ON THE SECOND day of the school strike, the professional stood in the doorway of her classroom, watching the little children file in. They came in, bundled against a nonexistent cold, kids of the city -- black and white, Hispanic and "other," motherless, fatherless and none of the above. They saluted her with their eyes and she responded with a smile. The professional had agonized, but the professional had gone to work.
She was dressed in a pantsuit, her hair neat, her glasses on -- a mature woman, as the expression goes, within reach, probably, of retirement. She was one of the few teachers to come to work in that school yesterday. Outside, the others were coffee and said nothing to the parents who brought their children into the building.
The professional exists. She is well-known, something of a legend, the sort of teacher we all had somewhere along the line -- the sort we think no longer exisits. She is the total professional, the teacher who knows all there is to know about teaching, a person of the book and a person of instinct, a whiz with kids and a beaut with parents -- teacher to older brothers and then younger sisters. If she went to another school, parents would follow -- like a good hairdresser or something. In her classroom, the kids behave. In her classroom, the kids learn. In her classroom -- knock on wood -- the system suddenly works.
The professional was one of four, maybe five, teachers in the building. They were going to babysit. They would of course, do nothing more. The children were being herded into the library and auditorium where films would be shown later. Parents were being told of the situation. The professional spotted a Hispanic father with his little boy. She shifted her English into a lower gear.
"It would be best if he was not here today," she said slowly. The jman stopped and looked at her. "If there was someone home," she went on, "it would be best if he stayed home. We are doing nothing but baby-sitting today." She smiled. The professional ends every sentence with a smile.
"I think I'll be back at noon," the man said.
The little boy looked up at the professional with dark, questioning eyes. It is hard for the children dren to understand what is going on. There is school, yet no teaching. The teachers are outside and the children are inside. The world is upside down. In the lower grades, there is no comprehension In the older grades, things are better underksion. In the sixth grade, the kids met and discussed the situation. After a while, they arrived at a consensus: There are no winners in a teachers' strike.
The professional is standing at the doorway to her classroom. She shakes her head back and forth. "This is ridiculous," she says. "We are doing nothing but baby-sitting. We can't teach." Another teacher walks over. She is a lot younger than the professional. "I was just saying how we can't teach." he professional tells her, "How this is nothing but baby-sitting."
"Nothing but baby-sitting," the younger teacher agrees. She shrugs and returns to the classroom.
The professional has noticed how I look away when I talk to her. She attributes this to my lingering fear of teachers. She is probably right. She mentions this to the principal and the principal laughs. She should only know how I feel about principals. This is maybe the first one I have seen without being in trouble.
Still, it is useful to look up to teachers and it is useful now to ask the professional why she has come to school this day. We can always use what guidance we can get in these matters since it is no longer easy to decide what to do -- who is right and who is wrong. Once, maybe, it was easier, once during a time of songs learned around campfires, songs about sticking with the union. There probably was a time when right was right and wrong was wrong -- workers always right and bosses always wrong.
But no more. Always now both sides seem to be wrong or there is right and wrong on both sides. It is hard to figure and so what you do is you return to something that makes sense to you, something that has meaning. With men, it's unions and the strength of organizations. With the professional, it's her children.
The professional explains. She tells how she thinks the school teachers could have waited, how they could have gone another mile. Her concern is her children. We do not discuss how the board has asked the teachers to work another hour for no more money and how it has ended the dues checkoff -- always a declaration of war to a union. She knows this, but the children come first.
"I have never crossed a picket line in my life," the professional said. "But this, this hurts the kids. This is a strike against kids." She smiled and after a moment walked into her classroom, knowing we disagreed on what in this case was most important. For the sake of the union, I would have stayed home.
For the sake of the children, she went to work.