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Whenever I visit my family in Los Angeles, my mother and I invariably gather around the backyard table at my grandmother’s house to correct papers in the late-afternoon sun. As my mom makes her way through a pile of college blue books, I tackle a stack of freshman English papers. Sometimes my grandmother, now 90 years old, comes out to observe our work, admiring the way we scribble comments into the margins and scratch out split infinitives. The sight almost always functions as a cue, prompting her to recite the now-familiar tale of her long career as a teacher.
Unlike my grandmother, I entered the professional world in a time when women had many choices. “Follow your dreams and the money will come,” my father always said. We were told, especially as girls, to aim high. We could be presidents of the United States, Nobel Prize–winning chemists, the next Great American Novelists—whatever our hearts desired.
Around the same time that my grandmother was getting situated as an ESL teacher, my mother was trying to figure out her own career path. She’d fallen in love with linguistics while completing her undergraduate education at UCLA, then followed one of her professors to USC, where she found her passion for teaching non-native speakers. Like my grandmother, my mother also has a long, complicated history with language learning. English is her third language. Born to Polish refugees in Chile, she moved to the United States at age 12. At the time, there was no such thing as ESL in American schools. Non-native speakers were often placed in special-education classes with severely disabled students. My mother wanted to be a part of changing that.
In February 2011, just four months after I arrived at Penn State, the national news erupted with headlines about the teacher’s strike in Wisconsin. Hoping to cut the state budget, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker demanded that all public employees pay significantly more for their health coverage. He also hoped to take away the collective-bargaining rights from the teachers union. That’s when the schools shut down and teachers demanded that their rights be protected. The situation didn’t seem like anything out of the ordinary. I have spent my entire adult life watching the decline in quality of life of the American middle class. I was happy to see workers fighting back. What upset me most was the decent percentage of the population who railed against the teachers, claiming they were greedy and overpaid. And criticisms weren’t simply coming from the extreme right, which has a long history of pummeling teachers, teachers unions, and public schools. Antiteacher talk was now also coming from centrist friends of mine in the form of Facebook status updates. These people truly believed that teachers were overpaid and that education budgets everywhere were too high. Could they not see how many teachers were underemployed, if employed at all, or that education funding was already being cut down to anorexic proportions?