Labor Day always triggers memories of the two most important hourly wage earners in my life: my mother and my father.
My dad’s hard hat and lunch pail and my mom’s nurse’s aide badge are prominently displayed in my home office. They are reminders of a debt I can never repay. Like so many working-class parents, my mother and father wore their bodies out to build far different lives for their children.
I sure do miss them.
This Labor Day feels more urgent, mostly because of the anti-worker sentiment kicking up dust across America. Too many state legislators — including the embarrassing batch in Ohio, my home state — have tried to demonize public employees.
This raging debate is not about shared sacrifice; most public workers already have made concessions and are willing to make more. This is about men and women of privilege — as it is indeed a privilege to serve our country — attempting to gut workers’ rights to collectively bargain for wages and benefits.
The bad news is that the majority of Republican officials campaigned on jobs creation but then invested their limited ambition into bashing people who stake their careers on saving lives and educating our children.
The good news is that this assault on hardworking people has roused a previously complacent public into outrage. Most of us know a bully when we see one. Even more importantly, most of us know and respect somebody who works for the public.
As schools convene across the country, I am especially mindful of teachers. If you were educated in America, you probably have a story about a teacher who made a difference in your life.
I don’t romanticize the teaching profession. Teachers are as human as the rest of us, some of them painfully so.
I speak from experience. When I told one of my high-school English teachers that I wanted to be a writer, she frowned and declared me unworthy of such a dream. My daughter’s first high-school guidance counselor told her, in front of me, that she should aim low when applying to colleges.
These educators are memorable because they are rare. My guidance counselor found out about that English teacher and steered me toward journalism. My daughter’s new guidance counselor convinced her that she was better than she knew. She graduated with honors from a college her mother could only dream of attending.
Good teachers recognize the lightweights among them and do their best to intercept bad intentions. That was true when I was a student and when my kids were in school. It’s just as true today.
Over the past few days, a few teachers in Ohio have called to report instances of school officials attempting to intimidate them. In each instance, the teacher is campaigning after work hours to defeat Ohio’s SB 5, which would severely restrict the rights of public employees.
This attempt to punish a teacher for her activism is illegal, of course, but it’s also so wrongheaded. How ironic, that teachers who work hard to make their classrooms safe havens for all students might now be subjected to bullying.
Soon schools across the country will host open houses for parents. I made the rounds every school year, but not once did I ever hear a teacher describe why he or she chose this profession or chose to stay.
Parents need to hear these stories, and teachers need to tell them. It doesn’t take long to explain why you chose to devote your life to somebody else’s children, but the story sure can linger in a parent’s heart.
I recall an elementary school teacher I met in a parking lot last spring. She introduced herself as a teacher in Cleveland, and our conversation quickly turned to why she loves her job.
She described a little boy who started the school year unable to read and was lagging far behind his classmates. For months, she worked with him. One afternoon, the boy read aloud an entire page of a book for the first time.
“I wish you could have seen his face,” she said, her eyes tearing.
“He put his book on his lap, raised both hands in the air and shouted, ‘I can read! I can read!'”
Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The Plain Dealer in Cleveland and an essayist for Parade magazine.
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