Chicago Teachers Strike: What Happened to the ‘City That Works’?

red ribbons

Chicago teachers strike.

I was watching the news last night and was ashamed of my City.  In the midst of what is obviously a heated situation, I saw Karen Lewis yell at reporters and chide one who dared to bump her with a microphone.  I saw Mayor Emanuel, the candidate that got my vote, face the cameras and call out the Chicago Teachers Union time and again.  He was backed by a bevy of City big wigs representing schools, police, negotiators, and the Board of Education.

Between 10 PM and midnight, there was much casting of blame, much discussion of text messages, and a lot of work trying to curry the favor of Chicagoans from both sides.

I support labor.  I come from a long line of union workers.  My Mom’s uncle was shot in Chicago’s Memorial Day Massacre around striking steel mill workers.  My sister, a PhD labor historian, just published her first book about the labor movement, Eyes on Labor.  There is a lot of union blood that runs through my veins.

But still, I was not happy with everything I saw.  When adults choose to bicker through the media about who is sending whom text messages, I shake my head on behalf of all of Chicago’s children.  When the CTU puts out a letter condemning the City’s contingency plan as a “train wreck,” I’ve got to wonder.  If the CTU believes Chicago’s children are unsafe in said contingency plan, then stay at the table.  If they think the kids will be cared for in a ‘good enough’ fashion, then don’t put out alarmist rhetoric.

As for the contingency plan, the irony of administrators highlighting that there would be one adult for every 25 children just made me angry.  If a 1:25 ratio is valued and of importance, then why are teachers expected to work with numbers that far exceed that ratio?  What is good for the goose must be good for the gander.  For our children to succeed, not only do our kids need more time in school, they need to be in schools that are conducive to learning.  And, yes, that includes air conditioning.

I heard David Vitale, president of the Board of Education, this morning, hemming and hawing on NPR that the BoE wants air conditioning for all Chicago public schools, too, but if they pay for air conditioning, they can’t pay for people.  No joke.  This is 2012, Mr. Vitale, and your boss is pushing for school year round.  A/C is as necessary in Chicago as heat is in January and February.  You can thank global warming for that.  And my guess is that the BoE offices are nice and temperate year round.  Again, if it’s good for the goose, it must be good for the gander.

Last Friday I was named an “Our Town, Our Hero” by GM.  I got a cool plaque and a nice Visa gift card, and the use of a pretty sweet Buick for a week.  GM asked some supporters of our charity, Donna’s Good Things, to help support me at the official passing of the keys, if you will.  A bona fide first photo op.  Well, I am not much for photo ops, but I reached out to Katie, the Director/Owner of the dance studio where we fund scholarships, and she went to town for me.  At the award ceremony, Katie had arranged for not only the Alderman to be there (nice to meet you, Ms. Silverstein), but invited the teachers of Rogers Elementary School to support me.

Rogers Elementary is the Chicago public school where Donna’s Good Things is funding weekly dance education for every student for the 2012-2013 school year.  The administrator has been fantastic to work with on this initiative.  The faculty has been so supportive that every single one came out last Friday to support me and DGT at the GM ceremony.  This was Friday at 3:30 PM, just as their strike was looming.


I had never met these teachers before and they don’t know me, Donna, or my family from Adam, but there they were.  They are an enthusiastic crowd.  I chatted with many and none wanted to strike.  Their wish was to be in the classroom this morning.  But on a Friday afternoon, long after they could have gone home for the day, there they were, supporting a stranger who is working to support their classroom kids.

I was moved beyond belief.

Those are the teachers I support.  Those teachers who are invested in the education their classroom kids receive.  Those teachers who want very much to be back in the classroom, doing their jobs.  Those teachers who don’t get a hell of a lot of support from the Board of Education or the Mayor.  Those teachers who are responsible for the next generation of Chicagoans.  I support those teachers.  All of them.

Now let’s get them back to work.

And as for Rahm and Karen Lewis?  Well those two both got to get it together.  Their egos are MASSIVE.  Huge, bullying individuals, both of ’em.  They need to stop thinking about who will win and who will lose in this negotiation.  They need to work together, modeling behavior for the students they both profess to worry over, and get it done.  No more cheap shots.  No more sparring through the media.  Just get it done, do their jobs, and prove that Chicago is still the City that works.

The teachers, parents, and students of Chicago are waiting.  Tick tock, tick tock, tick tock.


You see what I did there?

Donna’s Cancer Story: Whiplash

This is the twenty-ninth of thirty-one installments of Donna’s Cancer Story, which will appear daily in serial format through the month of September to recognize Childhood Cancer Awareness Month.  Each post will cover one month of Donna’s thirty-one months of treatment. 

Last month ended with Mary Tyler Dad and I clutching to The Bubble.  But you can’t clutch a bubble, can you?  It just doesn’t work.  The bubble pops and — poof — it’s like it never existed in the first place.  

The day after Donna’s fourth birthday, we had a set of scans done to determine what type of effect, if any, the oral chemo was having on her brain, spine and lungs.  Late that evening we got a call from our oncologist that there was a pneumothorax in Donna’s left lung.  Left untreated, it could result in her death, suddenly and without warning, and, he said, it would not be a pretty death. 

The recommendation was to be hospitalized and have Donna treated with “pure oxygen.”  The idea is that the pureness of the oxygen would encourage the lung to seal itself, correcting the problem.  Most likely, the lesions on Donna’s lungs, those “immunerable” lesions, were eating away at her tissue.  It was unbelievable that our daughter with a brain tumor would die of lung disease.

As we had done, we used Donna as our guide.  Her quality of life was still outstanding.  As cumbersome as the meds were, she was tolerating them remarkably well and, as she was wont to do, thriving.  The docs agreed that because of that, treatment was in order.  Mary Tyler Dad and Donna packed up and were admitted that evening.  This was our first hospital stay since Indy and we opted for a man:man defense.  I would be at home nights to nurse Mary Tyler Son, and Donna and Daddy would have sleepovers at the hospital until discharge.

Well, the pure oxygen didn’t work.  Possibly because Donna hated the mask that was required for it to be administered.  When you know your child’s time is so limited, to see her in a bed strapped to a mask she fears, will wreck you.  All docs involved moved to the idea of a chest tube to drain the liquid gathering in Donna’s chest.  Ironically, it was called a “pig tail.”  Such a benign name for such a tool of torture.

It was inserted easily, under anesthetia.  When Donna came to, she was lovely and hungry.  Three hours later, after the anesthetia wore off, Donna began to experience pain.  Deep pain.  Wounding pain.  Intense pain.  Donna begged for medicine, wailing.  Nothing could be administered quickly enough.  And God love them, as hard as the team tried, as responsive as they were to her pleas, Donna’s pain was difficult to manage for twelve hours. 

Once morphine on a constant drip had been instituted, things calmed down.  Donna napped.  Mary Tyler Dad and I took a break in the hall that quickly dissolved into our own tears.  Mary Tyler Dad wrote, “We are now the scary parents at the end of the hall who have no more options open.  We feared them, and now we are them.”

Those of you who are Cancer Parents know who I am talking about.  The crying, sobbing, broken parents who wail loudly or quietly, but you hear it just the same.  When you are new to treatment, you see them and their displays in the halls — the only place available to step away from your child and the crushing news that there are no more options for their child.  You turn away because their pain is too close, too scary and too unbearable.  It is their pain, not your pain, and you don’t want to be near it.  Until it is your turn and it becomes your pain.

All apologies to the parents who witnessed the depth of our pain that evening. 

Slowly, the chest tube did its work.  The hole in Donna’s lung sealed and we went home late on a Monday night.  Tuesday was lovely.  Our girl was back!  She was the same brightful, shiny girl we remembered.  The pain seemed a steep price to pay, but the right choice to have made.  We were grateful.

Early Wednesday morning, though, Donna, sleeping in bed between us, seemed different.  Her breath was fluttery and rapid at the same time.  Shallow.  I noticed it, Mary Tyler Dad noticed it.  Moments later, Donna awoke.  “Are you having trouble breathing, girl?” I asked.  “Yes, Mama.”  We called the hospital and were told to come in straight away.  Donna was not comfortable.  Unhappy.  Listless.   

As we pulled into the hospital driveway, we ran into Dr. Stew who asked after our girl.  When he saw her, he told us he would be to the ER soon.  The docs did their thing, more x-rays.  Horrible x-rays that involved Donna sitting in a wood chair, elevated above us, with her arms outstretched, and straps holding her thin wrists to a board behind her.  Christ-like and execution-like simultaneously.   The memory of her strapped to that board will plague me until the day I die. 

Mysteriously, we got word that all was well, but she was so unhappy, so uncomfortable.  She missed her brother and grandmother.  When we showed her a photo of Mary Tyler Son, Donna slapped it away and screamed, “NO, the REAL one!”  A few moments later, upon further review, a new pneumothorax was found on the right lung.  The dreaded oxygen was advised and started again.  More masks.

Donna fell into a deep sleep.  She was unarousable.  Our team had assembled across the hall and asked us to step out and talk with them about a plan.  Mary Tyler Dad wrote at the time:

“We decided with great sadness that we will be together as a family, at home, and we will let the disease take its course.

Why? How can we do this? We’ve said often among ourselves that Donna would provide our cues. She was listless, exhausted. She wanted to be home with her brother. We have fought and fought and fought this fucking thing. It has taken the deadliest poisons and hottest burns and sharpest knives and just grew right back. No matter what, her time is limited now. We decided today that instead of trying to make it as long as possible, we will make that time as comfortable as possible.”

We said heartfelt and tearful goodbyes to these amazing humans who were responsible for caring for our Donna.  Who worked like hell to allow Donna to grow from a toddler to a young child.  Our neurosurgeon came down in her scrubs, fresh from surgery when she heard the news.  Four of our nurses from the oncology unit came down.  And our beloved Dr. Stew, who will never understand the esteem in which we hold him so dear to us. 

Science had failed our girl, not these beautiful people. 

Advance directives were signed, arrangements were made for oxygen to be brought to us.  Palliative care was quickly changed to hospice care.  An administrative box was checked and our girl would die.  Calls were made and family from the east coast scheduled flights to be with us for Donna’s death.  They brought black to wear.   

We walked across the hall, back into the ER, to find Donna resting comfortably with a favorite volunteer at her side.  Shortly after we arrived, Donna awoke.  She smiled.  She was attentive and affectionate.  We told her we were going home.  She was happy.  We took one last tour of 4 West and it was anticlimactic.  Nurses were busy with other patients.  Life moves on, even in Cancerville.

Walking out of the hospital, I felt liberated.  Fuck you, cancer. 

When we got home, Donna cheered to see her Da and Auntie.  She ate, and ate a lot.  She wondered when we would go to the Target.  When we would go to the Target?  What the what?  It never worked this way in Lifetime movies. 

Rasberry Jam 

Well, we went to the Target.  The last thing I had said to Donna the night before was that we would go to Target in the morning.  “The one with the escalator, Mama?” she had asked, hopefully.  “Yes, Donna.”  We spoiled our girl rotten that night with Fruit Loops (“rainbow cheerios” is what Donna called them and they were contraband in our home) and frozen pizza and games and toys.  Target is still the promised land for me.

Donna woke the next day and wondered what was for breakfast.  That night she made a guest appearance at the annual Run for Gus, a 5K that raises funds for pediatric brain tumor research at Children’s.  She wore her tutu and posed with the runners of Team Dancing Donna wearing their own tutus.  Donna had some things to do and didn’t get the memo from cancer saying her time had come.  Family joined us at the event and we celebrated and were happy, so happy. 

Run for Gus

Until the Cancer Mom spoke, a featured speaker to rally the runners.  She talked about her own daughter and the brain tumor she had fought, “successfully.”  She proclaimed that she “wouldn’t let cancer take her daughter.”  Now why hadn’t I thought of that?  I had no idea it was possible to simply refuse cancer my daughter.  Who knew?  Bitter humor, I know, please forgive me, but words matter, people.  They do.

Donna woke the next morning and the next and the next and the next.  Always demanding to know, “What’s for breakfast?”  I had a hard time sleeping next to her.  I would fall asleep easily, my head searching for the comfort of girl and pillow, but inevitably, I would wake and watch Donna’s breathing.  It was anxiety provoking.  I learned to move into the living room and soothe my fears with bad tee vee.  It was easier than sitting in the darkness watching and waiting. 

Auditoreum Theater

So much more happened this month.  Donna’s guardian angel, her dance teacher, her CBLO (Chief Bucket List Officer), arranged for a private dance party for her and her playmates at the studio where she took lessons.  This same gal arranged for the Field Museum to gift Donna with a box of all things dinosaur, as Donna was obsessed with them and their bones.  And for the Joffrey Ballet Company to send along a pair of prima ballernia toe shoes, poster, and coffee table book about the Company.  And for the Auditorium Theater to open their doors on a weekday afternoon so that the sweetest dancer in the world could dance on one of the finest stages that exist.  All of these things happened just days after that last ER visit.  Life was improbably good.  We made a new bubble and climbed right in.

Tomorrow:  Choosing Hope

Donna’s Cancer Story: Dance Class

This is the eighteenth of thirty-one installments of Donna’s Cancer Story, which will appear daily in serial format through the month of September to recognize Childhood Cancer Awareness Month.  Each post will cover one month of Donna’s thirty-one months of treatment. 

Donna in blue dress

Donna had her first post-surgical scan this month and it was clean.  Because of the IntraBeam radiation, the study required MRI scans every six weeks for six months after the procedure, so “scanxiety,” as Cancer Parents call it, would be early and often.  But still, we felt lucky.  I remember willing myself to embrace the fear of scans, as having them meant that Donna was still in the game.

We used to call them “pictures inside your body” as a way of normalizing them for Donna’s little two and three year old self.  When the results were good, like this month’s, we would tell Donna she took “beautiful pictures inside her body.”  When the results were bad, I honestly can’t remember what we told her.  I think we simply didn’t discuss it with her.  Now I am left to wonder just how much she understood. 

On scan day we would negotiate for the earliest slot possible.  7 or 8 a.m. was ideal.  Because she went under anesthetia for these tests, there was to be no food before.  Early scans were less hassle; afternoon scans were the worst, as you knew you would be bumped for emergencies.  More than once we were at the hospital past 10pm finishing up.  This after not eating all day and having had anesthetia.  When Donna woke we were ready with milk and pancakes.  She would devour them. 

Twice, Donna experienced what they call “rage reaction” from the anesthetia.  She would wake, as described, in a rage — thrashing, screaming, inconsolable.  Once we had to swaddle her in a hospital blanket and lie on top of her for her own safety.  Terrible.  She would slowly come out of it after about an hour.  Some children experience those very frequently and there seems to be no rhyme or reason to who gets them and when.  Sigh.

I still continued to work during these months.  My boss, who knew my situation, took a gamble and hired me anyway.  Just a few weeks after I had started, Donna relapsed, requiring me to take some time right away.  Because I worked part-time, there was some flexibility, so I was lucky.  My poor boss.  When I interviewed, just two months earlier, Donna was doing great and she had no idea I was pregnant.  It was before twelve weeks and out of fear of miscarriage I did not want to jinx anything by letting the cat out of the bag.  That was a good boss.

Everything seemed to be moving forward, so when a neighbor suggested Donna might like to take a dance class, I asked her.  Honestly, it had never occurred to me.  Some Mom, huh?  Donna loved the idea.  She was so excited to wear a tutu and ballet shoes and loved the sounds that came from her tap shoes on our wood floors.  I had only taken ballet through the park district, so the idea of a three year old prepping for a recital with costume and choreographed routine seemed . . . unnecessary?  Silly?  It was a bit too Toddlers & Tiara for my taste.

I was wrong.  Parents, run with your toddlers, boys and girls, to the nearest dance studio.  It is a wonderful opportunity to have them socialize, learn respect, coordination, and appreciation for their bodies.  Getting Donna into dance was one of the ways we chose hope, the mantra that had guided our Cancer Parenting since diagnosis.  Choosing hope meant believing that Donna would enjoy her classes, make it to the recital, shine on a stage like the star she was, and live. 

Choosing hope is one thing, but finances are another.  The studio allowed different payment options:  full year, by the semester, or month-to-month.  As hopeful as I was, I made the decision to pay month-to-month.  This made me very sad, but it was our reality.  As much as I embraced the idea of Donna being cancer free, I was a realist and hated the idea of wasting money. 

There are certain things moms and daughters do, things I had dreamed about since Donna was first gently placed in my arms, still warm from my belly.  Reading Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books was one of them, braiding her hair was another, and shopping for girl’s clothes was in there, too.  I know it’s shallow, but sometimes I’m shallow. 

Donna in leotard

Donna and I went to a local boutique that caters to serious dancers and kids with moms, like me, who like a shopping experience.  Donna chose a black leotard, black tutu, black tights, and black ballet slippers.  Donna, you see, liked black.  It was her favorite color.  Donna was cooler at three years old than I will ever be.  Word.  We went for the black tutu and leotard, but opted for the more standard pink tights and slippers.  She was such a great kid.

The first day of class I knew the teacher was something special.  Somehow, within minutes, she had a room full of 3-5 year old girls listening, moving in order, and participating as a group.  Wow.  That is a feat.  Donna was intently watching and working to move her body as the teacher did.  In our first glimpse of her as a student, as a dancer, we welled with pride and love.  She was amazing.  Some of the other parents watched, and some read, and some noodled with their phones.  Mary Tyler Dad and I were riveted on the rockstar in black, the sprite who was smaller than most others by a full head.  Donna was beautiful.  I wonder if any other parents wondered about her small stature or funky haircut.  Most seemed not to notice, or were too polite to ask. 

There were some tears, but not from Donna.  Until the end.  The teacher organized something I called, “community movement.”  As soon as I realized what was happening, I knew it would not be pretty.  I could see Donna’s expression change through the mirrored glass.  First fear, then discomfort, then the tears and the plaintive wails of, “Mama!”  I jumped up, knowing the moving while touching was too much for her – – she could not run or jump like the other little girls.  Cancer had never allowed her to gain those skills and she simply couldn’t keep up with the others. 

We talked about it later and she described feeling “pushed.”  Donna calmly explained this to her teacher the next week at the start of class and we went from there.  I love that despite this episode, she went right back in and did it again.  I love that she could articulate it in her own words, what this experience felt like to her, how scary it was.  I love that her teachers could not have been more accepting and supportive.  I hate that Donna could not jump or run or skip.  I hate that one of the other students noticed this and seemed annoyed by it, repeatedly bossing Miss D. around, telling her how to jump.  I hate cancer.

Donna was wiser than me.  I worried she would be asked to leave the class.  I suggested that Donna could just not participate in that part of class.  No.  Donna knew to talk with the teacher, the teacher knew to place Donna at the end of the choo-choo line, and all was well the next week. 

Later that day, after Donna’s first class, I ran into a friend who was with her daughter, just six months younger than Donna.  I wept in the Old Navy and my friend comforted me.  It was so hard to see Donna with other children and not be able to deny what cancer had cost her.  I was away from her and I let myself feel and grieve.  Then I went home. 

This last shot was Donna’s first haircut.  She loved the police car she sat in and took this haircut very seriously.  The stylist’s mom had just been through chemo and she took good care of Donna. 

Getting first haircut

Tomorrow:  Relapse 3.0