|Niles West High School in the 1960s.
I was a senior in 1966 at Niles Township West High School . It was a good year for me. I was finding myself. After arriving from Cheyenne, where I was something of a pariah as a bookish kid, the year before, I had discovered that at least in some circles my interests were valued and shared. I had friends. I was active in drama and was cast in good parts. I had my own allegedly humorous column The Wind from the West in the school newspaper and my short stories and poems had been published in the literary journal Apotheosis. I competed in Forensics.
Outside of school I was part of a
circle of kids from all three schools in the district who were interested in
things like civil rights, the
fledgling anti-war movement, and liberal politics. We even had an organization the Liberal Youth of Niles Township (LYNT)—which I have said before was the
wimpiest acronym ever. I even edited an “underground” newsletter
pompously named The Promethean which was laboriously produced in the dozens of
copies on an ancient and obsolete chemical bath Photostat my dad had in the basement and then smuggled into the
schools for distribution like Soviet
I was the
only goy in that group. Like the majority of the students in the district,
the others were Jews, mostly very secular. In fact it was the Jewish culture which
valued books and inquiry that had made me feel so at home in my new
surroundings far from the Wyoming plains
also extremely close to some of my teachers
who had encouraged me in ways I had never experienced before, particularly the
drama teacher and theater director Ilene
Zelznick, and the gentle English teacher and writing mentor, Richard Gragg.
with some dismay that I learned that a long impasse was leading to a teacher’s strike.
Township District included three large schools, Niles East—the original campus—West, and the newest building North. The district stretched north
from Chicago and west of Evanston and encompassed wealthy
enclaves like Lincolnwood, working
class areas like Morton Grove and
portions of Skokie where the Chicago
bungalow belt and duplexes bled into
the suburbs. New subdivisions had sprung
up along the Edens Expressway and
around the Old Orchard Shopping Center. On the whole, it was solidly
middle-class. The district was noted for
academic excellence. It compared favorably to the much wealthier North Shore districts like New Trier.
Parents valued education.
Teachers were respected and admired.
salaries in the district lagged behind surrounding areas and
there were major clashes with the Board of Education on non-economic issues, especially what
was described as academic freedom. Traditionally contracts had been settled
without a strike. But a new board was
interested in “curbing the power of the union.” After negotiations dragged on all summer and
stalemated, the teachers voted to strike.
I believe it was in early October.
friends and I—indeed most of the students and parents—were solidly behind the teachers.
The day before the strike we asked union members if we should honor the picket line, or perhaps lead a student walk-out. We were advised that the best thing we could do
was to go to school. “The administration has no way to handle you.”
decided that we needed to make a more overt
display of our support for the
teachers and the union. The night before
the strike, we gathered in my basement. Someone had a bunch of old 2” printed campaign buttons and I had, thanks to
one of my mother’s charitable projects,
a big bagful of little ½” Red Cross
Blood Drive buttons, the kind with a little metal flange that you bent over to hold them in place on your
pocket or lapel. We got jars of green enamel model paint and set up a
kind of assembly line painting each
button by hand. The large buttons were
lettered, “We support our Teachers.” The
small ones were just plain green but would be recognized as solidarity.
ginned out a fast issue of The Promethean covering the strike and
urging students to show support. After
working most of the night our members fanned out to the three schools.
sure to get to school early and joined the picket
lines, passing out our buttons to students as they arrived. The teachers were surprised and delighted.
When the last bell rang, we went into
school. A lot of students had skipped and some parents kept their
kids home, but there were plenty of us.
As the teachers had predicted, the administrators and clerical staff
were overwhelmed. Repeated instructions to go to our homerooms were pretty much ignored. All day long we roamed the halls pretty much at will. Many congregated for a while in the cafeteria where we conducted what might
have later been called a Teach-in in
support of the teachers. We also discouraged rowdyism or vandalism which might result—as the
administration threatened—in the police
course, that was the last thing the administration wanted. They wanted the community to think that they
had the situation well in hand and
that students were somehow magically
continuing to get an education. In
fact, they were willing to retreat into
their offices and let us roam at will as long as we did not actively riot.
end of the school day, we re-joined the teachers on the picket line, which had
also been beefed up by quite a few parents.
They were glad to see students leaving the building with those green
buttons. So glad that overnight the
union obtained more buttons and had them painted for us to pass out as the
strike entered its second day.
administration had badly miscalculated. They thought the community would flock to
their side. The opposite was true. But they were not yet ready to back down.
three days into the strike, I nonchalantly
ambled into the District
Administration office, which was located at West and plucked a Board packet off the counter with
materials for a meeting that night.
That’s how I discovered that the Board was going to move to fire all the strikers. I got the word out to the picket line at
lunch. They had heard rumors, but had no
proof. Now they had the documents in
night the Board meeting was overwhelmed
with not only teachers, but parents and students. Under the law the name of each
teacher to be fired had to be read aloud. They did not get very far. The meeting had to be adjourned and the board
and administration evacuated under police protection.
The tactic backfired. More parents joined the picket line. Support for the Board collapsed. By the end of the
week the strike was settled—on the teachers’ terms. Labor
peace in the district prevailed until another bone-headed administration triggered another strike 40 years later
in 2006 which played out much the same way.
On a personal note, not only had I found my first
connection to the labor movement, but I discovered that actions have consequences. At the end of the school year I was nominated for a few small scholarships, $100 or $200 each, for
drama, Forensics, and creative writing.
The awards were routinely given
and administered by department chairs. But the Principal, Nicholas T. Mannos vetoed
them. Citing my role in the strike, some
critical articles in The Promethean and the school paper, and my open opposition to the Vietnam War, he said that I didn’t deserve to go to college. “He needs to be
drafted and go into the Army.”
I took my
revenge after graduation. I was a delegate
to the New Politics Convention that
met in the summer of 1967 at the Palmer
House in Chicago representing LYNT. In fact I was the youngest voting delegate. Every
liberal, left, and socialist organization
in the country was there. And they all
had tables where I signed Manos up
to receive their literature at his home address. I knew that mail from some of those outfits just might interest the FBI.
know. I was a rotten kid.