Thursday, September 14, 2017

Flash: column has impact

     I like to say that my writing never changes anything. First because it's true, not just for me, but generally. The entire liberal media speaking in a strong, clarion voice couldn't stop Donald Trump from being elected. One voice is just a twig snapping in a bonfire the size of a barn. Besides, there are enough self-important blowhards in this business; recognizing the lack of impact—the chorus of crickets as I think of it—is a bolster against ego. 
      I'm okay with that. I'm not trying to topple administrations or drag hidden wrongdoing into the light. Other folks are busy doing that. And I'm not inclined to try. What I'm trying to do is write something interesting, to tell you something you don't already know. Corruption has a sameness to it that, frankly, bores me.
    This story started 31 years ago, before I was on the staff of the paper. I wrote freelance for the school guide, the five-times-a-year insert in the paper, and wrote a story about the Chicago public high school in the basement of the Cook County Jail. I don't know where the idea came from; someone probably suggested it. The story became one of my favorites, for the unexpectedness of a high school in Cook County Jail, and for what the teachers had to say, and what the students were being taught. The story stayed with me, lingered, and when I realized that 30 years had almost gone by, I wanted to go back.
    Only I couldn't get permission. Tom Dart was mad at me for a quip I made about his mayoral run—or so I thought—and refused permission. But I eventually broke him down—I am nothing if not dogged—and then went to work on the CPS bureaucracy, which was even more determined to thwart me. I went to an editorial board meeting to corner CPS head Forrest Claypool, and wrote a blog post denouncing his underling for ducking my calls.
    It worked, eventually, and I got into the jail. I had sworn that my visit would be benign--I wanted to write about the school, the teachers and the students, period. "This isn't 60 Minutes," I told them.
    So I almost felt bad when disgruntled teachers began calling me, in the wake of my visit, complaining of poor management, of students being given credit for classes they never attended. I included their accusations in my story—I felt I had to—but also felt like I had deceived the CPS administrators: here I had promised this light, off-beat story, and suddenly charges are being leveled.
    Dumb of me, I know. But there you go.
    Anyway, the accusations made by those brave teachers started the gears turning for an Inspector General investigation, the results of which my colleague Lauren FitzPatrick revealed in the paper Wednesday, detailing hundreds of students being given credit for classes they never took including, most startlingly, one student who was listed as attending classes after he had been killed. 
     I'll be honest—as much as I believe nothing happens due to the stuff I write, I still felt proud to have gotten the ball rolling. I always say, you pull at the smallest, the most obscure and remote thread, and it can take you interesting places.


  1. Sometimes that lone voice is the first spark that sets the barn on fire.

  2. Education might be the only chance these kids have and even then they get screwed. Aaargh!

  3. Nothing like a good bonfire to captivate a crowd. The Trump inferno has been mesmerizing, if nothing else. We all appreciate your writing, Neil. Keep pulling those threads.
    You might feel like you're preaching to the choir but maybe the day will come when even the Trump base admits that the Emperor has no clothes.

  4. Not to excuse that principal, but I hope that her replacement won't have unrealistic expectations put on him or her regarding attendance and graduation rates.

  5. Not really dumb of you. When one writes for the masses one should expect consequences, good or ill. It will remind the many admirers of Arthur O'Shaughnessy among your readership of a phrase that Victorian gentleman and poet contributed to the language.

    "We are the music makers
    And we are the dreamers of dreams
    Yet we are the movers and shakers
    Of the world forever, it seems."


    1. Sadly, my familiarity with that verse is strictly from the (original) Willy Wonka movie.

  6. Well done and well said, Neil. I taught high school students many thought were just a few steps away from jail. Challenging but worthwhile. One small step for mankind. Keep up the good work. Words matter. Your words matter.


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