Photo: Kate Lyman
It all started when my daughter, also a Madison teacher, called me. “You have to get down to the union office. We need to call people to go to the rally at the Capitol.” I told her I hadn’t heard about the rally. “It’s on Facebook,” she responded impatiently. “That’s how they did it in Egypt.”
That Sunday rally in Capitol Square was just the first step in the massive protests against Gov. Scott Walker’s infamous “budget repair bill.” The Madison teachers’ union declared a “work action” and that Wednesday, instead of going to school, we marched into the Capitol building, filling every nook and cranny. The excitement mounted day by day that week, as teachers from throughout the state were joined by students, parents, union and nonunion workers in the occupation and demonstrations.
Madison teachers stayed out for four days. It was four exhilarating days, four confusing days, four stressful and exhausting days.
When we returned to school the following week, I debated how to handle the days off. We had received a three-page email from our principal warning us to “remain politically neutral” as noted in the school board policy relating to controversial issues. We were to watch not only our words, but also our “tone and body language.” If students wanted to talk about the rallies, we were to respond: “We are back in school to learn now.”
That morning, as I watched the students file off the buses, I wondered about their responses to the Capitol protests. Since 70 percent of the students at our school come from low-income households, I guessed that most of the families would be supportive of fighting for teachers’ and other workers’ rights, and for public schools. I wasn’t sure how informed they’d be about other aspects of the governor’s proposals. I was fairly certain that most students had some knowledge, if only from the media, of what had happened on their days out.