I was pedal-down to one of the top-rated steakhouses near the Fort Worth stockyards, because only vegans go through Texas without eating steak. Despite being another glitzy tourist trap, it was a safe, well-populated option nonetheless. I retraced my path a few times in annoyance trying to find the restaurant I wanted. No matter, a second choice was lit up with popping red bulbs and cocky assurances it was the best around.
Not having any leads for teacher interviews in Texas, back on I-30 I’d just prayed and asked God to provide one. I parked the car on a side street and swaggered toward the restaurant. Should I purchase a plaid snap-up shirt? Buy some boots as a practical souvenir? I’m sure this steakhouse is very busy in the evening, but at lunch time mid-week, it was just a steady hum. I could see into the bar, off to my right, as I entered. College football was on and just one patron was present. On a rowdy weekend night, I wouldn’t be apt to sit in the bar, but today I was delighted to find this scenario. Dining alone gets old and awkward. Watching football in a bar while eating steak, alone in Texas, well. . .
Three salt-and-pepper haired cowboys in denim, boots and 10-gallon hats strode in. Is this a show for the tourists? Are these real cowboys? Talking with them would be so interesting, but I wasn’t quite near enough to strike up a conversation. They were sad-eyed and contemplative, as if cowboyin’ just ain’t what it used to be.
Emma, the friendly, twenty-something bartender smiled and handed me a menu as she asked what I’d like to drink. Just water, I laughed. I’m in here so I can watch football. As I perused the menu I just caught part of the bartender’s conversation with the other bar patron. She was telling him about her school teaching career. What!? I couldn’t believe my ears, and fought to keep from running to that end of the bar to verify what I’d heard. It seemed like forever before she came back to take my order. Did I order first, or ask her if she really was a teacher? I don’t remember.
Steak, football, a Texas-teacher interview and a tall glass of ice water; God is good. The interview was oh-so-brief, recorded on my phone, and oh-so-insightful. As she hurried off to meet her serving duties, a school holiday second job, I pondered what it felt like to be in her shoes. I recalled taking on a second job in my first years of teaching. It always felt as though I didn’t quite have enough mad money, but I had managed to buy a home. The second job didn’t last long because teaching alone is so demanding. All right, that wasn’t the only thing. No successful salesman ever said, “Oh, that’s okay, you don’t have to buy anything.” I fired myself.
The Texas bartending teacher’s interview reflected a theme with other teachers across the nation. They were made to feel being dues-paying union members was just something you did as a teacher – as natural as writing your name on the chalkboard the first day of school. They’d been told little to nothing about the union. “My coworkers had just joined…I felt like if they were [joining]. . .it was a decision I had to make,” Emma had said.
The day was still gray and threatening rain when I left the steakhouse. I rolled back out onto the highway, my mood matching the sadness of the sky. It was all too much. I followed cracked two-lane roads through the fading daylight to that evening’s stop over, a Texas-sized hospitable home.
I plastered on a smile and conversed a bit with my Texas hosts, but I was seething inside. Months of travel, interviews and teacher-union research were fermenting inside like kombucha tea. If you shook me at that moment, I’d explode.
The next morning, I was up and once again driving, driving, on and on under a heavy gray sky. Road noise became the background music to thoughts formulating, not expressible with words just yet. I prayed for teachers, students and our country mile after mile; or at least until a snatch of interesting scenery interrupted me. Radio weather reports confirmed the area I was headed into may be getting snow. I focused on the passing miles, not the aching in my heart.
At a rest stop in Amarillo you could tour an on-site museum, but my brain was sorting and categorizing emotion-laden thoughts, which left me only half-conscious of my surroundings as I wandered around to stretch my legs. A hallway lined with rifles hung behind glass caught my attention. I was drawn to them by curiosity, but I didn’t get very far down the hall before a sharp voice growled, “What are you doing?”
“Uh. . .” My preoccupied mind snapped to attention. “I was just going to look at this display.”
“This is the exit from the museum. If you want to see it, you have to pay,” the voice said.
“I’m so sorry. . .I didn’t mean to–” I blushed, then struggled to keep up a dignified walk out to my car. The jolt of reprimand brought zest to my driving and the thoughts in my head popped like angry kernels pinging in a kettle.
Uninformed answers to interview questions sizzled up in me. “I don’t even know if I pay for an affiliation at the national level,” a 30-year veteran teacher had said about her dues. How is that possible, I vented?
“I think part of it goes to celebrations and happy hours,” another teacher had responded. I drove faster.
I could see the sun setting to my left at the edge of the cloud I was under. Its fiery contrast to the days of gray and Christian music on the radio, lifted my spirits. For a few minutes, it seemed my approaching turn west would pull me into brighter days. It got dark fast, however, and I fought panic. The foreign landscape cast odd shadows, the clouds got puffier, and a climb in altitude made snow likely. I was once again breaking my own rule of being settled in by nightfall.
Rain mixed with snow turned the road shiny black. All I could see were indistinguishable forms momentarily flashing in the headlights. There were no towns, no other traffic, no street lights and no light from the sky. It was just me, my prayers and my memories, whisking through the night.
A deep understanding of teachers’ unions had come to light, as when the light of dawn persuades you out of your sleep. There is no resisting; your eyes eventually fly open. So here I was, cross-country road-tripping and feeling the piercing press of reality on my eyes: Teachers blindly trust, yet do not understand, their own union.