Education Opinion

Why I’m Marching: For Rigoberto

By Nancy Flanagan — July 26, 2011 3 min read
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It’s been fun this week, reading all the “Why I’m Marching” posts.

People are marching for the new teachers they work with, for their education-focused families and for their grandkids. They’re marching for better curriculum and instruction, for equity and fairness. A whole lot of people have made it plain that they’re sick to death of ineffective and omnipresent testing. Others are angry that control over decisions that should be made in schools and classrooms are now handed over to “experts.”

Simply looking at the child poverty statistics recently released should make it very clear that the past decade of federal power-grabbing in education policy has not addressed real causes, and has actually made the symptoms worse.

Plenty to get exercised about, plenty of advocacy work ahead.

But I’m marching, on Saturday, for a man I never met, and whose story burned in the public consciousness for a few days, then faded: Rigoberto Ruelas.

Ruelas was the 5th grade teacher in Los Angeles whose life goals and achievements were reduced to this a public humiliation in the Los Angeles Times. When he took his own life, depressed, he became a footnote in the history of education “reform.”

It’s a hard thing, talking about Mr. Ruelas. His family and his school colleagues deserve privacy, and a chance to mourn. Making the case that Rigoberto was a victim of the corporate war on teachers feels like using cheap emotion to make a political point, the kind of low-rent sensationalism the Rupert Murdoch mastered years ago.

But I can relate to Rigoberto Ruelas. My grandfather was an immigrant, my father a first-generation American who didn’t make it through high school. I was the first in my family to go to college--and my dad was enormously proud that his daughter became a teacher. A teacher!

I graduated from college in the early 70s, when it wasn’t fashionable to walk in commencement exercises. But I did (with bell-bottom jeans and ratty peace-sign T-shirt under the cap and gown). My parents came up to watch, and after the ceremonies, my dad and I shut down the Holiday Inn bar, doing the polka.

I’m lucky. I got to build a teaching practice without worrying about standardized test scores and wrong-headed, “scientific” critiques of my work in a major newspaper. I never had a parent second-guess my work with their child, because they saw some numerical formula that questioned my effectiveness. I never had to worry whether welcoming kids with learning difficulties into my classroom, as Rigoberto did, would reflect negatively on my bottom line. I taught, mostly, in a world where teachers were respected.

Whenever I think of Rigoberto Ruelas, I am reminded of a tender and lovely passage in My Antonia, by Willa Cather--which I read at the suggestion of my high school English teacher. Ántonia’s father, Mr. Shimerda, was a weaver and violinist, a man whose artistic talents were respected, and whose wages supported a family in the old country--Bohemia. Coming to America, however, he was ill-suited for life in the wilderness of Nebraska, and was repeatedly humiliated by his inability to succeed at what he wanted most to do, provide for his family. He takes his own life, and is buried in the dead of winter.

What follows is a prayer said by a neighbor, over Mr. Shimerda’s rough new grave, and a lovely meditation on the mark left behind, a bit of human disorder, in a world ruled by measured homogeny:

Oh, great and just God, no man among us knows what the sleeper knows, nor is it for us to judge what lies between him and thee."

Years afterward when the open-grazing days were over and the red grass had been ploughed under and under until it had almost disappeared from the prairie; when all the fields were under fence, and the roads no longer ran about like wild things, but followed the survey-section lines, Mr. Shimerda's grave was still there, with a sagging wire fence around it, and an unpainted wooden cross. Mrs. Shimerda never saw the roads going over his head. The grave, with its tall red grass that was never mowed, was like a little island.

I never came upon that place without emotion, and in all that country, it was the spot most dear to me. I loved the spirit that could not carry out the sentence--the error from the surveyed lines, the clemency of the soft earth roads along which the home-coming wagons rattled after sunset.
Never a tired driver passed the wooden cross, I am sure, without wishing well to the sleeper.

On Saturday, I will carry Mr. Ruelas’ picture in my pocket, a little island of memory, a gentle dissent from the surveyed lines, in a world that values standardization over humanity.

See you Saturday, at the Save Our Schools March in D.C.

[Editorial note: Education Week Teacher is not affiliated with the Save Our Schools event; the views expressed in this opinion blog do not reflect the endorsement of Education Week or Editorial Projects in Education, which take no editorial positions.]

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.