American Life, Education, Middle East, Politics, Syria

What’s Really at Stake With Back to School

Everybody gets extra credit this year…in politics.

In Tacoma, the 3rd-largest school district in Washington state, USA, 1,900 public school teachers are on strike and have defied a court order to return to work. They’ve delayed the start of the new academic year for 28,000 students over unresolved contract disputes including pay, class size, and seniority-based job reassignments.

The teachers union may or may not have the right to strike, said a judge today, but the public generally agrees that teachers are underpaid and under-appreciated. Class size is a problem nationwide, despite us continually voting to tax ourselves to fix this. (Am I the only one wondering where all that money went?)

While some parents and students support teachers to continue negotiating while school is open, teachers aren’t getting universal sympathy for an all-out strike this time around.

From reading the local press lately and knowing how prior Seattle-area teachers strikes went down, it’s much the same conflicted thinking. Some are sympathetic to teachers and feel like they’ve been pressured and ignored one too many times. Others think teachers should be thankful they have jobs in this recession and need to share the pain of state budget cuts. Some worry about classes cutting into 2012 summer vacation, disrupting family and child care plans.

Meanwhile, no learning is happening, except learning that some adults, after having the whole summer off, don’t have to go back to work in September if they don’t feel like it, and they’ll probably still get paid. Hey, I want that job!

Teachers counter that if they cave in to school district demands, their complaints will never be resolved. Could be true. But if they make the strike long enough and painful enough, they will be. Hard to say.

Some students think teachers should grow up. Teachers think the school district should grow up. Here’s a thought: maybe you both need to grow up.

Tacoma teachers, it’s worth thinking globally: are your issues are so important to you to voice publicly and demand change that you’d still be willing to go on strike if you knew it meant risking being fired on by security forces? Or attacked with tear gas? Or imprisoned and tortured?

Then imagine you’re not an adult teacher. Imagine you’re an elementary school student striking in front of your school in Ghutta, Homs, Syria, with siblings in high school doing the same thing, and your parents wholeheartedly supporting you all, striking like this.

Telling observation from a Homs activist: “We grew up repeating every morning in school the famous slogan ‘Our leader forever, the comrade Bashar al Assad’ (or his father when he was alive). Most of us used to say it automatically without even realizing what we are saying. It was a form of indoctrination. Today, the students chanted ‘Freedom’ in many schools across Syria.”

(Students in Hama are taking it one step further, as Hama is famous for doing, and burning the indoctrination books.)

Unlike democracies, where different points of view are welcome, even encouraged, dictatorships ‒ with which Americans in our generation thankfully have no personal experience ‒ rely on fear, plus a potent mixture of hero worship, humiliation, mutual suspicion, and inability to picture things any way than how they are today…until the Arab Spring comes along in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and not-quite-Yemen and you began to realize the freedoms and opportunities you’ve been missing out on all this time.

Fast-forward to Homs in September 2011 and there, as in Damascus, Hama, Idlib, and Deir ez Zor provinces, this familiar student refrain is driving Bashar al-Assad and his Dictator of Education completely crazy: from Zamalka, Damascus, “No studying and no teaching until the fall of the President!”

Now that’s what I call an intractable union demand.

Demographics drives this reality. While birth rates in Europe have dropped off precipitously and the American Baby Boomer generation is set to retire, causing Social Security and Medicare costs to soar, over 40% of the Syrian population is under 18.

That’s almost 9 million young people who certainly aren’t going to vote for anybody named Assad. So best to make sure they never get a chance to vote.

On the first day of school, September 18, schools were nominally open, but attendance across Syria was sparse, to say the least. Some teachers didn’t show up at all. Kids who weren’t protesting were being kept at home by parents as a protest against the regime, or for their safety.

No argument about class sizes here.

Instead of cracking the books, look at what Syrian school kids were doing instead: stomping on a photo of Bashar’s face, burning it, then tearing it up and throwing away the pieces!

Same sentiment in Kanaker, where students shout right into the camera, “No studying until the regime falls!” Then, without warning, the security forces fire on the school children (in Qusayr, SW of Homs).

Sigh. This is going to be a long, sad school year.

Ironically, students might end up at school another way…because their classrooms are now prisons for protesters who’ve been arrested. Children, their teachers, and their parents might end up in class together.

In Al-Kiswah, about as pastoral as it gets 13 kilometers/6 miles south of Damascus, students’ banners read: ”This is my school. Its chairs became confession chairs. My father, brother, and cousin, all of them were beaten here.

How can I go to school before we topple the regime?”

Those same fathers, brothers, and cousins ‒ 3,000 in all ‒ who’d demonstrated the day before school started.

Including one father who said, “We want freedom even if we have to keep our demonstrations going for years, not only 6 months. We have nothing to lose if we are ready to sacrifice our lives

(notice, not our salaries, our seniorities, our work environments)

…the most precious thing we have.”

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