Monday, January 7, 2013

Brothers and Sisters, Sisters and Brothers: the Autobiography of an Ex-Only Girl

Dear reader,

I am an only girl. Or, at least, I was once an only girl. Just like the Ex-Colored Man in James Weldon Johnson's novel, I'm not sure what it means to be an only girl, or when and whether I get to decide to stop being an only girl. But I've been thinking about it a little bit lately. I started to write a review of my year, just like all the education bloggers did, but it was so depressing that I decided to focus on one of the highlights instead, so here's one: In 2012, I became a sister.

My first delegates' meeting for the Chicago Teachers' Union was not an especially eventful or exciting one--those would come later--but it was much more thrilling than I could have hoped for. I arrived late, so I missed the part where I, as a new delegate, would be "recognized," but, as I slinked into the meeting already in progress, I was first overwhelmed by the sheer number of delegates. It seemed way more than one per school, I thought, and I was soon to learn that there are, indeed, multiple delegates per school--as many as one for every fifty or so teachers in a school building. What a proportion of representation! If only we could be so lucky in every aspect of our representative government.

At House of Delegates meetings, the officers always speak in reverse rank order. I missed the report of Michael Brunson, the recording secretary, and came in to the middle of financial secretary Kristine Mayle's report. I had met and already knew that I liked Kristine, but I was surprised at her sober tone on the stage. Then came the Vice-President: Jesse Sharkey. I had also met Jesse and I had already been tickled by how he called us teachers "trade unionists." Trade unionists! I guess that is, technically, what we are, but it of course feels like a throwback to a long-gone era, one I've become certain that Sharkey, a history teacher, knows plenty about, and one that I also know plenty about, having written a dissertation on it.

Sharkey has a fiery, extremist style of oratory that reminds me of the best moments of Huey Long, and his knowledge of the long and--apparently, very much still living--history of trade unionism was tremendously impressive and exciting to me. Had I, as a Chicago Public School teacher, really become a part of the history I was writing about? Had I, really and truly, become a sister soldier? When Karen Lewis said "Sisters and Brothers"--which she does, repeatedly, when she speaks--it made my heart flutter, like I finally belonged to a big family fighting for a real cause.

But what was the family, and what was the cause? That's still a little bit unclear to me. Having grown up in the 1980s and 1990s, in a non-union family, I was raised to treat trade unionism with the same suspicion as almost every other educated person in this country who has not belonged to a union. In college and early in graduate school, I had been skeptical about efforts of graduate students to organize, particularly because, to my mind, these were elite institutions who were making the lives of their graduate students pretty darn nice. I also remember explaining to a friend why it made me so uncomfortable: we are not sweatshop workers, I said. We were, in point of fact, grateful, at the University of Chicago, to receive any teaching appointments at all; we were not the overworked, underpaid graduate students of the large state universities. At the time, I thought it somewhat high and mighty to be demanding free health insurance when we were already getting so much for free--a tremendously prestigious education in exchange for little-to-no tuition, for example. (This is not to say that PhDs do not "pay" for their education, in blood, sweat, and tears. But, with some frugality and austerity, the living stipend we are given is not unlivable. Most of the payment comes in the form of tears.)

To be clear--at the University of Chicago, the first whisperings of graduate student organization came at a time when PhD students were not universally funded at the same level. In fact, it was through the efforts of organized graduate students--in some cases, against the professed wishes of their professors--that the University finally agreed to fund all PhD candidates equally, which meant a dramatic drop in enrollments in the Humanities and Social Science divisions. But it was being around and intimate with this organization and seeing its effects--only just before the whole world watched the United Auto Workers let themselves get royally screwed in order to save their existence--that made me think twice about the power of collective action, if not of collective bargaining.

So, when Karen Lewis called me "sister," it was as if she had said my name, even though I was just one among nearly 30,000 Chicago Teachers' Union members. It would be several months before I became more familiar with the various caucuses and curmudgeons, the in-fighting that happens in every big family.

In my own nuclear family, I am the only girl of five children. That's a big family, by the standards around which I grew up. And being the only girl could be a lonely existence, at times. It was sort of like being an only child, while also being a middle child--which I also am. When I tell people that I'm the only girl, they respond in one of two ways: "I'm sorry, that must have been rough" or, "You must have been really spoiled." Well, of course, both are true, as far as these things go. It was rough and I was spoiled. I was treated like an only child and like everyone's annoying kid sister, all at the same time, and by everyone in not only my immediate family, but also my extended family, in which, in my generation on my dad's side, there is but one girl: this one.

The second girl to come along came along around 1989 or thereabouts, and she was my first real sister: my sister-in-law, the one I wrote about some weeks ago who is Tim Kreider's sister. When I read Tim's essay in We Learn Nothing titled "Sister World," I felt an uncanny, and misplaced, sense of concern and anger when I read this paragraph, worth reproducing in its entirety:
I'd always thought of being adopted as being about as interesting and significant a fact about myself as being left-handed or having family in Canada. What seems freakish and fascinating to me is something so commonplace most people take it for granted: being related. As an outsider and a newcomer to this phenomenon--what people call kinship, or blood--I may have a privileged perspective on it, like Tocqueville visiting America. What's so familiar to you it's invisible still seems outlandish to me. For most people the bonds of blood and history are inextricable, but I experienced them in isolation from one another, just like my transgendered friend Jenny has had the rare vantage of living as both a man and a woman. Meeting biological relatives for the first time in midlife, I felt like one of those people, blind from birth, whose vision is surgically restored, and must blunder about in an unintelligible new world, learning, through trial and error, how to see. You can't understand the word blue until you see the sky for the first time.
My first thought when I read this, truly, was, "Hey! You can't talk about my sister like that!" Of course, that makes no sense--she is my sister by the law of marriage, and his by what seems like a firmer, more permanent law, the law of adoption. But it shows, with some clarity, the difference in idea that I might have about "relatedness" than someone like Tim, who grew up adopted and therefore always-already alone. You'll notice, for example, that he slyly equates being adopted with singularity: the "freakishness" of being left-handed and having relatives from Canada, both of which are, I think, true about him. I don't have figures in front of me, but I can recognize that being adopted puts one in a silent minority, just like having Canadian relatives or being left-handed does. (My sister-in-law is not left-handed, but my nephew is, which means left-handedness runs in her family, by law and by blood, as it does in mine, by blood and by law.)

Now that I re-read the passage with new eyes, I see that Tim is more ambivalent than I thought about having blood relatives vs. having legal relatives. He rightly historicizes blood relation as only one kind of "kinship," but he comes frighteningly close to qualifying it as a better kind of kinship than the other kind. If one could only have sisters by blood, then I still wouldn't have any. I could, in fact, never have any, a fact that became clear to me when I was 5 years old, and, when my fourth brother was born, I asked my mom, while still in the hospital, when she would be having another child. She responded, with memorable vehemence, "never!"

Walter Benn Michaels (that guy again), makes a very strong case in his book Our America that the idea of the nuclear family as it is developed in modern American literature is a cover story for another very American idea: race and racialism. One of the novels he reads (attacks) on these grounds is one of my favorites: Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury. In that novel, Walter reads everyone's love of Caddy, the absent sister, as not incest, per se, but rather, as a version of racism: preferring your family means preferring those of your own race. Similarly, the Ex-Colored Man in Johnson's novel endorses racism by his very renunciation of it: you can only refuse to be colored and choose to pass if there is something to being colored other than the color of your skin--something like blood, as in the famous "one drop rule," or, in Walter's argument, something like culture.

Learning this argument from taking a class with Walter and reading his book made me initially uncomfortable, as I have written before. I am a mixed-"race" child, and therefore a mixed-culture child, and that part--the culturally-other-part--of my identity has always been strong, even though I sort of "got over it" when I was in college and learned of more interesting and worrisome dilemmas having more to do with racial inequality, and less to do with me. But, in spite of Walter, and maybe, just a little bit, to spite him, I care about my people. The the reading of Faulkner, who I already knew as a white supremacist, was almost more painful than the reading of Johnson, who I already knew was not a white supremacist. I loved that novel! And I loved it first and foremost, I am ashamed to say, because I automatically love, blindly, all stories about families in which there is only one girl, from Duck Tales and Voltron to Emma and The Corrections. Caddy Compson's status as the only girl in her family is the least of the Compson family's worries, and The Sound and the Fury is, as even Walter admits, a great work of art, for other reasons. But, for me, just like he does in As I Lay Dying, Faulkner had me at the one girl, freaks though they are. Like me, the women in these stories have no sisters. It is my oldest, and weakest, soft spot.

Like Walter, Tim goes on, in his story, to discover that having cultural values in common can feel more like brother-sisterhood than having family in common. His biological sisters are more "like him": they are humanists, they like--oddly--the same kinds of food. But I have to say, though all four of my brothers are doctors, and we don't always find a lot to talk about, I still love all four of them tremendously, with much of the room in my admittedly roomy heart. And I love my sister who is Tim's sister. She and I have a lot in common, too: she is a fiery, assertive, professional woman, and she has been an inspiration to me ever since I met her, when I was very young and had very, very high expectations for my first sister. She is also, as it happens, a great mom. To say the least, it's not easy, these days, to be a fiery professional woman and a great mom at the same time.

My expectations were met not only by my sister-in-law, but also by my sister Karen Lewis and my 30,000 brothers and sisters in the Chicago Teachers Union when we went on strike and won. For the first time in my life, I closed ranks with my union family and Won! An! Argument! The argument was about more than just one thing, as they usually are: it was about teaching and teachers, about dignity and workers' rights, and about real education equality for students. But, in some ways, it didn't matter that what I was fighting for wasn't the same as what every single one of my sisters and brothers was fighting for. The fight, itself, felt good and right. And what we won has benefited my students, my colleagues, and me, personally, and other teachers, throughout the nation. And no one, not even Karen Lewis, knows just what causes or what people the CTU will benefit next, but the strike sure gave people a helluva lot of hope. There are only a few things I have done in my life of which I am prouder. And, after the strike, at my dissertation defense, I was able to say that I know, for a fact, that participating in a strike is fun. Like (I wrote "just like" and then decided to delete the "just") the workers and humanists in my dissertation, I sang songs and marched in the streets. I even sang one of the same songs, with different words. For Langston Hughes, Theodore Ward, and many others, the song was both "John Brown's Body" and "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." For me, it was "Solidarity Forever." I sang it over and over. It's my favorite.

Family really is forever, and forever is a long time. Has being a sister paid off for me? In the Barton family, I can say with certainty that it has. In the family of the brotherhood of teachers and educators? In the family of man? It remains to be seen. I am no longer a CTU delegate. I had to relinquish the position because I needed the time and energy I put into it for other purposes, being, as I was, a wounded soldier. But, happily, I have not yet had to give up being a sister in the struggle. What that struggle is remains for me to find out, in the only way we sometimes can find out: waiting.

I had a chance to see Walter Benn Michaels speak last week, and I also had the chance to ask him and his fellow panelists what should be done about the fact that very few people in K-12 teaching take any notice of him or the other impressive literary historians in his company. He told me that I should stop worrying about what goes on in the high school English classroom and keep following Karen Lewis! If that's not having my life come full circle, then it is something like that--a good ending to my story of sisterhood, at the very least.

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