A Mother of Three on the Picket Lines in Oakland

I wasn’t raised to rally but I also wasn’t raised to retreat.

A Mother of Three on the Picket Lines in Oakland
Photo: Meg Conley

I wasn’t raised to rally.

My parents didn’t have a problem with activism, but they also didn’t spend a lot of time educating me about the finer points of picket line etiquette. As a kid, the closest I got to understanding unions — or the general need for them — was repeated viewings of Newsies. I spent an entire summer entering every room shouting, “Never fear! Brooklyn is here!”

It was rough for everyone involved.

My parent’s benign neglect of activism was enlightened compared to the attitude toward it in the conservative corner of California I grew up in. The prevailing ideology was that if you put your head down and worked hard enough, things would work out. If things weren’t working out, you simply hadn’t worked hard enough. Strikes and marches were for people with too much time and too little ambition.

Of course, that narrative is nonsense. It assumes we live in a world absent of bad actors, institutions with ill intent, crushing circumstance, pressing prejudice and plain bad luck. It assumes we completely control our own destinies and manifestly in a shared society, especially one as strapped and striving as our own, we do not.

The picket lines full of teachers in Oakland are proof that hard work isn’t always enough. I’ve had children in Oakland schools since 2015. We love our teachers. Every single one has worked to reach my children despite the incredible restraints of a district indifferent to the needs of the people that give it form and function.

There are no nurses in our schools. When children get injured at school, they are given ice and the option to call a parent. Many parents cannot get to the school to administer the simple ministrations the children would have received from a nurse. There are no counselors in our schools. Our children go untested and untreated, they slip under and out from our fingertips while we wait. There are no libraries or librarians in many of our schools. What is a school without books? They’ve torn the inky beating heart out of our schools in the name of fiscal responsibility while continuing to fund administrative expansion in high rise office buildings.

Our teachers have classes that are too large in rooms that are too small in buildings that are too old. They drive an hour and a half to and from work because rent in Oakland has radically outstripped their wages. They work second and third jobs to buy groceries for their own children. They hold the ice to my children’s scraped knees. They comfort and guide bewildered parents navigating a system too slow for special needs. They spend their own money filling shelves in their classrooms with books. Their heads are down and they are working so damn hard and it isn’t working out.

I wasn’t raised to rally but I also wasn’t raised to retreat. So today my kids and I joined their teachers on the steps of City Hall. We chanted and stomped and waved signs at the big blue sky. We marched on the streets of Oakland, hand in hand with the people that have given my children letters, numbers, poetry, fresh pencils, hypothesis and hope. Our teachers form our children’s worlds. Who are we if we don’t work to form a better world for our teachers?

This isn’t just an Oakland public education problem. This is an American public education problem. The same fissures course through the entire system. Our city is cracking apart right now, but the stress isn’t ours alone and the fractures will continue to splinter and spread until we fundamentally change the way we approach education in America.

It’s time to lift our heads up and demand more for the people worked so hard they’ve been bent down. None of it is going to be easy. Most of it will be painful. There will be dismantling and rebuilding and compromise. Reasonable minds will disagree and mistakes will be made. Revolutionizing our school system is the work of years, not one short walk in Oakland. I know that. We all know that. But movement, even just across 14th and Broadway, is the only way to begin anything. And today, it felt like something began.

Hey, Oakland Teachers. The parents and students see you. We love you. We’ve got you.

Never fear. Brooklyn is here.