Friday, February 23, 2024

A Goodbye for James Eterno

I was out of town when James was laid to rest. I also wanted to wait a few days until after all the blog posts subsided and the service was over before I published. I fell out with him there before the end. I felt the opposition stood a great chance of winning the votes of all active teachers in the last UFT election and I urged him & others to reach out to moderate and right wing voices who we knew were ready to run with us. He & the others didn't see it the same way and eventually ran a left-only slate to oppose Unity (who summarily beat the crap out of them, winning almost every single division except high schools -again). I was mad so I took my marbles and went home. I'm still sore about it, to be honest, so I did nothing to repair the breaches that were caused before his stroke. And now that he's passed, and that opportunity will never arise, I feel responsible to at least try to leave a small record of what has been lost with the quieting of James voice. 

And I should start with a basic fact; that if talent or merit or love of union had played a wider role in the arch that was this man's union career, you would be reading a memorial about a famous high ranking or UFT or AFT official who moved the entire labor movement by building leaders within his profession and fighting like hell for it. He was that brilliant. He was that strong. He was that good.  Alas, those professional qualities play a very small role in New York's teacher union. So you are reading a memorial about a great dissenter instead. But make no mistake, he was the greatest our union ever saw. And you're lucky if you ever knew him. You're lucky if you ever read him or talked with him for more than ten minutes at a time or agreed with him or argued with him with him or learned from him. Just lucky. 

He had enough balls to stand up to powerful men and women (and I mean politically powerful men and women). He had enough brains to know how to do it. And he grew leadership from among those around him in order to do it. While a chapter leader at Jamaica High School. James helped start ICE. The ICE blog became a major voice against many of Bloomberg's policy of closing schools, specifically, the teacher union's complicity in allowing them. But James' voice on education wasn't the only one to ring out of from Jamaica High School during this time. A colleague of his wrote about education for the New York Post. That colleague (who freely admitted to me in my teacher lounge that James was an inspiration for his choice to write about education) went on to be a thorn in the side of the UFT as well.  In 2008, he inspired another colleague, unfairly placed in the rubber room, to start his own blog to fight back. And, although Eric Chassanoff passed away during COVID, his blog was the highest read edu blog across New York for a very long time (according to my checks of Google Analytics during that time). Eric's blistering criticism of the DOE leadership left little to the imagination and was matched only by his dearly held resentment for it. You probably read his blog once or twice, but Chaz' School Daze was actually essential reading for anyone seeking to understand the UFT and the NYCDOE under Bloomberg and Klein for a very long time. That blog was created by one of James' members at Jamaica.

That was James' brand of leadership and it continued all the way up to his last election. I personally knew of his efforts in fostering and supporting the growth of new candidates for chapter leader positions, new teachers to the DOE and even new radio show hosts. There are very few leaders who grow other leaders but that was James Eterno's stock and trade.  He simply inspired others around him. He will never get credit for creating not one but fully three widely read anti Bloomberg/Kein edu blogs at the height of the education wars. You won't hear his voice on WBAI or on the modern UFT Executive Board. But it's there, alive and well in the form of new opposition leaders that he helped develop. 

And James Eterno was the greatest chapter leader of his generation. Although he is best known for his fight to stop the closure of his school, Jamaica High School, James' lasting contribution to working teachers of New York was to provide a blueprint for how to stand up, who to stand up to (and who to stand with) as well as how to articulate the utter insanity that led to his school's demise (that's a long story. I feel like I have to explain)... 

... Under Michael R Bloomberg and Joel Klein, the City fo New York embarked on a ferocious attempt to reverse white flight and attract middle and upper class parents to move back to the city. That attempt led to the creation of small, boutique schools all over the city where white middle class parents would want to send their children. In order to accomplish this, Black and Brown students, as well as students who required extra support services, were all (all) assigned to traditional neighborhood schools which lacked the resources to properly service the hundreds and, in some cases, thousands, of higher needs students who had been assigned to attend together. The result was a highly segregated school system and a whole host of overburdened schools that fell into poor academic standing.

Rather than admit to the neo-redlining policies they had enacted, Klein and Bloomberg helped establish a fictional narrative for the entire city where 'poor teachers' and 'bad teaching' was to blame for the mess that they themselves had created. UFT president at the time, Randi Weingarten, went right along with the program in exchange for retaining a seat at the table of the state and national DNC and for more cash for the teachers who were able to hold on. 

In order to validate their narrative (and to create more space for his boutique schools), Klein over flooded large schools with too many higher needs students than the schools could handle. Once the school statistics went down, the city would close it, displacing community students and open a new one, thus filling the 'new' seats with, 'new' (ie gentrified), students.  This was the game plan under Bloomberg and Klein. 

And James fought it tooth and nail and as much in the public eye as he could. The voices coming out of ICE during this time sounded (both individually and collectively) a stark alarm and painted an almost full, complete picture of what was happening and why it was happening from a teacher's point of view. Although it was before my time, I am told that, as a member of the Executive Board, James challenged UFT president Randi Weingarten at every turn, taking advantage of every opportunity. Back at his school, I was told that he organized parents and colleagues and community members and students alike in order to avoid the closing of Jamaica High School. I know first hand that, once the closing was announced and the DOE began phasing out students and excessing teachers that Eterno fought like hell right up until the end... 

Of course this more notable fight was a loss. Ultimately, Jamaica High School did close and every teacher there (James included) were sent elsewhere as substitutes (sorry, "teacher assigned" from the ATR). For many, their new principals did not trust them, their new colleagues steered clear of them.  But not James. He impressed at his new school and they kept him teaching a full load until he retired. In this loss, though, James showed everyone who cared how to fight the Bloomberg/Klein system and this has become his lasting legacy: You fight it by organizing with allies to amplify your voice. You fight it by calling attention to yourself. You fight it by drawing swords against the leaders in your own union, holding them accountable for their role in the devastating policies and by relentlessly criticising them in public, even during times when you were working with them in private 

In addition to the road map he helped write, James helped to articulate what had really been happening to struggling and working class families all across New York. Activists responded, sure, but eventually families in central and south Queens responded as well. In 2013, they, as well as most of the rest of the city, voted to send the very antithesis of Bloomberg, Bill de Blasio, to Gracie Mansion. School closings and the teacher wars here in NYC ended very shortly thereafter and, with the spotlight snuffed out here in New York, the ed wars soon ended across much of the country's urban centers too. Only those who understand the UFT's power and complicity in that disaster of an era know that James Eterno was one of the major forces behind the efforts to stop it. But those of us who do understand know it very well. 

And I'm happy to tell that tale and I hope you mention, in your travels, how a New York City public school teacher who was prevented from rising the ranks of the union that he loved more than many of the union officials who work it was able to convince so many of of us to climb up on top Rocinante and take a shot at the windmill with him.  I'm happy to count James as one of my mentors of the UFT and grateful for the wisdom I have gained from knowing him. And while I will greatly miss his presence on this stage, I'm confident that his protogees who are still in that fight have been given all the tools they need in order to continue it. 

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