Walk the Line

On the ground during the historic LA teachers’ strike.

Lauren Quinn is a writer and teacher in Los Angeles. Her work has appeared in ...

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There comes this moment when you’re standing in the piss-pouring rain, huddled under the four inches of overhang you can fit beneath without your feet edging onto school property, when you feel yourself failing.

The morning light is gray and asthmatic through the thick rain clouds. The spokes on your drug-store umbrella have bent. Your jeans are wet and clinging to the long johns underneath. Your sneakers are soaked through for the fourth day in a row, because you live in Los Angeles and have never owned a pair of rain boots.

You’ve been up since 5:30 a.m., marching and chanting and trying to rally everyone. But this morning, your heart’s not in it.

That’s when one of your co-workers turns to you, face peeking out from her parka, and says, “We need a pep talk.”

All the other heads nod.

And you see that it’s not just you who’s struggling this morning—everyone is tired, aching, beaten-down. As union chapter chair of your school, it’s your job to pep them up, remind them why they’re out here, say something that will reinvigorate and inspire them.

But when you open your mouth, nothing comes out.

It’s then, on the fourth day of the LA teacher strike that’s being billed as historic, monumental, game-changing, that you feel wholly inadequate for the task at hand.

*

It started eight months ago.

Really, it started 41 years ago, before you were born—when California passed Proposition 13 and slowly started to bleed its public schools of funding, stripping support staff like nurses, counselors, librarians; slashing arts and enrichment programs; and raising class sizes to some of the largest in the country.

But for you, it started in May. Your union, United Teachers Los Angeles, had been in contract negotiations with the Los Angeles Unified School District for a year. Your school didn’t have a union representative, so you heard about the UTLA rally through an email blast. You grew up in a union family, your mom a teacher, your dad a firefighter. Stopping downtown for an hour after school seemed the least you could do.

When you arrived at Grand Park, a sea of red-clad teachers swarmed in the shadow of City Hall. They were holding hand-made signs, chanting, playing drums, dancing. A palpable energy radiated off the crowd of 12,000. It was strength and unity, yes, but also a collective power bigger than the sum of its parts.

I wanted in.

*

After the presidential election, I was despondent. I wanted to do something, but I didn’t know what or how. I kept hearing that people had to find their place, their cause, their group—and act.

So I tried. I went to local political and community organization meetings that ran the gamut, but nothing quiet jibed.

When I became my school’s chapter chair and attended the UTLA leadership conference that July, I felt like I’d finally found my tribe. People of all stripes filled the conference rooms, a rarity in a city as diverse but deeply segregated as Los Angeles (and a quality distinct to LAUSD, where teaching staff more closely resemble their students than most cities). You had old Brown Berets sitting next to wide-eyed 20-somethings fresh out of their credentialing program. You had white ladies translating the Spanish-language presentations to dudes with dreads in “Danger: Educated Black Man” shirts. The diversity wasn’t labored or self-congratulatory; it was fluid, unpretentious and united by the stone-hard conviction that our public schools were worth fighting for.

This unity of vision didn’t mean we always agreed, or that subsequent meetings were always enjoyable. When the school year began, I attended area meetings in the cold cafeteria of Roosevelt High School and the reality of union work sank in. People argued, hogged the mic, asked endless rounds of repetitive questions. After a full day of teaching, the meetings could feel downright tedious. Sometimes I’d zone out while I nibbled on Costco pizza and counted the minutes until I could go home.

Through the course of these meetings, I learned the context for the current negotiations. The fight was about more than a raise, more than even class sizes and support staff and over-testing and charter co-location. It was about saving the soul of public education.

Perhaps that sounds grandiose, but the stakes were that high. Our pro-charter school board had appointed as our new superintendent Austin Beutner, an investment banker with no prior education experience (think DeVos 2.0) who ran with a pro-privatization LA billionaire crew, fronted by Eli Broad. Beutner had brought on as his chief of staff Rebecca Kockler, the woman responsible for dismantling public schools in New Orleans—a city where, as of this school year, there are no remaining public schools. (Kockler has since resigned.) Beutner was toying with restructuring LAUSD using the portfolio model that has decimated other public schools districts. In short, Beutner wanted to break LAUSD and break the union.

The plan was ambitious, UTLA leadership told us, but not impossible. School districts in smaller cities—Newark, Detroit, New Orleans—had been driven to near extinction by the same contingent of pro-charter reformers. Now they wanted to try their hand in the nation’s second-largest school district.

We couldn’t just be on the defensive, UTLA officers told us. We had to have a plan that was as equally ambitious and visionary.

You want to get a room full of teachers fired up? Ask them to imagine schools with full-time nurses and librarians; where counselors and psychologist social workers have time to actually meet with students; where teachers don’t have to waste days of instruction showing movies while they administer one-on-one standardized tests in the back of the classroom; where instead of random stop-and-frisk searches, restorative justice practices guide school discipline. Ask them to imagine fully funded schools where teachers can actually meet their students’ needs.

A strange feeling rises when asked to imagine something so far from reality. As teachers, we spend so much time in the trenches that we sometimes forget just how bad things are. Class sizes of forty start to seem normal. Taking home six hours of grading over the weekend does too. There aren’t funds to build a classroom library, so we spend hours creating a DonorsChoose project. We stock our own supplies of granola bars for the kids we know are always hungry. A student starts coming to class high and stops engaging with the work. We try home calls and one-on-ones and restorative conversations, but the student needs more than that. We can hear the cry for help, but there’s no help to be given.

When one stops and really thinks about it all, the feeling that comes isn’t one of sadness or hopelessness or even rage. It’s the feeling that comes after that, the feeling of we’ve had enough.

Some folks might just throw up their hands and go home, or else change careers. And a lot of teachers do that. The ones who stay, though, are a special breed, possessed of a mix of dedication and grit. You can say a lot of thing about schoolteachers—we’re unpolished, unsophisticated, exhausted—but one thing you can’t do is mess with us. If the system doesn’t break us—if the years of crushing workloads and the heart-breaking inability to meet our students’ needs don’t turn us cynical and hard—nothing will.

Certainly not the threat of weeks of no pay.

Certainly not hand-wringing over inflated budget deficits.

Certainly not an investment banker and his billionaire cronies.

Certainly not, it would turn out, the biggest rainstorm of the season.

In every area meeting, there’d be at least one moment when that feeling of fight was palpable. Some salty old teacher would go on a tirade about students sitting on stools in classrooms crammed past capacity, and people would nod and mmm-hmm.

“Strike,” someone would start chanting. “Strike, strike.” People would stand, pound tables, clap their hands, stomp their feet. “Strike, strike, strike.”

The room would be electric. Our voices would vibrate off the walls. We’d sound bigger than a room of educators, bigger than all the bullshit and billionaires. We’d sound like a force, like thunder.

This superintendent doesn’t know who he’s messing with, I’d think.

*

The lead-up to the strike lasted months. There were lunch meetings, after-school meetings, student meetings, before-school leafleting, strike authorization voting, phone banking, email writing, question fielding, planning and organizing and logisticizing. All of this was unpaid, in addition to a regular workday. It was good work, important work, but it was definitely work. Just as I had come to learn that most of teaching isn’t revelatory moments of enlightenment but rather the mundanity of unjamming copy machines and confiscating cell phones, I came to realize that a lot of striking isn’t rallying hearts and souls, but staple-gunning signs to picket sticks, and trying to secure a reliable restroom.

In a lot of ways, I’m a strange choice for a chapter chair, but no one else at my school wanted to step up. Located in East LA, we’re a small pilot school, an LAUSD model in which schools receive additional funding and autonomy in exchange for added work hours and responsibilities for teachers. The additional work meant folks were already stretched past capacity; no one was jumping at the chance to go to more afterschool meetings.

So we were stuck with me. I’m good at the parts of union work that involve organization. I can write one hell of a bulleted and sub-head-ed email, but I’m not a rile-you-up kind of person. I feel uncomfortable being the center of attention. I don’t possess natural leadership abilities, like anticipating people’s needs and giving inspirational speeches. I’m the same way in the classroom: I can write a good curriculum and blaze through a stack of essays, but I’m not the teacher you go talk about your problems with. As in teaching as in union work as in life, it’s the people part I struggle with.

As far as being a chapter chair, I was lucky—my school’s administration was supportive, and all the teachers and counselors were committed to striking. Because we receive extra funding, our school already has the resources other LAUSD schools lack, resources that were key demands of the contract—a full-time nurse and librarian, English Language Arts class sizes as low as 24, and two full-time counselors and a psychologist social worker for a student body of 400. (In contrast, 80 percent of LAUSD schools lack a full-time nurse; class sizes are as large as 48 on some secondary campuses; and the counselor-to-student ratio is 1 to 945.) Because our school has those extra resources, our teachers understand first-hand their importance. “We’re fighting so that all LAUSD students can have what you guys have here,” I told students in our pre-strike lunch meetings.

The school year crept on, the strike looming like a rainstorm on the horizon. The backseat of my car overflowed with flyers and signs as the district pulled one tricky maneuver after another, stalling the Fact Finding process and filing last-minute court injunctions.

“They’re trying to break our momentum,” UTLA leadership told us.

At times, it seemed like it was working. “Can we just get this over with?” my co-workers would ask. We had to follow every step of the bargaining process in order for the strike to be legal, but we were all frustrated.

Originally scheduled for early October, the strike was pushed back to January 10, then at the last minute, January 14.

That rainstorm on the horizon—it was finally here. Figuratively and literally.

*

The night before the first strike day, I slept four hours. I kept waking up from nightmares in which no one showed up, or I lost all our supplies, or my phone died.

My stomach crunched and my mind raced as I drove to school in the pre-dawn dark, rain coming down in sheets. Amidst all the preparation, I’d forgotten that I was actually in charge of the picket line. I wasn’t just taking notes and sending emails anymore.

Puddles pooled on sidewalks and gutters overflowed as my co-workers started arriving. I ran through my checklist: take attendance, distribute signs, make sure all the gates and entrances were covered. I kept trying to text the chapter chairs from the other schools on our shared campus, but no one was replying.

We must have been a sorry sight, marching in a slow circle in the pouring rain. We should start chanting, I knew, but I was too awkward and stressed to get a word out. The first few cars honked as the passed, almost pityingly.

Finally F raised his voice: “When our schools are under attack, what do we do?”

And we answered, “Stand up, fight back!”

He kept us chanting, even as our signs soaked through and turned to mush in our hands. Students and teaching assistants (who aren’t part of our union) joined us. The more rain came down, the more cars honked, a little blast of validation each time. We cheered, jumped, raised our fists.

After morning picketing, we headed downtown for the first-day march, where teachers from across the 700-square-mile district gathered in front of City Hall. A sea of red umbrellas and ponchos filled the four-block length of the park—red for UTLA, but also #RedForEd, the official color of educator resistance since the wave of wildcat strikes in 2018. The color was a symbol—we were now part of that bigger fight.

I’d never seen so many Angelenos in the rain. “We don’t do this here,” I kept saying, wondering if people in other parts of the country would grasp the significance. Teachers beat drums, banged tambourines, blew whistles and horns. Helicopters pulsed in the air above us; news vans surrounded us. We were on the national stage, and we knew it.

In every pocket of people, a chant bellowed. A voice would start: Everywhere we go, people want to know. And other voices would answer, Who we are, so we tell them. Every face you saw looked familiar, even if you didn’t know the person. We are the teachers, the mighty, mighty teachers. It was a face that was lit up with conviction and ready to fight. Fighting for justice, and for education. It was a face you knew, it was your face, and you were part of that fight.

I had no sense of how large the crowd was. I just knew I felt like an ant in a huge swarming line. Umbrellas bumped and snagged as we moved painstakingly slow, so crowded we had to stop every couple of steps.

“Wow, seeing the pictures on the news, impressive!” a friend texted. But all I could see were the shoulders in front of me.

When we came to the Second Street tunnel, we put our umbrellas down for the first time that day. I craned my neck around, finally able to see the crowd. We were massive. We filled the tunnel side-to-side, and as far forward and back as I could see.

Our voices boomed and echoed against the concrete walls. One person shouted into a megaphone, “UT,” and we all answered, “LA!” We chanted it again and again, the name of our union, but also something else, something bigger and more powerful. Our voices grew stronger with every chant.

Suddenly I didn’t feel like an ant anymore. I didn’t even really feel like me. I felt like a part of a movement.

When the rally ended, we had a couple hours to rest before afternoon picketing. I stopped at my apartment, changed my wet socks, put on a dry sweater. I laid on my bed and felt the pangs in my legs from walking, rested just enough to be able to return to school for another round picketing.

By the end of the day, I’d walked ten miles. My shoes were soaked and my feet ached. My voice was hoarse from chanting. I was more tired than I could remember being.

But I’d done it. We’d done it. We had held a picket line for a day.

*

No one warns you how a strike will take over your life.

Seven a.m. picketing, mid-morning rallies, a short rest, then more picketing until 4 p.m. By the time you’re done, your body’s toast. Your brain is fried. Your voice is shot. It’s all you can do to crawl home, peel off your wet layers, and scroll through the union emails and texts that need replies.

The scenes that remain from those first days are a blur of drudgery and exaltation: a fellow teacher blasting salsa from a massive speaker and barking into a microphone like a street hawker, “Viva la huelga! We are East LA! We are fighting for our schools, we are fighting for our community!”; doing the have-to-pee dance while waiting to use the Jack-In-The-Box bathroom; eating pan dulce that had gone soggy from the rain; line-dancing in the cross-walks during red lights, while the marching band played under a tarp, instruments wrapped in trash bags; the blast of horns from garbage trucks and public buses and delivery vans and sheriff patrols and damn near every sedan that passed; the thick deep sleep I’d fall into during my afternoon power naps; the throb in my lower back the day my period came; the tide of red flowing from the Little Tokyo metro stop and into the street like a blood trail, all the cars honking around us; the East Area rally turning into a block party where people danced under their umbrellas to “Jump Around” and “Killing In The Name Of” and every other song on the soundtrack of 1990s middle school dances.

As chapter chair, I kept my head down and focused on what needed to get done. I organized donations and bought supplies. I sent texts and emails to keep people updated. I picked up supplies at 6 a.m. and delivered them to nearby campuses. The only thing keeping me together was the afternoon break, in which I could go home and dry off for an hour.

Luckily, other folks stepped up. F stood in the rain with no umbrella and led chants until his voice went hoarse. Then M would take over. P danced in the crosswalks until all the cars honked. R showed up even though he’d had surgery the week before. On the picket line, you got to see a different side of your co-workers, who for most of the work day stay hidden behind their classroom doors. You got to see who rolled hard, who the ride-or-dies were, and you got to do it together.

As the rain hammered on, the community rose up around us. A restaurant brought hot soup one morning. Local unions brought coffee and donuts. Parents brought tamales and papusas, and the teaching assistants who weren’t striking brought breakfast burritos. The neighbors carried over an outdoor heater. The raspados shop across the street gave us free coffee and let us use their bathroom. A neighborhood dude unloaded a truck-bed full of bottled water. Even our students brought us food, of the endearingly teenage variety: boxes of Jack-In-The-Box french fries.

You always hear about how people love teachers, but when you actually see them show up and demonstrate that love, especially when you’re soaking wet and bone tired, it’s enough to make you cry.

*

At the end of every day, I’d lay my wet clothes on my furnace to dry, crawl into my bed, and scroll through the news coverage. Before the strike, even progressive outlets like the LA Times and KCRW focused their coverage on pay. Now their reporters were on the line, talking to teachers. Stories led with interviews and personal anecdotes from classrooms, followed by descriptions of lively picket lines and powerful rallies. Finally, news coverage focused on the reality of our teaching conditions, which were our students’ learning conditions, which is what we were fighting to improve.

They said we were making history, but I was too close and too tired to have much perspective on the impact of what we were doing. I’d scroll through images of teachers in red ponchos and aerial shots of huge crowds, and hardly believe that I was a part of it all. It felt like being a dot in an impressionist painting.  

“Do you think this is what it was like in the Civil Rights Movement?” someone asked while we were Lyfting back to campus. I wondered the same thing—whether the people making history ever know they’re making history, or if they’re just a bunch of tired, fist-raising bodies in a crowd, with a vague sense of society’s gears changing around them?

Other people reflected back to me the enormity of what we were doing. Friends from all over the country messaged and texted. Teachers across the US posted solidarity photos. A public school from New York City “adopted” my school and donated funds for food and transportation. “We’re fighting similar forces out here,” they wrote.

Restaurants all over LA were providing free or discounted meals to striking teachers, but I was too tired to take advantage of any of them. After a day on the picket line, I was too shot to do much of anything. All I could do was ladle out some soup, answer emails, and then turn off the light by 9 p.m.

*

When the alarm went off at 5:30 a.m. Thursday morning, I didn’t want to get out of bed. The night was black outside, and I could hear rain thundering down. But I couldn’t bail—I was in charge. I sighed, tugged on my still-damp layers and laced up my still-soggy sneakers. I didn’t bother to put on make-up or fix my bedhead—there was no point.

It was the fourth day of the strike and the worst rain yet. All of our signs were beaten and wrinkled. No one chanted. No one marched. Hardly anyone spoke. We wanted to be back in our classrooms, warm and dry and with our kids—fist bumps at the door, learning objectives on the projector, Pair-Shares and Turn-and-Talks and stacks of Do Nows and Exit Slips piled in trays near the classroom entrance.

“We’re tired,” G said. “We need a pep talk.”

I opened my mouth, but nothing came out. I was beaten too.

“Some of us live too far to go home in the middle of the day,” S added. “We’ve been out here all week, without any place to rest up and get dry.”

I looked at their wet, exhausted faces, and realized I’d been so wrapped up in organizing the logistics of the picket line that I’d forgotten about the most important part: the people. I’d been going home every day to nap, and it was the only thing keeping me together. How could I have overlooked the fact that not everyone had that?

I hadn’t felt so inadequate since my first year teaching, another high-stakes, high-emotion situation when you struggle to keep your head above water. You do your best, but you feel yourself screwing up all the time, and feel the weight of all the people you’re letting down in the process.

What could I do in that moment? Stutter a shit, sorry, and kick myself for my lack of care and thought. But the right words still wouldn’t come. They needed inspiration, and I couldn’t give it to them.

Just then, a station wagon plastered in the logo for local radio station 97.9 La Raza pulled up, music blasting from inside. A mustachioed DJ in a windbreaker jumped out. “You guys hungry?” he asked, his arms outstretched.

Before we could answer, he opened the hatchback. The entire back of the car was filled with taco fixings. “We support you! 97.9 La Raza supports you!” he exclaimed as we gathered around. The tacos were still warm and the bowls of guacamole plentiful. The DJ took pictures with us. It was the edible pep talk we needed.

When the rain let up later that afternoon, I gathered all of us together.

What did you say, you want to know. I wish I could tell you, but I was too tired and nervous to have any idea, let alone remember. I might have acknowledged how rough the day had been and how whipped we all were. I might have said that the district was waiting for this moment, to see if we’d break—if we’d roll hard for three days, then get tired and give up. Whether we’d give up on our kids.

I like to think I said that this moment was when it counted, when we had to show the district, the community, the country and our kids that we really meant it. “We’ve come this far,” I like to think I said. “We’ve showed up every single day, like fucking soldiers, and we can’t stop now. Everyone is looking to us. We’ve become something bigger than a single school or strike, bigger than an ‘I’ and ‘you.’ We’ve truly become a ‘we,’ and I’ve never felt more a part of something important than right now, right here, with you guys.”

Maybe I said that. But probably I stood there red-faced and mumbled something about sticking together and staying strong, then left us all to go home.

*

The next week, on the sixth day of the strike, we sat in a nearby park eating chile relleno burritos. We’d had so many donations from our adopted school and from individuals that our lunch was paid for. The rain had finally broken, and it was back to a typical 65-degree LA winter day.

We were relieved but anxious. UTLA had just announced victory—a tentative agreement with the district. It seemed the fight was almost over. “Let’s wait until we see the agreement,” R said.

So we did. We hunched over our phones while we ate, reading aloud the summary and trying to make sense of the 47-page document we were to vote on in a couple of hours.

The summary sounded good. LAUSD had finally agreed to drop a contentious article in our contract that allowed for unequivocal raising of class sizes. Within two year’s time, every school would have a full-time nurse and librarian. The counselor to student ratio would be reduced to 1 to 500.

“1 to 500?!” M asked. “That’s still too high.”

“It’s the state average,” I answered. “The district probably wouldn’t offer better than that.”

“We’re the biggest school district in the state,” M replied. “We should leading the way. I mean, what have we been striking for?”

The more we dug through the contract, the more thorns appeared. Class size reductions in most content areas would occur at a rate of one student per year for three years, leaving most teachers with only slightly less painful class sizes. Meanwhile, Special Education and TK-third grade didn’t see any reductions. While we’d gained counselors, there was no additional funding for mental health services, such as psychologist social workers. “They’re the single most important thing in keeping students from dropping out,” F said.

I looked around at people’s faces. They were disappointed. “We can do better than this,” some said. “This is crumbs,” others said.

I tried to remind them who were dealing with—a pro-charter board and a billionaire superintendent who had been hired to decimate our school district. Previous contract offers included raises contingent on additional work hours and health care cuts to new employees, and no offers of our other demands. The fact that we’d gotten this much was huge.

“This isn’t what we stood out in the rain for,” F said.

The more we talked, the more I understood their perspective. We’d come out more unified and forceful than even the union predicted. We were a movement. UTLA had been stoking the flames of a smoldering fire, the burn for something better that existed in all of us. Now that it had been unleashed, people didn’t want to concede. They didn’t want to settle for the status quo. They wanted that vision of fully funded schools. Or at least class sizes below 30.

“I’m voting no,” M said, her face set in stone.

“It’s gonna look so bad if we vote it down,” I said. The agreement had already been announced to the media as a victory. Would parents stand behind us if we voted it down? Would teachers start crossing the line? If that happened, the district would likely come back with a worse offer.

We felt like our hands were tied. We had to vote in four hours. I wrote down people’s questions as I headed to a last-minute meeting, but when I returned to campus to administer the vote, I only had an answer to one. People were pissed, and as the chapter chair, I was the one receiving the piss.

“We’re being forced to vote on a document we’ve barely read,” F said. It felt like the tax reform bill.

“This isn’t good enough,” M said as she filled in the bubble for “no.”

I wished I could disagree.

*

The agreement did pass. UTLA announced it that night on Facebook Live. I watched the storm of angry-face reactions float up the screen and felt my heart sink. We’d been so united, and now we were breaking apart.

I was relieved the agreement passed, but only because I thought the scenario of it not passing was worse. I wasn’t excited about the agreement, and in all my messaging that evening, I hadn’t talked to a single person who was.

But I couldn’t dwell for too long. After all, I had to lesson plan. I had to be back in my classroom in less than twelve hours.

*

I wish I could say our staff rode back into school the next day in red shirts, on a wave of victory chants, high-fiving students in the hallways and basking in pride over what we’d achieved.

As it was, we mostly kept our doors closed. We nodded at each other in the halls, greeted our students, said hello to the office staff. But the disappointment was thick.

“What happens when the revolution fails you?” someone asked in a Facebook post.

But had we been a revolution? We were a union in contract negotiations. We were going to have to compromise. We weren’t going to change public education in six days.

But, watching the footage and reading the coverage, I began to zoom out of my individual perspective. In a single week, we’d shifted the narrative around education. We’d opened the public’s eyes to the real conditions of our schools. We’d taken the focus off teacher pay and onto school resources; we’d connected the issue to funding and taxes at the state level; we’d demonstrated the power of organized labor; we’d inspired teachers in other cities who were experiencing the same conditions. We’d stood in the rain, danced on the picket lines, and filled the streets.

UTLA hadn’t done that. We had. The teachers had. Maybe we were something close to a revolution.

I think the real victory of the LA teacher strike will be the shift it has inspired. Already, coverage of the Denver, Oakland and Virginia strikes is different. There’s less talk about “greedy teachers,” and more explicitly connecting school conditions to corporate tax breaks and charter growth. Even in Denver, where the main dispute is over pay, coverage is contextualized and includes teacher interviews. LA teachers created momentum for a broader movement to reinvestment in public education.

I wish that were enough for my co-workers, and I wish it were enough for our kids. The fact is, most of our students returned on January 23 to the same conditions they’d left on January 11.

So what do you do when you’ve envisioned something transformative, then been asked to settle? When you’ve felt a movement growing, only to have it yanked from your fingers? When you’ve marched 49 miles in a week and messed up and let people down and kept showing up anyway?

You do what you always do.

You get up and keep teaching.

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