Try, and you might get what you need: Schoolteachers, linebackers, and strikes

Who is more important to you as a parent or grandparent? Troy Polamalu, Pittsburgh Steelers safety renowned for a mane so spectacular his endorsements include a shampoo? Or the local second grade schoolteacher? It’s a no-brainer – unless, of course, you’re related to Troy.

I ask the question because here in the northeast corner of Addison County, Vermont, schoolteachers are set to strike this Wednesday. Meanwhile, at some point today as we are watching the Super Bowl pre-game, post-game, or perhaps even the game itself – in the midst of our annual orgy of chips and dips and guac – we will hear someone on television murmur the letters, “CBA.” The letters do not stand for “Concussions But Awesome,” the NFL’s current stance on head injuries. They refer to the National Football League’s collective bargaining agreement. If there is not a new CBA by early March, there is likely to be a lockout.

The issues affecting the NFL and teachers are different in detail and scope. The teachers’ union is focused on salary, salary schedule, and how much of their health insurance they must pay; the players’ union is focused on revenue, salaries, retirement benefits, and the length of the season – whether to risk brain damage or quadriplegia 16 times a year (the current season) or 18 (what the owners want). There is more money and glamour with the NFL: TV is involved.

Nevertheless, it is worth nothing that a schoolteacher in this corner of the county could toil for 25 years and not earn what a rookie wide receiver is likely to make months out of college. And while there are still folks who believe teachers are overpaid and lead a pretty cushy life (summers off!), I think teachers are underpaid. After all, we trust them with our children’s care for seven hours a day, and our political leaders remind us frequently that if our nation has any chance at all of not becoming the next failed Roman Empire, we need the next generations to be really smart. That’s a lot of responsibility. And even people who believe passionately that teachers are overpaid have to admit: No one goes into teaching to get rich.

Of course, schoolteachers can work into their sixties; a running back’s career is over by 35 and he’ll have cranky knees and a balky hip forever. And an NFL football game is a lot more fun to watch than an AP calculus class. I confess, I have a man cave with a TV and between September and the Super Bowl, I watch a lot of football. Moreover, the players in the NFL are the 1,600 people best in the world at what they do.

But I never lose sight of this reality: A person like Alice Leeds – my daughter’s teacher when she was in the fifth and sixth at the Lincoln Community School, and one of the negotiating teachers – has a profound effect on my family’s life, while people like Eli Manning, quarterback of my beloved Giants, do not. Leeds won the 2010 Governor’s Heritage Teaching Award, and you have not seen Shakespeare until you have seen the bard performed by her 10 and 11-year-old students on a platform in the small school’s multipurpose room.

My sense is that a teachers’ strike will be dispiriting for everyone. I have not always agreed with my daughter’s teachers, but I have never questioned their commitment to the classroom.

Yesterday, the NFL and the players’ union met. The two sides talked.

Heather Parkhurst, a math teacher at Mount Abraham Union High School and chief negotiator for the teachers, says her group is committed to talking. “Let’s stay at the table until the work is done,” she says. “It’s emotional and tough, but it’s a process.”

My advice here in Addison County? Keep talking. Mick Jagger and Keith Richards don’t belong in a diplomatic corps anywhere – even if Mick has been knighted and Keith published a great memoir – but they got it right when they wrote, “You can’t always get what you want. But if you try sometimes, you just might find, you get what you need.”

Keep trying.

Now, it’s Super Bowl Sunday. Pass the chips, please.

(This column originally appeared in the Burlington Free Press on Sunday, February 6, 2011.)

Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of nineteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Sleepwalker. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, The Guest Room, and The Double Bind.