Why I Was Not at School on Thursday

I sent this letter to the superintendent of the Sun Prairie Area School District (and the principal of Sun Prairie High School) yesterday. I thought folks might like to have a look.

An Open Letter to Dr. Tim Culver and Ms. Lisa Heipp

18 February 2011

Dr. Culver and Ms. Heipp,

Not actually my classroom

I must confess to expressing a falsehood recently. When I learned that a collective day of action was being planned for Thursday 17 February, I logged into the AESOP system to register my absence. I am woefully ignorant about reimbursable days and the like, so I did not attempt to request a Leave Without Stated Reason (as some of my colleagues did). I saw no option for “Protest Against Illegitimate Attempt to Revoke Fundamental Rights by State Legislature”, so instead I stated that the reason was “Illness”. But I was not sick.

I could pretend that I really was sick yesterday. Given my history of chronic insomnia (which, I am learning, is woefully common among my colleagues) and resulting illness, I probably could obtain a note from my doctor testifying to a legitimate absence. But I will not do this, because I have too much respect for the intelligence of SPHS and SPASD administrators.

Yesterday I went to the Wisconsin State Capitol building to protest against Governor Scott Walker’s budget proposal, which would (among other things) abolish the right of state workers to collectively bargain. I went because I consider this proposal a fundamental violation of our rights and dignity as hard-working people. As President Franklin Delano Roosevelt said in 1937: “The right to bargain collectively is at the bottom of social justice for the worker, as well as the sensible conduct of business affairs. The denial or observance of this right means the difference between despotism and democracy.” (Edit: Please see this post for the very different comments FDR made about public sector collective bargaining.)

I did not make this decision lightly. As my students and colleagues will affirm, I approach the act of teaching with a passion and reverence usually associated with monastic devotion. Despite the elimination of funding for the SPHS Go Club last year, I continue to offer practice sessions and after-school meetings regularly, without pay. I worked tirelessly to develop and implement the new Interdisciplinary Poetics course several years ago, with very positive results. And, like all of my colleagues, I spend countless hours outside of the regular contract day grading papers and preparing for upcoming classes.

Teaching is not simply a job for me. I need contact with young people. I need to tell them about how writing liberates, about the value of literature, about why East Timor matters. I need to explain to them (loudly) why Transformers is a bad movie. I need to tell them silly jokes and remind them that they are glorious manifestations of their ancestors’ dreams.

I will understand if my pay for Thursday is withheld. Fortunately I have no dependent children or significant debt which compels me to scrape and save each penny that I receive. I also understand that my AESOP prevarication was an affront to the trust between employer and employee. I understand that I must now work to rebuild that trust. (Though I hope the many trust deposits I have made during the past eight years will help.)

However, I ask for mercy as the school and district consider disciplinary action. Had this day of protest been concerned with mere dollars, I would have certainly been in front of my classroom as always. As my students are reading right now in Lorraine Hansberry’s play A Raisin in the Sun, Mama tells her son Walter that money is not life. “Once upon a time,” she says, “freedom used to be life.”

It was in the spirit of freedom and our rights as people that I made the difficult decision to abandon my position as educator for one day. I humbly apologize to the parents and families that had to scramble for supervision or daycare when the doors of SPHS were suddenly closed. I know that my actions have made the lives of other people more difficult, and I ask for their understanding.

But as the old saying goes, an injustice to one is an injustice to all. I believe that we who protested at the state capitol were doing so not only for ourselves — nor for public employees — but for all working people in our state, in our nation. As my sign at the protest said: The state could also save money by abolishing our right to vote, right? But this would be unfair. I expect you would protest if the government tried to abolish this right of yours.

And I would be right beside you.

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