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John Thompson: Elizabeth Warren in Oklahoma

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John Thompson, historian and teacher (ret.) in Oklahoma, recently attended a rally where Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren spoke.

He reports:

Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren returned home to Oklahoma City and inspired a standing-room only crowd to “Remember in November.” Sen. Warren spoke in the high school cafeteria where she used to serve detention. She’d attended middle school next door and been married at the age of 19 in a church a couple of blocks away. But that’s another story …

Warren and American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten shared the stage with teachers who are running for office. Warren said, “Teachers … are staging walkouts, occupying statehouses, making their voices heard and they are winning. And right here in Oklahoma they are winning big.”

The Oklahoma Education Association President Alicia Priest also praised Oklahoma’s Teacher Caucus, the nation’s largest, with 56 of the 157 teachers who are running for office across the country this year. Twelve anti-education legislators have already been defeated.

The reasons for the revolt were apparent in the cafeteria. As the Oklahoman reported, part of the room was blocked off where “a couple of buckets collected water from leaking pipes” and “a few blocks away from the high school, a sign in front of Sequoyah Elementary asked motorists to consider donating paper and pencils.”

To see photos of Saturday’s rally, click below:

Warren had local family members in attendance and she shared childhood stories about the challenges and the ways schools opened the door to the daughter of a maintenance man. She said that Oklahoma schools can prepare kids for almost anything – even becoming a twitter partner with the President!

Most of her family were great singers in the church choir. Because she lacked that talent, the choir director kept telling her to keep her voice down, “Betsy, just a little softer …”

And still, “She Persisted!”

Warren was inspired by a 2nd grade teacher, Mrs. Lee:

She said if I worked very hard, I could become a teacher. And the hook was sunk. She had me: a teacher. Her words changed my life. Now, no one in my family had ever graduated college. (…) But when Ms. Lee said, ‘Yes, Ms. Betsy, you can become a teacher,’ I never saw my life the same way.

Warren began as a classroom teacher instructing special needs children. She also took over a 5th grade Sunday school class which had driven off a series of teachers, leaving the minister desperate. Warren changed the class culture, where little boys would climb out of the windows, by employing the Socratic Method. When discussing the difference between “obligation” as opposed to “charity,” one boy said they were obliged to not put boogers in their brother’s food. The class agreed with another child who said we have an obligation to see that, “Everyone gets a turn.”

Warren tackled the dualities under-laying every other speech and the audience’s concerns when she said, “Teachers are in the opportunity business.” Our people have often found ways to stand up to “concentrated power,” but “that America is slipping away.”

As the futures of our families are undermined by corporate greed, teachers have increasingly been “ground up and spit out.” But neither is that new. As Randi Weingarten recalled, she had been a Wall Street lawyer before teaching in the New York City schools. Even in the 1990s, Weingarten couldn’t believe how teachers had been treated in such an “infantilized” manner. Since then, educators have been dismissed and disparaged even more, while often dealing with “classrooms with 50 kids, 40 desks, and 30 chairs.”

The same themes were further explained by Rep. Mickey Dollens and state senate candidate Carri Hicks. Dollens was an inner city teacher who was laid off due to budget cuts. Hicks recalled the suffering of her 5-year-old student, shot by a stray bullet while sitting in her living room. Hicks said of the teacher revolt, “what we really demand is respect.” And we demand respect not just for ourselves but for students and their families.

Hicks noted that at a time when Oklahoma should be enjoying widespread prosperity, one of our counties, Stillwell, was just identified as having the lowest life expectancy in the nation, (with two others having life expectancies below 60 years, placing them in the nation’s bottom ten.) Hicks explained, “What most people don’t understand about teaching is we don’t just teach a subject or a classroom, we are the front line of defense for every one of our students in our classrooms.”

My wife said she had never seen anything as inspiring as the rally. She’d never seen anyone speak as powerfully as Elizabeth Warren, or do so in such a genuine, sincere, and warm manner.

I agree. Being a former teacher, I was also struck by the unity demonstrated by educators who had long tried to keep their heads down, shut their doors, and do their own jobs as best as they could. I saw what AFT/OK support staff President David Gray described. Gray said that teachers have fought back against the “testing fixation,” and the “culture of blaming teachers.” We are now resisting Betsy DeVos and the Janus anti-union decision. We have reasons for confidence, but as my good friend Mickey Dollens says, “We’re 45 days away, it is imperative that we continue to push forward and see it through.”

I was also struck by the number of local teacher candidates in the room who I’d never met. I’ve been collecting numerous stories of teacher/candidates, and the rally let me hear plenty more.

Elizabeth Warren began the afternoon by privately offering advice to numerous candidates. She concluded her call for justice with the words:

“This government fails our children, fails our teachers and fails our futures. But mark my words: tick-tock, tick-tock. Come November 6 we are going to make some big changes in this country.”

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