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Number One Strikers: A photographer’s walk through the sixth day of protests

A profile feature on a female educator and her two daughters on the picket line.
Gabe Kolodner
Inclusion specialist Kate Woodford and her two daughters visit the Education Center to attend the union protest Wednesday, Jan. 24.

It was raining in the early afternoon of Wednesday, Jan. 24 as I walked along Walnut St. from North to the nearby village of Newtonville, camera in hand. I passed many of my current and former teachers, all holding posters and cheering at the passing cars. Wednesday marked the sixth day of the Newton Teachers Association (NTA) strike, the result of close to 16 months of unfruitful negotiations with the Newton School Committee. While a handful of union members spent those six days in closed offices engaged in meetings with the committee, the vast majority of the NTA’s 1700 members endured the elements from 9 a.m. to 1:30 p.m, rain or shine. As a photographer for The Newtonite, I spent each canceled day of school on the ground with the strikers. By 10:30 a.m., I decided to take a break for lunch. Cafe Nero seemed like a nice choice.

As I rounded the corner of Austin St. and Walnut, I spotted a woman sporting a blue NTA beanie, absentmindedly holding the leash of a restless dog. The woman was preoccupied with two young girls trodding around her portion of the sidewalk, giggling as they threw chunks of loose snow at each other.  I crossed the street and introduced myself. The two did not stop their banter as the woman informed me that their mother was getting them a snack in Cafe Nero and that she would be out shortly. When I asked them how old they were, they paused their play. “I’m Shannon and I’m in the fourth grade,” said the older of the two. “That’s my dog Clementine and this is my ugly sister Abby and she’s in kindergarten.” Shannon cackled as Abby groaned and lobbed a snowball that sailed past her face. The woman waved off the battle occurring at hip level to point at a woman juggling two to-go cups and several pastry bags, wearing a heavy black coat and an NTA hat. “That’s their real mom.”

The mom rushed across the street, reclaimed Clementine’s leash, and handed out the goodies from the cafe. We began to walk together up the street toward the Newton Education Center, which was the site of the negotiations and a common staging ground for strikers to congregate. 

She introduced herself as inclusion specialist Kate Woodford, a proud mother of two Newton Countryside Elementary students. Like my own school, Countryside Elementary locked its doors when the strike began and has not opened them since. Kate told me that her daughters had followed her through almost every day of the protests. “The kids need to see what mom is doing,” she said. “That and there are few people who can watch them.” Her smile faded as we passed a younger woman, her NTA placard leaning against a nearby fence, cradling a crying toddler beside a blanket-covered stroller. 

Shannon and Abby got me up to speed on their current opinions on elementary school. Abby told me that she loves kindergarten, and Shannon told me that school was so hard that she wished she could go back to kindergarten. They both would rather be in school than protest all day, but they were happy that teachers like their mother were going to get treated better. Next, I asked Shannon if she had either a favorite or a least favorite teacher. She began with the latter, launching into a tangent about a teacher who she thought yelled too often. Kate interrupted. “I think he might just be stressed with your classes getting as big as they are.” Shannon protested. “But we are always listening and he yells anyway!” I asked Shannon if her class was listening all of the time. “Well…” she giggled. I told her that I said the same things when I was her age. The thing is, my classes rarely exceeded 20 when I was in elementary school. Some of hers are 25 or more. 

Shannon and I made small talk for a few minutes as we continued the walk to the Education Center. I realized I had forgotten my earlier question. “Shannon, you never told me about your favorite teacher!” Dragging her feet, Shannon informed me that she has a favorite teacher, but she had not seen her since a long time before the strike. “She left when I was in third grade because she had a baby.” Shannon frowned at her boots for a moment before getting distracted by her sister and flitting away. Kate, who was listening in, told me that she did not know the teacher that Shannon told me about. However, she noted that it was not uncommon for teachers to leave after giving birth due to Newton’s parental leave policy. “It’s really hard to be a teacher and a new parent, and it’s a hard choice to leave your newborn child with someone else.” She smiled and gestured to the large cluster of strikers around her. “That’s why we are here!” The kids, who had been attentively listening to their mother, bobbed their heads in earnest support.

We stopped at the corner of Walnut and Watertown Street to get situated. The four-way intersection had a clump of teachers at each end, bundled up against the cold, hoisting their posters above their heads, and cheering each time a car blew on its horn in support. We shouldered our way through the pack until we reached a clear space in the crowd, and Kate passed out the cookies she bought in Cafe Nero from when we had just met. As cookies were handed out, I complimented the “NTA ON STRIKE” sign draped around Shannon’s neck. At her mother’s encouragement, Shannon sheepishly flipped to the backside, where she had written “We want our contract now!” in blue marker. “Abby destroyed it,” she humphed, pointing at the red heart off to the side of the poster. I asked if she thought it added something nice to the poster. “No, she made it all ugly and I tried to take it off!” 

We ran into Kate’s co-worker, Caitlin Kask, a behavioral analyst, as we closed the distance to the Education Center. She had been helping watch Shannon and Abby while picketing, who in her professional opinion were the “best behaved ever,” right along with the three dogs scattered between a larger group of coworkers. “I think they are going to lead a chant one of these days,” she laughed. “These right here are number one strikers!” The girls, who had been somewhat downcast after the long walk, grinned at the comment and pranced together down the sidewalk.

Kate picked out a spot against the faded brick and glass facade of the Education Center to set up camp. A friendly pack of Kate’s fellow teachers argued over the responsibility of Clementine, who engaged happily with the other dogs on strike duty. Free of the leash, Kate helped the girls climb on top of the ledge of a window, where they could better see the picketers at the curb. After Abby – accidentally or on purpose – poured hot chocolate on Shannon’s shoe and they both received a scolding from Mom, the sisters had enough of pestering each other. “Let’s play a game,” Shannon said, poking Abby’s arm. “First to find their teacher wins!” They scanned the throng of teachers for about 15 seconds. “I see one!” Shouted a smirking Abby. “I win you lose.” Shannon’s eyebrows scrunched in anger. “Well guess what?” Abby crossed her arms. “What?” “You’re ugly!” Both girls hugged in a fit of laughter.

At the request of the girls, a group of us began the walk back to Newtonville for lunch at a quarter to noon. Shannon was the first to voice her discontent. “Mom, when are we going home?” Kate pulled away from her conversation with some of the other teachers. “At 1:30, but we’ll get some lunch now, ok?” Shannon and Abby moaned. “We’ve been here an hour already and we’re tired!” Their mother laughed. “We got here at 8:45!” I realized that an hour was probably the longest stretch of time fathomable for the young sisters, so this was no unreasonable demand. After Kate made it clear that they would continue their hard work until she said so, the girls tussled in the snow.

Halfway through the trek to Newtonville, they took a break from tussling to chat with me. I asked them what else they had been tussling about, and they talked about how they struggled to share an iPad between them. Shannon remarked. “We always fight over our iPad, and who has it the longest.” Abby piped in, “Tell him about how you sometimes trick me!” Shannon giggled. “I tell Abby I want to search something up on the iPad and then I take it and play on it for like an hour,” she switched to a whiny voice in imitation of her sister. “And then she’s like ‘Oh Shannon you tricked me, that’s not fair! Give me back the iPad.” Shannon said matter-of-factly. “Then I say ‘Sorry, it’s at 1% so you’re too late.’” Abby snickered.

“How does Abby react to being tricked?” I asked.

“She cries for like a whole hour,” Shannon stated frankly. Abby explained from there. “But then I take the iPad and charge it up all the way, then I rub it in Shannon’s ugly face.” “Hey!” Shannon shrieked with laughter. 

“Do you think that is worth fighting over?” I asked.

Abby piped up. “Yes. Mom says we fight about imaginary things but we don’t. They are important!” Shannon nodded solemnly in agreement. I told them that I thought the iPad wasn’t imaginary, and that it seemed like something they both cared about. They both appeared to find comfort in that validation, but the moment of unity was disrupted when Shannon threw a dirt-infused snowball at Abby’s jacket. Laughing, I asked if they forgive each other when things like that happen. Abby, still fuming with slush running down her jacket, said no. I waited until she had cooled off, and asked again. “Well, maybe. Sometimes. I don’t know!” Abby didn’t look happy about having to answer that question. Shannon chimed in instead. “I don’t know. Sometimes we get into big fights that we get really mad about. Sometimes we play this princess game in the car, and I say I should be the queen because I am older, but Abby always says I never let her be the queen and we get really mad at each other. Then we yell and scream, and then my mom is like, ‘Stop! You have to play nice with each other or you are going to your room and you don’t get to play or watch TV or anything else.’” Abby agreed. “Yeah, and then everybody loses.” I looked around at all the teachers shivering with their NTA placards and hats. I watched those two kids play-fighting along Walnut St. instead of in a classroom, where they would eventually return to classes that educators assess to be far too large. I couldn’t help but agree.

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Gabe Kolodner
Gabe Kolodner, Photo Managing Editor
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