My time on the strike line

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Bell HS teachers in front of the school during the UTLA teachers' strike in January 2019.

Our passion guides our fight for a better future

By Lisa Napoleon Culpepper | English teacher, Bell High School

A man I don’t know offers me a tamale. I’m hungry, so I say, “Sure.” I take off my gloves, reach into the cooler, and pick one. I can tell it has been made with love because the shells are tied by hand with skinny strings of husks. I unwrap it just wide enough to see the tamale. I don’t hesitate and I begin eating — slowly, though, because I am still cold and don’t want to drop it from shaking.

As I eat, I stand facing north and gaze at the teachers from underneath the protection of the tent. The rain hits my face and drips profusely from the covering’s edges.

I see the same Bell High crews leading the intersection marches. The traffic light turns green, and hordes of teachers begin walking from one side of the street to the other.

Mr. Soars carries a UTLA flag, Ms. Wilson’s ringlets of soaked red hair are no longer bouncing, and Mr. Moreno is wearing a construction helmet with “UTLA” written on it in capital letters; he blows two whistles while holding a large sign that reads: “I Got 99 Problems and A Lying Superintendent Is One.”

I see a migration of defiant whistle blowers, sign- and flag-carriers, five-gallon water bottle drummers, and boom-box holders — they’re chanting to keep themselves and those around them fired up. They turn to the cars that are passing by and look at the drivers and passengers straight in their eyes.

Other teachers walk along the middle dividers carrying signs that read: “Honk if you support teachers.” A symphony of horns — high, low, short, long, puttering, and cacophonous — spray the air. I hear the rhythmic intonations of “We are the teachers, the mighty, mighty teachers, standing for students and for education.”

The groups begin to walk through the intersections again, and underneath the Conroy’s flower shop sign, I see a group of teachers dancing in yellow, red, and white rain ponchos. 

When more than 30,000 teachers picket in the rain for days, they are telling the world that something is terribly wrong with the educational system.

Those standing along the sidewalks that enclose Atlantic and Florence raise their fists and chant, “What do we want? A new contract. When do we want it? Now!” The voices and the honking overtake the plummeting rain. The harder it rains, the louder Atlantic and Florence becomes. My senses are overwhelmed.

I’m finishing my tamale, quietly observing the making of history, and a black SUV turns out of an adjacent parking lot with a girl standing up and leaning out of the sunroof. The car holds a mother, daughter, and two younger brothers in the backseat. The SUV stops. All of them get out of the car and they too chant, “UT-LA!” They raise their fists in solidarity, and the crowd next to them goes ballistic. It seems like a scene right out of the movies.

This was Day 4, when neighboring schools gathered at this central location after morning picketing to plead our case to the people. We took over all four corners of the intersection and amplified our cause by walking relentlessly in a storm, rallying for social justice, and moving as one. The waves of honks made a statement: The community understood what we were doing. 

As I stood under the tent that provided very little protection, I felt supported. I felt it in my heart that we, the LAUSD public school teachers, were being heard, but more importantly, that the community was standing with us. 

Teachers are very passionate people. We have to be. Whether that passion is perceived as dry and brittle or overboard, it is there. And when more than 30,000 teachers take to the streets in protest, when more than 30,000 teachers picket in the rain for days, they are telling the world that something is terribly wrong with the educational system and they are damn tired of being blamed for it.

For six days in January, educators for the Los Angeles Unified School District fought back. We won the strike on so many different levels: for ourselves, our students, our communities, and for education as a whole. It was work that had to be done because our future depended on it.

On Wednesday, I was proud to walk back into my classroom. Teachers returned to their work as passionately as they had stomped the pavement the previous week.

The consistent theme was, “I’m glad to be back.” This work is our passion, and it is this passion that guided our collective action to fight for a better future.

This column ran in the February 2019 issue of the United Teacher and is part of the "In Your Own Words" open forum series. See end of column for more information about this series.

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