Desperately Seeking a Dream Catcher (September 20, 2012)

Taking a break from sweating the upcoming Presidential election, and now that the Chicago Teachers’ Union has settled its war with Mayor Rahm Emanuel and returned to the classroom, I would like to explore another nagging plague in my current existence: bad dreams.

In college, newly fled from the stultifying influences of a broken home, a paradigm shift from survival mode left my subconscious flooded with psychological disruption. At that period in my life, sleep was not a problem. If anything, I availed myself of way too much of it as an escape from past wounds I had not the tools to heal, as well as present demands that I had trouble meeting. That said, nocturnal adventures were punctuated by disturbing, bizarre, often threatening images that belied the waking image of a good time girl without care. It was at some point during my sophomore year that I began relying on depressants to put me into a deeper trance, providing a certain amount of insurance from waking in a disturbed sweat.

But like any substance routinely ingested, the drugs lost their edge and before I knew it, no amount of chemical shield was enough to stave off the nightmares. In time, therapy, self-exploration and the accrual of newer, less intimidating experiences dulled the edges. The dreams never left completely, but they became less frequent and less menacing.

What was old became new again in the fallout of painful separation and divorce last year. Dormant fears of abandonment were realized in ways that felt inevitable yet impossible all at once. Naive as it sounds to my own ears, to love as much as I did must yield success. And when it didn’t despite my every effort, I was right back in the shoes of that broken college student: disoriented, despairing, yet by this time old enough to understand that a youthful pattern of interpersonal injustice and failure was one I might be unable to transcend.

This time even a light sleep was not so easy to attain, and fitful slumbers were accented by violent, wretched visuals that once again had me reaching for over the counter reinforcements. But I couldn’t drink enough Nyquil to medicate the root causes of my nighttime horrors: fear, shame and a broken heart.

In 2012, I am somewhat a different woman than I was the year prior. Not only accustomed to, but thriving in a solitary living environment, ensconced in a supportive, healthy and loving relationship, and surrounded by friends and contacts who inspire, buttress and move me to strive for what never seemed possible in the dark ages, this 34 year-old female feels more whole than at any point in the past.

Yet my pesky subconscious continues to remind me that all is not well. Recent weeks have borne witness to a vengeful return of the nightly phantasm. Several evenings ago I dreamt of my estranged mother. In the dream she was scheduled for brain surgery and my sister and I arrived at her bedside only to hear her castigate her unwanted children to anyone within earshot. In a fit of rage, I began choking the patient with a force so inhuman that her head severed from her neck and rolled onto the operating room floor. Blood sprayed everywhere. Have I mentioned that in my waking life I am a skittish pacifist who watches episodes of Grey’s Anatomy through her fingers and cries when her boyfriend tries to show her Google images of a spinal tap? Yet when I awoke, I had to confront the reality that I am suppressing a great deal of maternally-directed rage.

I have discussed these sleeping battles and waking aftershocks with my therapist who seems perversely pleased despite a general concern for my restfulness. Dr. T has long held the theory that the internal compartments built to house the pain of childhood neglect were made of the flimsiest plaster. Her theory is that I have to open those hiding places at some point in order to mourn and move forward. I have resisted this work in the diurnal hours but it seems that latent emotions will have their say no matter what locus of control I contrive to own.

CPS Teacher Strike 2012: Unarmed Kids (September 11, 2012)

Courtney Sinisi (cq), left, stands next to her daughter Mia, 7, while the second grader holds up a sign in support of the Chicago Teachers Union at the CTU "strike headquarters" outside Teamster City Local 705 in Chicago on Saturday, Sept. 8, 2012. Teachers, paraprofessionals, school clinicians, parents and supporters picked up picket signs and other strike materials. Members of the CTU plan to strike Monday if contract negotiations fail. (Keri Wiginton/Chicago Tribune) B582362464Z.1 ....OUTSIDE TRIBUNE CO.- NO MAGS, NO SALES, NO INTERNET, NO TV, CHICAGO OUT, NO DIGITAL MANIPULATION...


Throughout my primary school and junior high years, I attended a little hole-in-the-wall Lutheran school called Pilgrim in Chicago’s Ravenswood neighborhood. Though I don’t have much use for these skills now (notwithstanding the occasional drunken parlor trick), I memorized the books of the Old Testament in order and recited Bible verses in addition to acquiring more progressive knowledge like sexual education and critical thinking. Believe it or not, challenging our pastor on issues of religious dogma was unpunishable, even encouraged.

I enjoyed eight years as a rather large fish in a small pond. With a graduating class of 12 students, and all of them white except for one Mexican-immigrant kid named Jose Echevarria, it was easy to achieve and maintain social and academic dominance. In the meantime, while I appreciated the humanities-centered education I received, I lamented a curriculum devoid of World Geography, advanced mathematics and rigorous scientific principles. Some topics necessarily gave way in order to save time for the Catechism.

The world appeared set to open for me as I prepared to leave a tiny Lutheran institution in favor of Chicago’s public school system (CPS baby!). As a new enrollee in Lincoln Park High School’s much-vaunted International Baccalaureate Program (I.B.), a course of study which I must point out, earned derision from a variety of Tea Party crackpots earlier this year for its encouragement of global citizenship, I had access to technology, student diversity and scholarship that I would not have otherwise gleaned by hewing to the religious lines I had been walking.

I recognize that my CPS experience does not mirror that of the City’s general student population, where the matriculation rate recently touched a new high of 60 percent but college graduation percentages fall below 10. Post-Great Recession, there numbers do not speak well of students’ ability to compete for jobs in a hyper-connected world that requires more education than ever. But let us not pretend that there aren’t mitigating factors beyond disengaged students and uninspiring teachers as certain anti-union factions would have it. Poverty and a frustrating lack of modern resources, compounded by children in gang-infested neighborhoods who do all they can just to get to school alive are certainly at play.

As the nation is now fully aware, Chicago Public School teachers voted to walk the picket line this week for the first time in 25 years. I am grateful that I was never impacted by this learning interruptus, a distraction that the City’s struggling students don’t need, but I understand that the fight between Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the Chicago Teachers’ Union is about far more than pay raises. I join many of my friends and colleagues in bemoaning a state of political affairs that has rendered urban children collateral damage in this war. I respect that the Teachers’ Union feels the need to put its foot down before issues of classroom size, resources and the recent vilification of personnel render doing the job of educating impossible. It’s hard to sympathize with a Mayor who appears so little invested in the City’s school system that his own children attend high-priced private institutions.

It’s difficult to escape the impression however, that there will be no winners once both sides have laid down their arms. Educators will remain underpaid and overtaxed with too few resources. School administrators will not glean the increases in standardized test scores so desired without addressing systemic failings that put the City’s children at a disadvantage before they set foot inside the classroom. One outcome however is certain: as the strike completes day two and families without alternative childcare options struggle to provide their offspring with productive, often unsupervised, methods of spending their newfound free time, it is the kids who pay the long-term price.

May this standoff conclude with utmost alacrity. Children who have seen their parents lose jobs, homes and more deserve a break.