Not here. Not us. Not our school. The words of Idah Robbins echoed in Charlie’s thoughts. The fifth grade teacher’s voice rang with fierce determination and a deep love of her students, school, and community. A public school is more than a set of buildings, she had said, it is a vital part of the community, a pillar of functional democracy. Charlie had quoted her in his recent essay urging resistance to the plunder monkeys.
“We teach all students,” Idah had stated. “Every child in this nation is welcome here. We do not discriminate based on aptitude or wealth. No private school can honestly claim the same. If we are ever to have a truly democratic nation, the door of education must be held open equally to all children.”
Charlie had called Idah Robbins on a phone number listed in Inez’ database of organizers and, after a week of crossed messages, finally caught her just moments after she finished a tense meeting with their local species of plunder monkeys, a private school corporation called Aldler’s Champion Schools. The teacher’s voice roared with indignation.
“They marched in here flaunting arrogance and authority – and we gave them quite a shock of resistance, let me tell you!”
Idah Robbins recounted the story to Charlie, crackling the phone line with her passionate retelling. Aldler’s Champion Schools’ Acquisitions and Transitions Team had arrived at Los Jardineros with a small army of lawyers and administrators in tow. Phyllis Devanne, head of the team, was a tall and narrow woman with a craven face marked by a prominent jaw and sunken cheeks. Her powder did not quite mask the papery sallowness of her skin. Her off-blonde hair bore the texture of too many years of dyes, rough and stiff despite the professional styling.
“This school has been seized by eminent domain and was sold to Howard Aldler’s Champion Schools Corporation,” Devanne announced in her nasal drone, ignoring all words of respectful welcome.
“It was an illegal seizure and we refuse to pass over the school,” Idah replied, politely, but firmly. The principal of the school rubbed her forehead as Aldler’s people burst out with protests. She gestured them into her office. The room shrank to the tightness of a sardine can stuffed with the drab gray suits of the Acquisitions and Transitions Team. Phyllis Devanne dropped a stack of paperwork on the desk with a thump and eyed the cluttered shelves with a possessive gleam.
“The seizure is quite legal,” one of the lawyers stated. “Your municipality applied for and was approved to receive funds from the Poverty and Debt Relief Act. Now, as per Amendment Six, it owes a debt to the Federal Government. This school property was seized as partial satisfaction of the debt.”
“The seizure is illegal because we have not consented,” Idah snapped back. “You have no signatures from our school board, the only power holders who can authorize this transaction.”
“We have a waiver of that formality,” Devanne smirked, “and a license from the Illinois Department of Education.”
The principal tapped her fingers together.
“Quite frankly,” she said, “we don’t care what the paperwork says or where the shifting sands of legal documents drift. We intend to keep this school in public ownership as an asset of the community.”
“I recommend,” Idah added as she eyeballed them over the top of her glasses, “that you return to company headquarters and warn them to back off from the purchase of this school. We are a poor investment. This neighborhood will never consent to private rule.”
“Now, Ms. Robbins, I do believe there’s been a lot of miscommunication,” said a representative of Aldler’s Champion Schools in a placating tone. “Aldler’s has a lot to offer this community: resources, technology improvements, a proven track record in turning schools around from utter dysfunction to the discipline of a well-oiled machine. We plan to improve the playground and cafeteria, and to upgrade the computers.”
“My, my, my,” Idah drawled with all the irony of a well-studied history teacher, “haven’t you come bearing fancy beads and flintlocks.” Her tone altered abruptly into the commanding crack she used on the goofballs in the back row.
“Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it . . . and it looks like you all have some homework to do. We aren’t interested in your oily machine. I happen to know,” she added, eyeing him disdainfully, “quite a bit about Aldler’s Champion Schools. Your methods are widely known among the National Association of Teachers. We know what happens when you buy up a ‘failing school’.”
“There have been instances,” Devanne began.
“I may teach history to children,” Idah snapped, “but I am quite capable of understanding statistics. Eighty-five percent of your schools use private security to maintain discipline and funnel children into the school-to-prison pipeline. Your CEO owns sizable stock options in the security and prison industries, in fact.
“And while you do bring in new technology systems, you fail to upgrade them, choosing to fund your hired guns instead,” Idah continued in a disgusted tone. “Your teacher turnover rates are appalling and the average experience level of your instructors is less than one year. Once Aldler’s owns a school, a series of fees are implemented for uniforms, books, lunches, extra-curricular activities, unidentified expenses, penalties for misbehaviors, supplies for certain subjects such as art or science.
“And very soon,” Idah concluded hotly, “the low-income families simply cannot afford a thousand dollars per year per child for school. Ironically, the very complaints lodged against the public schools end up applying to your schools.”
“Something tells us this is not the route to go,” the principal concluded, rising and stretching out her hand. “Ms. Robbins, please escort our guests out. Thank you and good day.”
From the way Idah told the story over the phone to Charlie, he could just picture Devanne’s expression as her team squatted in their seats like sullen toads and refused to leave.
“We’re not going anywhere,” Devanne had declared.
“You will never take over this school,” Idah had retorted hotly.
One of the lawyers leaned over and whispered to Devanne. She nodded and flashed a tight-lipped nasty smile.
“We wish to tour the school.”
“Excuse me?” she protested.
“The teachers and students will escort you to the front door, Ms. Devanne, and then they will return to their classes.”
“Students?” she asked, confused.
Idah pointed to the window in the door of the office. The hallway was packed shoulder-to-shoulder with students. The taller heads of the teachers rose above them. Whispers, giggles, and shushing could be heard through the door.
“I believe they intend to open a path for you to exit from here to the main door,” Idah explained, “but should you unwisely choose to try to enter the school any further, I think the kindergarteners might, ah, get in the way.”
The history teacher suppressed her smile and gave a subtle thumbs-up to her fifth graders. Just last week she had shown them video footage of the Singing Revolution in Estonia surrounding the Soviet Army as it attempted to reoccupy the parliament building and disband the independent Congress of Estonia. Unarmed, peaceful, and fearless, the Estonians had forced the Soviets to retreat. Now her fifth graders were putting history into practice. Top marks for those students, she cheered silently.
Checkmated, Devanne and the lawyers rose. Idah opened the door. An eerie, watchful silence fell. The students nudged each other and stepped backwards. A path opened wide enough for the visitors to exit. The children stood silently – though Idah noticed the teachers tapping the more rambunctious on the shoulders just as they opened their mouths. Several hands were intercepted in midair. A small flying object was confiscated.
When the latch on the front door closed with its familiar click-clunk, the hall erupted into cheers.
The principal rubbed off the board next to the office, clearing the usual notices such as number of days of good behavior, birthday announcements, and upcoming holidays. She wrote Plunder Monkeys on one side and Little Dandelions on the other. The she struck a bold, solid line under the school’s side.
“Score one for us!” she laughed.
“If we win, can we have an ice cream party?” a third grader cried out.
“Yes,” she replied.
If they won, she’d cash in her savings account and buy ice cream for the whole school.