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'I Touch Your Future, I Vote'

Thomas French, an award-winning journalist for the St. Petersburg Times, spent a year with the students and teachers of Largo High School in central Florida. His goal was to find out how today's high school experience differs from that of past generations. The result is South of Heaven: Welcome to the High School at the End of the Twentieth Century.

In addition to sympathetic portraits of five teenage students, the book gives readers a feel for the complexity of the jobs facing teachers and school administrators. In the excerpt below, the educators discover some cold realities about lobbying the state legislature in austere times:

Tallahassee is a deceptively pleasant little city, with rolling hills and streets lined with red azalea bushes and white dogwood trees--the dogwoods bloom every spring when the legislature is in session--and barbecue joints where the waitresses serve the iced tea already sweetened, Southern style. The tallest building around is the Capitol itself, a 22-story concrete tower flanked by two half-domes. Taken together, the tower and the two half-domes bear a striking resemblance--people have been commenting on it for years--to a giant erect penis, nestled between two giant testicles and rising straight into the clear blue sky.

Whether it was designed to look that way or not, the effect is completely appropriate, since the Capitol constantly seems to be overdosing on testosterone. It's a notoriously macho environment, known for its power plays and backstabbing and petty feuds. Some years ago, a couple of state senators almost came to blows on the floor of the chamber, cussing away at each other, with one of them threatening to whip the other's butt right there in open session.

In a place like this, teachers naturally fall to the bottom of the food chain. Though they'd never admit it publicly, many legislators loathe this point in the session, when the teachers arrive to make their annual plea for more funds. One of the legislative staffers, a former teacher who's comfortable talking off the record with Mr. Klapka and Mr. Koppel [two Florida teachers and union lobbyists], makes no bones about how poorly they're received.

"Oh, the legislators say it all the time,'' she tells them. "They say, 'Yeah, it's Teacher Day. Oh God, does that mean they're going to be hounding us about money?'''

Nevertheless, Mr. Klapka and his colleagues are giving it their best shot, going for strength in numbers, hoping that if enough of them pound their message home, they'll be able to scare someone into paying attention. That's why so many of them are carrying signs that say I touch the future, I teach. I touch your future, I vote. That's also why the high point of today's effort is the rally, which will begin with a march to the steps of the Capitol.

The whole thing kicks off shortly before noon. Hundreds of teachers, who've traveled from around the state in caravans of cars and buses, gather in a public park only a few blocks from the Capitol, where they cheer at some derogatory comments about Governor Martinez and wave signs with other slogans, such as If you can read this, thank a teacher and Ask me about the "lottery lie'' and Florida's education funding is child abuse. A few minutes later, the whole crowd is off, chanting "BETTER SCHOOLS RIGHT NOW! BETTER SCHOOLS RIGHT NOW!'' and brandishing their signs, which are flapping in the breeze, and moving down the street in a long but perfectly formed column--what else would you expect from teachers?--with six people in every row.

"No bunching please,'' says someone with a megaphone, keeping them all neatly spaced.

Marching in the middle of a weekday through the middle of a busy downtown, they are moderately successful in attacting attention. They are watched by a mother and her small child; by drivers in their cars, stopped at stoplights; by construction workers, leaning over their jackhammers; by police officers who sit on their motorcycles, gazing impassively from behind their sunglasses as they divert traffic away from the column's route.

"You're bunching,'' Mr. Klapka tells his partner, laughing under his breath. "Stop bunching.''

By the time they reach the Capitol, which looms above them, gleaming in the sun, the chanting and the enthusiasm of the most fervent marchers has infected the rest of the crowd. Everyone is pumped up, their fists raised high as they roar approval at the featured speakers who step forward to the microphone, one by one, to urge them on. The loudest cheers are reserved for Betty Castor, Florida's commissioner of education, who like them has been fighting to get the Governor to pay more attention to the schools. When she is introduced, the teachers begin a new chant. "BETT-Y! BETT-Y! BETT-Y!''

Ms. Castor stands at the lectern, beaming.

"Today I want to talk to you about our role as educators and your specific role as teachers,'' she says, staring out at the sea of waving signs, "and the rewards that you deserve for putting your hearts and souls into teaching.''

She tells them they deserve more money, more respect, more recognition for all they do. Because they're not just asked to be teachers anymore, she points out; now they're also supposed to be solving all of society's problems, serving as advisers, social workers, disciplinarians, and surrogate parents. Yet under this year's proposed state budget, she tells them, teacher salaries and the amount of spending per student would actually decrease when adjusted for inflation.

"You deserve better'' Ms. Castor says, stirring the crowd into a frenzy, "and the children of Florida deserve better.''

It's a rousing moment, and when the rally breaks up, Mr. Klapka and Mr. Koppel and the other teacher-lobbyists, fired up now with the energy of all the speeches, are sent off to continue their one-on-one efforts with legislators.

"Let's rock,'' says Mr. Klapka.

Once they're back inside the Capitol, winding their way once again through the maze of corridors, reality sets in. As they go from one office to the next, hearing the same line from everyone they meet, the enthusiasm slowly disappears from their faces.

"I wish it could be better,'' one state representative says, "but ...''

"I'm as supportive of education as any legislator,'' says another, "but ... ''

"We're down to the bare bones ... Our hands are tied.''

Mike Klapka doesn't argue with them. All rhetoric aside, he knows that what they are telling him is correct. Unless the voters back home are willing to pay more taxes--unless they recognize what it takes to build better schools--there's not much their representatives here in Tallahassee can do. Mr. Klapka doesn't know what to say. How can he and the other teachers make people understand? What can they do to show them how much of the future is slipping away every day?

From South of Heaven: Welcome to the High School at the End of the Twentieth Century, by Thomas French. Copyright 1993 by Thomas French. Reprinted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group.

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