The occupation at Whittier Dual Language Elementary School Field House will soon be coming to a close—just as soon as CPS puts their verbal agreements with the Whittier parents in writing. These include: no demolition of the field house and no construction of a soccer field; that the field house would be leased to the parents and remain a community center; that the giant storage container would be removed from the schoolyard; and that a library will be built, in the school building, co-designed by the Whittier parents.
Yet the enduring legacy of the 37-day Whittier Occupation is yet to be written. It might end up looking like this: in the fall of 2010, a group of Latino parents—mostly moms, mostly single, and mostly Spanish-speaking—and the children they care for all quietly, steadily, and consistently demanded their rights to a decent education for their children, and accountability for the public money established to benefit their school and neighborhood.
(photo by Sarah Jane Rhee)
From their distinct vantage point, the kids at Whittier have seen about all the Chicago Machine has on offer: deceit, lies, collusion, incompetence, back-stabbing and -scratching, racism, sexism, and the short end of the stick, over and over and over. How will it affect them, knowing what all it takes to make themselves heard in this city? What have they learned about privatization? Politics? Power?
Ociel knows that the kids at Whittier have learned more on their school grounds than most kids will ever have the opportunity to. He’s already made me tear up once in our conversation, when I asked what kind of books he wanted in the new library, and he told me, simply, “new books.” He doesn’t read these days, he explained, because he doesn’t want the books to become predictable. I have been mulling this over ever since: What are the lessons to be learned by a child who freely chooses ignorance over boredom?
But we’re out on the playground, passing the mic back and forth and giggling about life in the occupied field house. Very quickly, pretty boy Ramón joins me and Ociel, and so does gruff Manuel, and the adorable, skinny Adrianna (I only got permission from Ociel’s mom to talk to him, so the rest are pseudonyms.). They want to sing with the microphone, or ask me questions about city politics. They want to gossip with me about the volunteers, or talk about my cats.
Then Ociel realizes that he’s holding the mic, so he has the right to speak.
Ociel: I only have one thing to say. That people came and like—there’s a big hole right there— and when we were in school people came in and were trying to take off the gas. So it would be cold inside.
It finally got turned on, right?
Ociel: It was kind of cold. When all we ask is to get a library.
Ramón: We’re just asking for one little thing, and that simple. You know how many Chicago Public Schools don’t have a library?
I do. One hundred and sixty one.
Adrianna: And we want to have a library.
Well, you have a library.
Ociel: But we have to ask Mr. Huberman to make it permanent. Solis promised that he was going to give us—
Adrianna: What happens if they’re lying?
What makes you think they might be lying?
Ociel: ‘Cause Solis promised that he was going to bring a letter that said they won’t knock it down for a little while, but he didn’t and the next day—
So you think he’s lying because he lied before?
Ociel: Yeah. One time we went marching all the way here, to far, far away from here, to Solis’ office. We were tired.
Then did you see him at the end?
Ociel: No, no, they locked the doors.
Adrianna: To sum up, we want a library because we need to be able to order books from other places, and then we need to take long, long time to bring back the books. I asked [at the school], when do I have to bring back my books? And she said, Next week. I’m like, Oh my god. That’s why I want a library.