Educating South Carolina over the past year, and it has both entertained and puzzled me: Many of ESC's readers are reading from outside South Carolina.
I don't mean that a bunch of South Carolinians are taking vacations across the border and checking-in via their Blackberries. I mean there have been a good many readers from across the nation, regularly visiting the blog and hanging around a while.
I know this because Blogspot lets me track my readership from day to day, and lets me know where they're reading from. It's a nice thing to know -- and now's probably a good time to say a big howdy to the 29 folks who read regularly from here in South Carolina: Howdy! And thanks for reading.
But let me extend a hearty welcome and ask some questions -- in all good humor and out of sincere curiosity -- of those reading from Far Off: What is it that attracts you to our pain, our heartache, our yearning to be free of foolish shackles, our constant struggles to overcome the kakistocracy of our government, our daily performance of the rites and rituals of living as broad-minded and big-hearted educators in one of the reddest of red states?
Why do you visit?
Of course, South Carolinians make up the lion's share of readers, thankfully. But since January 1 of this year, 453 North Carolinians have stopped by, 250 Georgians, 150-plus Texans, 129 Tennesseans, 128 New Yorkers, 117 Floridians, 104 Ohioans, and 103 Californians. And those are the states from which more than 100 readers have come to the blog these past two and half months. In fact, ESC has been visited by readers from every single state in America since January 1 except one: South Dakota. I reckon South Carolina and South Dakota have enough in common.
Is it schadenfreude? Delectatio morosa? Epicaricacy? I hope that's not it.
Or is it, perhaps, given the current state of affairs across the nation -- thanks to education deform (not reform), "Waiting for Superman," Michelle Rhee and Scott Walker -- are you looking for news from a state that has always had it worse? To offer you guidance on your own downward spiral?
If that's it, come and sit a spell. O, the tales we can tell.
See, educators in South Carolina have never had collective bargaining rights, never had any rights at all. We have had the right to take a tiny little salary and call it a living.
We've had the right to be demoted when a principal or superintendent wanted to give his niece or nephew, fresh from college, a plum role usually earned by a veteran teacher, or in a newly-renovated classroom usually assigned by seniority.
We've had the right to keep working through the flu, and through viruses, because sick leave is hard to come by. We've had the right to pay for our own substitute teachers when we want time off, and have the time to take off, and have a principal who'll let us take it off.
We've had the right to be grateful for our jobs. That's a big right we have. A lot of our colleagues, especially during the past decade, have lost that right through budget cuts that went to pay for corporate tax breaks, because keeping our corporate owners happy is far more important that educating the children of poor and working people.
But I digress. You'll get there soon enough, I know, because South Carolina has always been a sort of anchor, holding our professions and our society in place, somewhere around 1951.
Though many states have journeyed farther ahead -- winning all sorts of rights and benefits, organizing and empowering themselves, rising up to govern and influence their own lives and livelihoods -- we've stayed right here, half wishing that we could be doing the same and half knowing, in the darkest corner of our hearts, that you'd all grow tired soon enough of pulling and pushing for progress, and that when you take your collective eyes off the ball, you'll come snapping backward like a ball on a long rubber string.
We're America's ball and chain. But we come to accept it, adapt to it, even appreciate its familiarity, like that song Annie Lennox sings: "I love you like a ball and chain."
O no, fair readers from Far Off. South Carolina's educators have never been so organized that we could demand better health care benefits, the way that many of you have done in your states. We've operated on the take-what-we-get principle, because to do otherwise might land us on our ear, without pitiful health care benefits AND without a job.
I know that where you live, educators often have time to write books, do research, earn a second doctorate, or take a year's sabbatical and study in Europe. We've envied that.
Not here, no, not here. We're too busy. We've got second and third jobs to work, many of us, because it costs so much to add our families to our state health plan coverage, and that money has to come from somewhere.
Why do we stay here, you ask? Good question. Snow is one good answer; snow and ice tend to corrode the undercarriage of a car, and corrode the good spirits of a happy educator, too. And you may have noticed that many of you from Far Off tend to drive quite differently than we do here -- no offense meant -- and it's just safer to keep off of snowy and icy roads.
Yes, it is funny, I know, when you hear that we've got a little snow shower coming and we race to empty the store shelves of the staples: Milk, bread, peanut butter, moon pies, Little Debbie cakes and batteries. We laugh about that, too, while we're piled up on the sofa, drinking hot chocolate and waiting for those two inches to melt so we can go back to school tomorrow.
So climate has something to do with it. But community has a bigger role to play, I think. We know one another here; even if we don't know one another personally, by name, we know one another culturally speaking.
Within a year, a brand-new teacher in a medium-sized school will learn where all of her colleagues attend church (and if they don't, God forbid, and are in danger of hellfire and torment everlasting), where her colleagues' children are attending college and what teams they root for, who got their jobs by luck or merit and who got them because the superintendent in the next district over has a cousin who works in our district office and a favor got repaid, and which children's parents are regulars in the crime blotter and which ones' parents are "the town" this-or-that (the town lawyer, the town doctor, the town dentist, the town dance instructor, the town clerk, the town police chief, etc).
Though there is misery in public employment, there is some strange comfort in knowing that the misery is shared by many others.
It's familiarity again -- knowing every thing and every one, and knowing that they'll all be the same tomorrow and next year. For some of us, familiarity is like a warm handmade quilt to wrap up in and hide. For others of us, it's one of those heavy Army-surplus wool blankets: never big enough, itchy and too hot, too fast. Those who feel comfortable in it find no reason to leave, despite the misery. Others adapt, sadly and eventually, to the chafing. Those that don't adapt to the chafing do leave and never come back.
Are you, readers from Far Off, the sons and daughters of ones who never adapted to the chafing?
Or are you those who left so long ago, never to return? Are you checking in from time to time, looking for signs that it's okay to come back home?
If you are, then let me tell you this quickly: It's time to come back home. Now. Bring your parents, bring your grown-up children and your still-little children.
I say it's time because we're tired of fighting alone, and because you have a lot to teach us about how you organized and empowered yourselves in Far Off, and won the rights you did.
I say it's time because, frankly, although we say we don't like hearing folks say, "Well, back in New Jersey, here's how we did it," we need to know how you did it -- not everything, but the important things.
I say it's time because things move in cycles, like the pendulum of a clock swinging back and forth. We've been in this present darkness so long that it must be time for the light to come out again soon.
I'm hopeful of it.
Who knows? If enough of you come back, we might soon have enough like-minded ones of us that we can move our state legislature a step back toward progress.
We might soon have enough that we can speed the pendulum along, back to the center.
We might soon have enough that we can pull up that anchor and begin moving forward from 1951, maybe a decade or two.
We might soon have enough that we can lift our old familiar ball and chain, lay it on the anvil, and strike with enough collective force that we can unbind ourselves and our state for good. I know we can't change our history, but with enough people pulling together, we can climb up out of our present and decide our own future.
So, tell me, readers from Far Off: Who are you? What draws you to read here? What advice can you offer us? And when can you come and help?