What better holiday than Labor Day to describe the connection I share with Arthur T. DeMoulas, newly reappointed leader of our beloved Market Basket? For the past six weeks, the “good” Arthur’s workers staged a boycott to protest his firing. We shoppers, feeling a solidarity that, I’m guessing, surprised and enlightened us, joined the revolution. And, what do you know? We won.
Once upon a time, a long time ago now, our district, facing budget cuts, had decided to lay off three teachers at the high school. I was one of them. My colleagues and I, handed pink slips and then sent off with no information, requested an audience with the principal and superintendent simultaneously. We were denied.
Okay, I admit it. I wept. I loved Burlington, its kids, its community. Even if I could find another job – this was the early 90’s; they were more rare than a sighting of an Asian crested Ibis – I didn’t want it. Teaching was my default profession; I had always wanted only to be a writer. But the first day I walked into Room 207 and stood in front of those Red Devils, I knew: there is nowhere else I want to be. And now, I had been asked to leave.
Maybe Arthur T. felt the way I did: alone, adrift. And maybe, when word trickled down to him that certain workers were holding out in protest, he also felt what I felt when a rumor began circling that students were planning a sit-in. Keep in mind, this was long before the days of social media. If they were planning it, they were doing so by word of mouth, by landline. It was thrilling in the same way thinking about winning the multi-state lottery is: a fun but impractical daydream. Except this fantasy came true.
The night before, I learned later, Stephen Maguire, senior class president, and one other student had launched a telephone campaign. At the homeroom bell, students were to gather in the school’s main corridor and sit down quietly. Meanwhile, I stood in my classroom waiting to begin the day. It was a lonely wait. Eventually, teachers and students popped in to say, “You have to go down and take a look. You won’t believe it.” Some people estimated almost 200 students participated. I took one quick look, one thrilling, humbling, life-altering glance and went back to my empty classroom.
They were an orderly assemblage, class leaders armed with prepared statements, dozens and dozens of young people peacefully demonstrating as the bell sounded to end the day’s first period (and the second, and, I think, the third). In fact, the only sign of panic was the principal who threatened to remove the protesters from scholarship lists. No one budged. When the superintendent didn’t appear, someone called out: Tell him to stop hiding behind his five percent raise! and so he came and there they stood: the elusive duo of principal and superintendent. And there were our students, getting what my colleagues and I could not – an audience, some answers, a promise to reconsider their decision.
My freshmen finally did return to class that day. They were kids unused to rocking the boat and, according to some accounts, there had been faculty who had chided them for their actions. One boy asked me if I thought they had done the right thing. It was hard for me to separate my personal feelings from the event, of course, but beyond my personal gratitude, I felt a great deal of pride in them. Isn’t that what we want of our students? That they become passionate, thinking, active members of their world? What I said out loud, however, was something like this: Only you can judge if you did the right thing. You have to ask yourself if you participated for the right reasons.
I also told them that their actions might not have changed the minds of the administration, but that they had definitely changed me. From that day, I have never walked into a classroom without remembering them and without working hard to justify the kind of faith they had in me. I can only imagine Artie T. will be inspired to approach the remainder of his own career thus indebted.
I did keep my job that year and only left when the demands of family required me to work closer to home. I was fortunate to land in another wonderful community where tomorrow, as year 19 beings, my students will file in, hopeful, fearful, curious. The only thing I can know for sure about the year ahead is that, no matter what challenges face us, I will work hard to be the kind of teacher who deserved what those Burlington kids did for me that day.