat).

Was it theatrical that we gave up the tenth evening in as many weeknights to wait for our district to come to the table with an actual proposal rather than a cost-of-living increase already in the budget?

Was it theatrical that young children stood behind the fraudulent superintendent with signs begging her not to deport our teachers after the HR department more or less threatened their right to strike?

Was it theatrical that we have negotiated for 15 months, yes over “philosophy disagreements” because the PHILOSOPHY OF OUR DISTRICT IS TO SHUT DOWN PUBLIC SCHOOLS, TAKE OPPORTUNITIES AWAY FROM STUDENTS OF COLOR, AND GENTRIFY EVERYTHING FROM NEIGHBORHOODS TO CURRICULUM?

What has brought us to this strike?

All the hours. All the years. All the goddamn blood, sweat, and tears that have been put on stage for the world to see: failed negotiations, ignored community voices, and livelihoods on the line.

For political theater of the worst show you will ever wish you didn’t buy a ticket to see.

Your time is up, DPS. Three strikes. You’re out. It’s time for the teachers to earn the respect they deserve, for the students to have equitable access to education with teachers who will stay in Denver, and for the curtain to close on this performance (pay).

 

My Heart Breaks

Students,

I am going on strike tomorrow. I hope that you come to school, are respectful towards your substitute teachers, get your breakfast and lunch, visit the food bank on Thursday, and keep up with what your teachers have posted on Schoology.

I’ve heard the district will not allow us to access Schoology or emails this week. I am so sorry that I will not be able to respond to any messages from you. Please come see me outside the school if you have any questions about anything. I will grade all of your hard work when I get back.

We all know this is more than grades. This is more than a few assignments. This is more than a week of school.

I love you, and I want you to understand that when we see inequity in our world, we must stand up to it. That is why I’m striking. I want what is best for you, the students. You need teachers who will continuously stay at South. You need a school and district that values students over dollars. You need a chance to see that corporate greed cannot, and will not, define where you graduate from.

In Solidarity,

Ms. Vittetoe