It started out like any other day.
Four different alarms set at five minute intervals beginning at 6:15 a.m. and ending at 6:30 a.m. I can only hit snooze so many times, right? The fourth alarm ought to actually wake me up…..
It was still dark outside when I pried my eyes open and reached for my phone. My dog hopped on the bed like she always does in the morning, nestled herself up against my back and put her head on my side. I put my head back on the pillow, closed my eyes and counted to ten. After ten I would have to get up.
Around number 25, I threw the covers off, turned on the lamp and got out of bed. It was like any other weekday…..except today was Saturday.
I could stay right here, I thought. Cozy in bed with my dog and my husband. I don’t even know anyone at this thing I’m going to. No one would miss me or even notice if I didn’t show up. What difference would I make anyway?
It was tempting. But I was already awake. AND I had already paid for a t-shirt. So I grabbed my new running shoes, a backpack and a jacket.
The annual walk from Merriam to Topeka, KS began two years ago with one mom who was fed up. She knew she needed to do something drastic to grab the attention of legislators and her fellow Kansans. She wasn’t happy about the policies affecting public education being pushed through the legislature, so she started to walk. From her home in Merriam, KS. And she didn’t stop until she got to the Capitol.
I was working as a reporter when the first wave of Gov. Brownback’s tax cuts got pushed through the legislature in 2012. I had spoken to economists who cautioned against the sweeping cuts. I knew the cuts were not sustainable, and I knew K-12 education made up half the state’s budget and would be the hardest hit.
It started with other social programs — the arts, mental health facilities…you know those “unnecessary” government programs that are so “wasteful” with our tax dollars. Let’s just get rid of them. That was disturbing and harmful enough, but sadly just the beginning. When all of those programs had been cut there was nothing left but the pride and joy of Kansas. Our schools.
What’s happening in Kansas mimics similar models we have seen in other states (Florida, North Carolina, Wisconsin). Straight from ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council). ALEC is a group of ultra-conservative corporate leaders and legislators. The organization churns out model legislation that is then funneled through state legislatures. They’re about much more than public education, but education is their biggest target. ALEC is about profits, not people. Corporate greed over the public good. To members of ALEC, public education is nothing more than an untapped opportunity for private interests to profit. (Please read more HERE and HERE.)
In 2013, I learned about Heather Ousley on the news. The mom from Merriam who was too angry to remain silent. I guess she figured a 60 mile walk would garner attention. The attention needed to turn things around.
Inspiring, to say the least.
Heather embarked on the same journey last year, and brought a few friends. This year, she brought a few more.
Energized by Heather’s story, and downright angry with everything happening in Topeka (not just with education, but the assault on public employees in general, on women, on the LGBT community…the list goes on), I decided to take a small part in this year’s walk to Topeka.
When I arrived at the walk’s second day starting point (Eudora Elementary School), I was overwhelmed by the crowd. So many people. All gathered at 8 a.m. on a Saturday morning in support of public education.
I spent most of the morning being all introverted. Standing against the wall, trying to blend in. You can still leave, I thought.
But it wasn’t long before I got over myself and started the introductions. I met moms and dads with kids in the Shawnee Mission School District, Blue Valley, and Olathe. People with young kids. People with kids in high school. And of course I met teachers….some who have been nurturing children for longer than I’ve been alive. (Always amazed by your big hearts and commitment to Kansas kids!!)
I was all self-conscious about the size of my backpack. The fact that I was walking ONE DAY compared to the group’s three day trek, and I had packed an extra pair of shoes and enough snacks to feed the entire group. Oh! And an extra pair of pants! You know. Just in case.
But none of that mattered once we hit the road. I was one of several. Too angry to be silent.
With every person I met on the walk, the line of questioning was the same:
“Are you a parent? Or a teacher?”
“Well…neither,” I would reply. “I’m just pissed off.”
I was one of the youngest in the group. But that didn’t matter to me. It really made perfect sense for me to be joining the day’s efforts. I do very much want kids someday. And I want those kids to have good public schools to attend. But even if I never wanted children, public education is an incredibly important, critical part of an equitable, high-functioning, productive and happy society. It really does not matter your age. Whether you have kids in school or not. If you simply care about being around informed and educated people, then you should care about our system of public education.
I spent the first several miles walking next to a first grade teacher from Olathe who has been teaching for 27 years. She pours her heart and soul into every child she meets.
She made me laugh. Especially when the conversation turned to our families and other people in our lives.
“My family is constantly telling me to turn it down…just let it go. They ask me, ‘Can’t you be just a little less loud? A little bit less opinionated?'” I said to her with a laugh.
“Ha! My family says the same thing,” she replied. “But this is who I am.”
And in that moment, I knew I was with my people. We are the ones who actually can’t turn it down. We won’t shut up.
As the journey continued, I met even more amazing people. My heart filled with their stories, their passion. With the way I saw a small part of myself in each of them.
Kansas has long had a reputation of really fantastic schools. In fact, our schools have been a huge reason for many people to put their roots down here. And yet, there seems to be an eerie silence among too many Kansans who should be speaking out as teachers lose their rights to due process, their rights to collectively bargain and as our legislature cuts funding for schools. Again. And again.
Yes, there is public outcry. And yes, those cries are getting louder.
But we need more.
I think it was around 4 p.m. when my feet started to really ache. I stopped to stretch, but it didn’t really help. I had a snack. Drank more water. I wasn’t sure what the end point was for the day, but I knew we had at least a couple more hours.
Around 6:30 p.m. I finally sat down for longer than 5-10 minutes. I took off my shoes and wiggled my toes. We started walking at 8:30 a.m. in Eudora and ended the day in Lecompton. 21(ish) miles.
The point of the walk is to raise awareness of issues facing public education in Kansas. Not only for community members, but for legislators as well.
I joined for one day. Just one of three. Most of the others in the group started walking on Friday, and will end their journey at the Statehouse Monday morning (a total of about 60 miles).
While several others got up and back out Sunday and Monday, I spent most of the day limping around on my sore legs and feet.
Just goes to show….never doubt a group of parents and educators. They will literally walk through hell for their kids. We are damn lucky to have them involved in our schools.
On a personal level, my involvement in the walk had two goals:
1) To be part of the effort to raise awareness — by being active on social media and by writing this blog post. Hopefully I’ve informed someone.
2) To connect with other people and with a purpose greater than myself.
Did my walk actually result in tangible policy changes to improve public education? Not exactly. Not yet. But this is a movement.
I talk to people all the time who say they support this issue or that, but then fail to get involved. Fail to show up.
Y’all. If you do not physically have a presence in some way, your Facebook “like” is not enough. If you do not take the time and effort to be active (yes, POLITICALLY active), your bitching at happy hour will not change anything.
I get it. You’re busy. You’ve got work. Maybe you have kids. You have the every day business of taking care of shit. I know it. Me too.
But being distracted by busyness is exactly where the people in power want you. Too busy to pick up the phone. To send an e-mail. To attend a rally.
I am not some perfect, shining example of community involvement. I’ve really only been active for a couple years (and have alienated plenty of people in the process). I have done that horrible thing where I have committed to something, then decided my couch and Netflix were a better idea. I have said no. I have stepped away from opportunities. Worse yet, I have stepped away from difficult conversations where I could have had an impact. But I chose the easy way. I chose silence.
It does not have to be a 60 mile hike to Topeka. It does not even have to be a 20 mile hike to Topeka. But it does have to be something. This complacent silence. This apathy. This fearful ambiguity…..this is what gives the bad guys power.
I know the road is long. I have also spoken with people who have been involved, but they get tired. It’s tough to lose again and again. They abandon hope. They give up. To show up, and then to experience defeat….it certainly does make you wonder what kind of difference your presence actually makes.
I can understand that. Sometimes I want to give up too. But then something deep down inside of me just won’t quit. It pulls at my heart when I see injustice. It brings me back when my eyes have glazed over and I have chosen to sit quietly. It is not perfect. It is not always the right kind of outrage. It is often wrong — entangled in privilege, inexperience and immaturity. But it is always there….and I can not extinguish it.
It is not easy. It often requires stepping out of your comfort zone. It may mean walking into a room of strangers and standing against a wall for 20 minutes before gaining the courage to introduce yourself. It may mean a difficult conversation with someone you love. It may mean taking an extremely valuable personal day from work to attend a rally, a march or a 60 mile walk.
It’s easy to stay in bed and let others do the walking. Safe under the covers of warmth and familiarity. But choosing not to act also sends a message. What you do matters. And what you don’t do also matters.
So, if you’ve made it this far I just have a couple questions for you:
1) Do you support public education in Kansas?
2) Are you upset by what is happening in Topeka?
If your answers are yes, then it is time to pull yourself out of bed and do something about it. No matter how many alarms you have to set.
I’m sure there are many organizations throughout the state dedicated to protecting our schools, but if you’re in the Johnson County area, start with Game On for Kansas Schools.