Wednesday, November 09, 2005

The face of a hero

The off-year election cycle which ended yesterday with so many Democratic victories gives hope to those who would see an end to wingnut domination of this nation's institutions.

But electing 2 Democratic governors and giving the Gropinator a well deserved slap in the face do not a winning mid-term strategy make.

Here in California, in an effort to defeat Arnie's anti-union propositions, the California Teacher's Association put forward an unlikely hero, schoolteacher Liane Cismowski.

From the LAT:

Sandra Jackson, the union's deputy communications chief, began calling around the state. She asked about a healthcare teacher in Concord, an East Bay suburb of San Francisco. But that woman had a scheduling conflict. A colleague mentioned Cismowski, a 2004 Contra Costa County teacher of the year. The two had worked together as mentors, and he admired her plain-spoken sincerity.

Jackson reached Cismowski in her classroom. After a brief talk, Cismowski overcame her qualms and agreed to fly to Los Angeles to appear on camera. "I'm always telling my students that each of them matters," she remembers thinking. "That everyone can make a difference."

Saying no would have made her feel like a hypocrite.
Cismowski was born in Tacoma, Wash., and raised on Air Force bases around the country. She became a teacher 16 years ago in Merced after a stint as an investment banker. One reason was the hours, which gave her time with her two children. In 1998, the family moved the Bay Area, when Cismowski's husband, a minister, took over the congregation at Concord's First Presbyterian Church.

By the spring of 2004, she had won all sorts of honors for her classroom work. Still, Cismowski wasn't satisfied. She figured the worst students are the ones who need the best teachers. She thought of the parable about the final judgment in Matthew 25: "Whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me." So she asked to be transferred to Olympic High School. "I'm just trying to walk the walk," she says. Friends called her crazy.

The campus is located in a scruffy neighborhood across the tracks from Concord's gentrifying downtown. The student body consists of castoffs: foster children and students with drug, alcohol and disciplinary problems. Some wear ankle monitors to class. Cismowski thrived, loving the challenge, loving her kids.

She was never particularly political. She registered as a Republican years ago, but votes for whomever seems best for education. She was aware of the union's spat with Schwarzenegger, but figured she and the other teachers would just dig deeper into their wallets to pay for supplies.

Boarding a 6 a.m. flight to Los Angeles on Feb. 16 may have been the most political act of her life.

At the age of 47, it was the first time she had ever visited the city. She remembers marveling at the palm trees and gawking at the Hollywood sign. On the set, at the United Teachers of Los Angeles building on Wilshire Boulevard, she asked a lot of questions about the lights, the cameras and the TelePrompTer.

She read through the script — "Keeping your word. It's a cherished principle we teach our students. So how can Gov. Schwarzenegger break his promise?" — nailing her lines right away. A cameraman asked: Are you an actress?

The answer to that last question is, of course, no.

And that's the point.

The Democratic party represents people with an amazing spectrum of views on any given political issue. Democrats can disagree on abortion rights. Democrats can disagree on what differentiates free trade and fair trade. Democrats disagree on how best to deal with Iraq. But the one thing that I believe anyone who calls themselves a Democrat can agree on: we support the rights of those individuals who work for a living, we support real people.

And that, of course, was the strength of the ad campaign which featured Ms. Cismowski.

I further find that the fact that Ms. Cismowski was a registered, though generally apolitical Republican, instructive, rather than ironic.

Because more important for her than party was her belief in education. I believe there are many more people like her out there. People who know, deep in their gut, what's best for themselves, their children, their country.

We now have an opportunity, now that the veil of BushCorp lies has been lifted from the eyes of so many hardworking, reasonable people, we now have the opportunity to show them a better way.

We have the opportunity and the obligation.

[x-posted at]

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