Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Yo, Sweetness!

In my quest to try and develop an appreciation for new vegetables, today I made a dish featuring parsnips AND leeks (two brand-new veggies for me). This Parsnip and Carrot Soup was meant to be a lunch-time dish for my friends, but after checking for doneness, it was apparent that the soup was going to take a little longer than I had anticipated. So lunch became dinner.

One of the things I loved about the soup was its simplicity of ingredients.  It's simply veggies, chicken broth, pasta, bay leaf, salt, and pepper. And the taste--totally sweet. Literally.

Given that my sweet tooth is usually my downfall, I love satisfying it with veggies in a warm, comforting, low-fat soup. Knowing as well that all of the veggies that made this dish were fresh, local, and organic made the dish that much sweeter to me. Next time, I think I might consider sauteing the leeks with a minced clove or two of garlic as well.

My husband enjoyed the soup (hooray), but in typical man style, found the vegetarian fair lacking. His suggestion--add diced ham. And for those who need a meat to feel satisfied, I agree with the assessment. A little bit of salty meat would make for a delicious addition and temper the sweetness.

If you haven't tried leeks or parsnips, this is a tasty way to try them.

Parsnip and Carrot Soup

1 medium leek, thinly sliced
4 medium parsnips, peeled and diced
4 medium carrots, peeled and diced
4 cups organic chicken broth (reduced sodium)
1 bay leaf
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 tsp freshly ground pepper
2 oz small pasta, cooked al dente and drained
1 tbsp chopped Italian parsley
1 c fat-free croutons (optional)

1. Cook the leek in a small nonstick skillet, sprayed with non-stick cooking spray, over medium heat until golden. Place in the crock pot.

2. Add the parsnips, carrots, broth, bay leaf, salt, and pepper. Cover; cook on LOW 6-9 hours or on HIGH 2-4 hours or until the vegetables are tender. Add the pasta during the last hour of cooking.

3. Remove bay leaf. Sprinkle each individual serving with parsley and croutons (if desired).

Makes 4, 1 1/2 cup servings

Nutrition Information: Calories 196, Total Fat 1g, Protein 5, Carbs 44g, Fiber 9g, Sodium 800mg.
Weight Watches Points+: 5

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Retched Rabe

Saturday marked the beginning of farmer's market season in Portland. And like hundreds of other people in the Portland metropolitan area, I took advantage of the nice weather and ventured out to the Portland Farmer's Market on the Portland State campus.

By the time I left, I was fifty-five dollars poorer but had a rich bounty of fresh local veggies, baked goods, and eggs tucked away in the bags swinging from the stroller handles. And like all of my trips to the market, I came home with veggies that I have never cooked with before and ideas about others that I would like to pick up on my next visit.

As I was touring the various booths, I came across an ingredient that I have seen mentioned in many recipes before but which I had never actually seen in real life before--broccoli rabe. And I knew for a fact that I had two recipes at home that I was dying to try that called for this special ingredient. I quickly snapped up two bunches for $4.00 and left the market excited to get cooking. I expected to fall in love with broccoli rabe given that I am a broccoli lover, and who can't fall in love with the looks of broccoli rabe--its leafy greens and delicate broccoli-like buds.

So today, I pulled out my cookbook and made a dish I was sure would be a hit with the family--Rigatoni with Sausage and Broccoli Rabe. The photo in the cookbook looked absolutely mouthwatering--pink pork sausage, creamy noodles, and vibrant green broccoli rabe. Yummy, right?

The innocent looking Rigatoni with Sausage and Broccoli Rabe moments before consumption.

Oh, so WRONG!

As I took my first bite, my tongue was assailed with an intense bitterness. And I'm not talking about a little bit of bitterness. Take the bitterness of a teenage girl who sees her best friend, the friend whom she has shared her deepest secrets and desires, flirting with her long-time crush and then multiple it times ten. Maybe twenty. That was what blasted my taste buds. And I am not a picky eater, nor a person who away from foods that are a bit on the bitter side.

"Wow!" I exclaimed as I put down my fork. I looked at my husband, who was taking care of our two-month-old son, and then at my daughter who was busy picking at her salad, neither of which had taken a bite of the pasta yet. "You guys aren't going to like this."

"Well, we'll just have to see," Corey said. He was completely unaware that my tongue had just been completely offended by my last bite.

"No," I continued, "you guys aren't going to like this. It's bitter. Really bitter."

He later confirmed my original assessment. "It didn't hit me at first, but after three seconds in my mouth, it was like being hit by a freight train." Yeah, a freight train of yowza! My daughter didn't say a word. I don't think she even tried the greens and instead contented herself with picking out the pieces of pork sausage. Now that's one smart cookie.

At first, we wondered if I hadn't been discriminating enough in selecting the broccoli rabe (otherwise known as rapini) from the market--maybe it was out of season or a bad batch. Maybe it was the preparation method (I cooked it for four hours with the pork sausage, chicken broth, and seasonings in the Crock Pot).

But maybe not.

I looked it up on the Internet. And the same three terms kept coming up to describe the taste of this vegetable (which is a member of a turnip family and in no way related to broccoli at all): nutty, pungent, and bitter.

"Well, two of the three," my husband proclaimed as he reheated leftover Chinese food. Maybe the nuttiness comes out if you can get past the other two taste assaults.

Another site went on to say that broccoli rabe is an "acquired taste" and that once you get used to it, it's addictive. And Corey, sage man that he is, made an apt comparison: "That's what people always tell me about beer, and I still don't like it." The beer comparison resonates well with me. I've never liked beer, no matter what kind I've tried, and I always come back to my father's assessment of it: "If it was any good, the horse would have kept it." And while broccoli rabe can't be seen as the waste product of any large mammal, I would propose that it is at least the illegitimate stepchild of the broccoli and turnip families, one that should be locked up in a dark basement, never to see the saute pan again.

Needless to say, I think it will be a long while before I am brave enough to try broccoli rabe again. I'm not saying never again, but it will be a while. At least until my taste buds grow back.

Mediterranean Meatball Ratatouille

Tired of the same old vegetable choices (do you want salad, green beans, peas, or broccoli with that?) that had been a staple for the past few weeks, I decided to branch out a week or so ago and make a dish that I have never had before. And one that I was unsure my family would even like. Ratatouille.

My husband always tells me to cook for myself and try not to worry about whether he, the perennial picky eater, will like something. And so I took his advice and went for it. To rather mixed results.

I have to say, I thoroughly loved this recipe. Not only was it quick to assemble and easy to cook (thank goodness for crock pots), it left me feeling like I had just eaten a hearty, delicious meal--with emphasis on DELICIOUS. The spices in the pork sausage added an almost smoky tang to the vegetables. This will make a great summertime dish when the zucchini and eggplant are in season and fresh from the garden. I would suggest pairing it with a slice of crusty artisan bread.

However, my husband only ate the meatballs (he isn't a fan of eggplant, zucchini, or onions), my mother-in-law only ate the veggies (the spicy Italian pork sausage was too spicy for her), and my daughter pretty much refused to eat any of it (but she's two, and that's par for the course--she does the same thing with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches when the mood strikes her).

But my father-in-law, bless him, loved every last bite (or at least was too polite to tell me differently).

Mediterranean Meatball Ratatouille

1 pound reduced-fat mild Italian sausage
1 package (8 oz) sliced mushrooms
1 small eggplant, diced (skin on)
1 zucchini, diced
1/2 cup chopped yellow onion
1 clove garlic, minced
1 tsp dried oregano
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp black pepper
2 tomatoes, diced
1 tbsp tomato paste
2 tbsp chopped fresh basil
1 tsp lemon juice

1. Shape sausage into 1" meatballs. Brown meatballs in a large skillet over medium heat. Place half the meatballs in the slow cooker. Add half each of mushrooms, eggplant, and zucchini. Top with onion, garlic, 1/2 tsp oregano, 1/2 tsp salt, and 1/4 tsp pepper.

2. Add remaining meatballs, mushrooms, eggplant, zucchini, oregano, salt and pepper. Cover; cook on LOW 6-7 hours.

3. Stir in diced tomatoes and tomato paste. Cover; cook on LOW 15 minutes. Stir in basil and lemon juice just before serving.

Makes 6 (1 2/3 cup) servings
Nutritional Info: Calories 173, Total Fat 11g, Protein 12g, Carbs 9g, Fiber 3g, Sodium: 676 mg.
Weight Watches Points+ Value: 5

Forgive me, blogosphere, for I have sinned...

It has been nine months since my last post.What happened, you may ask?


Sharing it with my darling daughter (be it camping, swimming, reading, napping). Welcoming  one into our clan. Trying to figure out how to have one while taking care of that of others.

I think I've done a good job on the first two, but my performance on the last and most important one--how to find balance and joy in the crazy world of stay-at-home motherhood with two young un's has been a struggle, and that's putting it lightly at times. And while I love my children and the family I have beyond words, I am beginning to feel like I am starting to lose myself in the mix.

It started out of necessity--hard to have dinner with my husband and daughter when I have an infant clamoring to be fed now. My days were broken up into my waking hours (those when my daughter was awake) to my semi-waking hours (those when my daughter was asleep and when I wished my son would be). And the more run-down I became, the more difficult everything in life began to seem. There wasn't enough time to get the clothes put up, to wash the dishes, to make healthy food, to eat, to be goofy with my kids, to have adult talk with my husband, to go out with my friends, to shower. And if I couldn't do these basic things, I thought, what right do I have to do something extra, something just for me?
But no more. My kids need a happy, healthy mommy, one who knows how to keep her emotions in check. They need someone who is happy even when there are speed bumps and piles of laundry that need to be washed/folded/put away. And I need to be that someone. I need to take back some of my life for just me, so that I can be a better mother.

Last year, I took time for myself and lost myself (or nearly 50 pounds of myself), and I don't think I had ever felt better. I loved learning about nutrition and fixing fresh, local, organic, and healthy meals for my family. I truly discovered my love of cooking.

And while my time is precious now, we still have to eat. And I'd rather eat well, keep my family healthy, and lose all this darn baby weight. So cook I will. And hopefully, in between the dicing, slicing, stir-frying, and roasting, I can rediscover the mommy and wife and person that I am.

This blog, at least in the short term, is dedicated to this journey.

Monday, June 14, 2010

A bushel of lemons or a pound of flesh?

Tonight marked yet another negotiations session with the district. But as I write that phrase, it seems an ill fit to what actually happened at the table tonight. Negotiations implies a certain give and take, a back and forth, a collaborative effort to reach agreement. Maybe what it actually was could be labeled instead as formalized begging. In my mind, it sounds a little more like this:

ASSOCIATION: "Oh District, we know there are still two grains of rice in our humble beggar's bowl. Yet we know too that you have little rice to spare. We will  give you one and a half of these grains back to feed the whole, but please, oh merciful District, leave us but a mere half a grain to sustain our families."

DISTRICT: "Oh, pitiful beggar. We absolutely appreciate the thoughtfulness of your offer and the movement you have shone over the past two months. You started by asking us to add four grains of rice to your earthenware bowl, and have now come to us offering up what you already have. Unfortunately, we do not believe that your offer is enough. We will come back on Thursday, probably to ask you to give up the other half a grain. And we hope you will agree."

This assessment, too, is not quite fair. I have seen a collaborative spirit emerge in the past week with several members of the district's negotiations team. There has been a great deal of discussion of the finer points of the contract, a sharing of numbers, a general understanding that in order to salvage the education of our students and the livelihood of the district's teachers we must work together. And maybe it is this collaborative effort behind the scenes that I have been privy to that makes tonight's meeting all the more difficult. Because I know there are those sitting across the table from me who see our sacrifices, understand our reasoning and logic, and genuinely want to do what is best for our students and staff members.

The teacher's association is trying to be reasonable. We have agreed to taking lesser insurance plans. We have agreed to not get full step increases for next year. We have agreed to provide members with a small incentive to opt out of insurance coverage to save the district massive quantities of money. And we even agreed to give back nearly $30,000 to the district next year if there are unused tuition monies so we can try to save the jobs of teachers, this after we reached agreement on this point with the district earlier in the negotiations process.

And while we are working feverishly to come up with a financial bottom line that we all can live with, we have to defend our reasons for wanting a percentage stake in insurance premiums (a cost that we currently share with the district, the employees paying 7.5% of the monthly premium, the district paying the rest). Really? We can volunteer to take a lesser plan and keep everyone's costs under control, even save the district money at the cost of higher deductibles and co-pays, and you have the gall to ask us if we won't consider a dollar cap? Or an even cheaper insurance option? What more do you need from us? An arm? A leg?

I get the fact that the economy is not rosy, and that there is little hope that the state will find even a little bit of sugar to sweeten the bitter drink that education is being force-fed, but how much more can teachers take when they have given so much already? The district has painted a picture of the association on their website as being unwilling to move from their previous financial packages (this because we decided to wait on a more detailed budget analysis before we came back with a response--we wish to be reasonable, after all). And now, now that we have given up so much, and done so to save jobs, salvage benefits, and keep our students in school, we have...what, exactly?

No agreement, that's what.

Does Hallmark make a "Thanks, but No Thanks Card?" I imagine it might sound a little like this:

"We appreciate your efforts,
and what you say you'll share.
We recognize your compromises
And see clearly you care.

But when the rubber meets the road,
After all you say and do,
We can only disagree
And yell a big "Screw You!"

Again, this is harsh (maybe).  But after four months of this, it's hard to not be cynical, to see the glass as half-full. Full of what--lemonade or flesh--remains to be seen.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Food Paralysis

I've never been afraid of food. As a little girl, I was every mother's dream (my mom, however, may  beg to differ) and ate most everything you put on my plate. Fruits. Veggies. Meat. You name it, I probably ate it. At least, that's what I remember.

Granted, there are some foods that to this day turn my stomach. Like butterscotch. Talk about vomit reconstituted. And while I love the taste of shrimp, the tails kind of give me the willies, so much so that I will leave half the meat untouched just to make sure my lips NEVER get anywhere near that tail. And then there was that period in high school when I gave up on eating the sandwiches that my father invariably packed for my lunch. It really only took one deviled ham sandwich topped with an over-sized dose of mustard to really put me off my feed, permanently. So, rather than tell him that the thought of eating another of his sandwiches was akin in disemboweling myself, I simply hid the brown paper bags in the trunk of my car until I had opportunity to dump them in the garbage cans on trash day. Some days, this meant that I went without lunch, or took my babysitting money to go out with friends. Eventually, the bags of rotting sandwiches were discovered, and I had a lot of explaining to do. And a lot of garbage to get rid of.

Outside of butterscotch, shrimp tails, and deviled ham and mustard sandwiches, I was game for just about any food you put in front of me. In some homes, parents had rules about cleaning your plate at dinnertime, and if it was a rule for me, I honestly don't remember it (probably because I usually ate it all without complaint). I was a growing, active girl.

Unfortunately, it might have been this same "eat what you are served" philosophy that landed me in weight trouble. Sure, very few of us reach our early 30s still weighing what we did in high school. But for me, a former varsity athlete, the change was drastic. In the final days of my pregnancy with my daughter, I tipped the scales with 110 more pounds than I carried my senior year of high school, just 11 years before. I'm not proud of this fact, especially considering that most of that weight was gained in just six short years. And, certainly, measuring one's weight when in the final two weeks of pregnancy is never a good measure of one's overall health. But one year after her birth,  I still was lugging around 70 pounds more than I had in high school, and that fact was sobering, depressing, frustrating, and embarrassing. I have to say, typing out these numbers for the whole world (or, more accurately, my online friends) to see is incredibly difficult. We Americans tend to view weight as that dirty little secret that we only let out into the light of day when on the way to Weight Watcher's meetings. And sometimes, not even then. 

When my daughter finished nursing at just over a year, I decided it was time for a change. For me and for her. I needed to begin to take my health seriously. My blood pressure wasn't getting any better, and I really didn't like seeing who looked back at me in the mirror every morning. Plus, I didn't want to be one of those moms who inadvertently set a bad example for their daughters. I was already making the healthiest choices I could for my daughter (breastfeeding her and making her baby food myself) because I wanted her to grow up healthy. But I wasn't making those choices for myself (nothing like eating take-out from McDonalds while feeding your baby homemade organic green bean puree). And I wanted to be a woman who was healthy, okay with her weight and body--something that is all too rare these days, it seems.

So, on October 26, 2009, I joined Weight Watchers. And began my own personal food revolution. What, exactly, did this "revolution" entail?
  • I joined a "Vote for Real Food" group on Facebook, started by one of my favorite colleagues, and began engaging in an ongoing discussion about food. 
  • I watched Food, Inc., an unsettling documentary about the industrialized food system here in America (Did you know that the chicken you buy at the store, in addition to being pumped full of hormones, grown without ever seeing the light of day, and genetically engineered to so breast-heavy that they cannot move around freely, is washed in ammonia to kill bacteria?) Can you please pass the Windex? 
  • I read two of Michael Pollan's books (In Defense of Food and The Omnivore's Dilemma), both of which is highly recommend to anyone serious about learning about the food they eat and why a change is necessary.
  • I was a religious follower of Jaime Oliver's Food Revolution on ABC this spring.  
  • I gave up soda pop and margarine. 
  • I vowed to buy organic/local products whenever the option was presented.  Even Linda, one of the checkers at my neighborhood Safeway, knows to ask me when I check out whether each bag of produce I am buying is organic or not (I think she kind of secretly dreads when I show up in her lane on Sunday nights).
  • I began frequenting the Portland Farmers Market (and am counting down the days--six, to be precise--until the Scappoose Farmers Market opens).
  • I started shopping mostly the perimeter of the grocery store.  
  • I rediscovered my love of cooking (not just re-heating pre-processed foods).
  • I paid into a community shared argiculture (CSA). The half a farm share we purchased through Dart Creek Farm in Yankton, OR provides us with a box of fresh produce every two weeks, grown locally. 
  • I'm committed to putting in a garden this summer (granted, it is off to a slow start as our yard is still majorly under construction, but I can still hope and dream).
And while I knew that the changes I had made in my life were drastic (I have now lost 48 pounds since the end of October and am within 7 pounds of my ultimate goal weight), it hadn't really struck me how far I had come on this journey until last Sunday night. My daughter was home in bed, my husband listening to the monitor while completing reading for his master's class. I hadn't had a chance to get the weekly grocery shopping done (thanks to a temper tantrum--not mine, but by the end, almost--in Wal-Mart over an over-sized inflatable ball). But now that the little fit-thrower was successfully down for the count, I took the chance to grocery shop in peace and quiet (this, my friends, is better than a day at the spa).

In the mood to stretch out my shopping adventure, I decided to head into Scappoose and the local Fred Meyer. In the past, their produce section, especially organics, seemed to put the piddly assortment at Safeway to shame. Add that to the rather large section of health food, tofurkey, and other vegan offerings, I was prepared for an organic, whole-food orgy.

But what I experienced when I walked in the doors was not the nirvana that I had hoped for. Instead, I was faced with a display nearly 35 feet long full of apples. Red delicious, Fuji, Granny Smith, Jonagold. Perfectly polished, stacked deep. The bounty of America was laid before me, washed, waxed, and ready to be consumed.

And I had to force myself not to run from screaming out the doors away from this nutritional "wonderland."

It took me a minute to realize why I was reacting so strongly to the sight of these apples. Maybe for a less-informed consumer, this apple-rific vision sends all the right messages to the incoming shopper--about the bounty that nature has provided to us, a reminder to us all about the importance of eating our fruits and vegetables, a "whole food" taking over the coveted entry access spot that could have been filled with boxes of fake cheese crackers (i.e. corn with a side of corn). But to me, it felt like these apples were not just passive participants waiting patiently for some hapless consumer to pick them up and feel good about their healthy purchase. Instead, these apples were relentless demons, genetically altered to be sweeter but considerably less nutritious than those grown in the United States just 50 years ago, grown with so many chemicals as to prove seriously dangerous to those of us who eat them:

More than half of the 610,000 children ex-posed to an unsafe dose of OP insecticides each day, get that dose by eating an apple, apple sauce or apple juice (Table 2). A child is just as likely to eat an apple with 9 pesticides on it, as he or she is to eat one with none. The aver-age one year old gets an unsafe dose of OPs 2 per-cent of the time he or she eats just three bites of an apple sold in the United States. Some apples are so toxic that just one bite can deliver an unsafe dose of OPs to a child under five.
My reaction to the apples was merely a precursor to my dissonance with the rest of my shopping trip.  I was horrified with the lack of fruit choices in the organic food department, and left the two shriveled mangos on the shelf, opting instead for one chemical- and guilt-laden one.

As I struggled to pick out two gallons of organic milk--one for my husband and me and one for Lilly--I got hung up reading the labels. I wondered, really, if the cows that produced this organic milk ever got to spend time outside, or if they were simply given organic corn feed (a substance that cows were NEVER designed to ingest in the first place, but which we in industrialized society feed them because it 1) makes them fat quickly and 2) is cheap, dirt cheap. And it's not until later this summer that the USDA is changing its regulations about organic milk to reflect that the cows that produce it must get at least 30% of their food from pasture). I wondered about whether "ultra-pasterized" milk means that all that is good and whole and valuable about drinking milk has been stripped away. I wondered how vitamin A and D are added to "organic" milk without anyone making a fuss.

My paralysis didn't stop there. I completely avoided the butcher counter altogether (thanks to Food, Inc., I now have a freezer of home-grown beef, three broiler chickens on order from Dart Creek Farm, and a pig being raised by my in-laws for slaughter this fall).

I struggled to buy eggs. I usually buy eggs from Dee Creek Farms out of Woodland, WA because they are pastured chickens and the eggs are divine (rich orange yolks that stand up proud in the pan and cook up like no eggs I have ever seen). But I hadn't been able to run into the Portland Farmers Market in a couple of weeks and had used my last egg that morning making breakfast, so I was forced to choose between organic eggs, cage-free eggs, and free-roaming eggs. I knew that the truth was that all of these birds still lead miserable existences inside cramped henhouses where they chose not to venture out of doors--who would, really, when the stream of unending food is conveniently placed right under your beak? After five minutes, I picked out a dozen eggs, feeling like I had sold a portion of my soul to the industrialized devil.

I won't bore you with my indecision about pasta, canned black beans, and whole wheat sandwich bread. But I will tell you that I felt utterly defeated and not the least bit hungry when I left the store with groceries that I was loathe to put on my table.

I know to some of you this whole rant about food may sound snooty. I would have thought so just a few short months ago. But now, knowing what I do, I question my food. Most every bit of it. And as a result, even more of my time is taken up with the act of providing food for my family, which is not necessarily a bad thing. I make breakfast every morning, and it consists of one of the following four basic meals: scrambled eggs with wheat toast, old fashioned oatmeal with raisins and brown sugar, homemade banana waffles topped with slices of the same fruit, or pancakes from scratch with some fruit topping. Add a side of fruit and a glass of organic milk, and you have breakfast in the Arnold household. I pack a lunch for myself and Lilly (Corey's a big boy and can make his own lunch if he so desires). There are not fruit snacks or pudding cups to be found--instead, we find organic yogurt, fresh or steamed veggies, fresh fruit, and a sandwich or leftovers. And don't even get me started on dinners.  Check out my notes on Facebook if you really want more details about what we're eating at suppertime and try them for yourself. The meals are much more satisfying (and healthy) than anything you can buy in a box, bag, or microwave-ready carton.

By no means does all this mean that we are "above" getting a pizza now and then, or going out to eat. But I always have a little nugget of guilt left over after such a splurge. It's hard for me to be ignorant of the food I eat anymore. When I am forced to be ignorant, I can't help but feel that I have somehow voted in favor of all those things I don't approve of--like factory farms, feedlots, and chemical pesticides. That makes those ultra-sweet Fuji apples that much harder to swallow.

Michael Pollan writes in his book In Defense of Food that the rules we need to choose the right food are really quite simple: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." How sad is it that even trying to follow these easy but basic rules leaves me sick to my stomach when shopping--for food--on a Sunday night?

Something has to change in this country. For our health, for our environment, and for our increasingly obese children. So, do you want another portion of chemically-laced, uber-processed, hormone-injected MEAL-ON-A-STICK (if so, it's on sale in nearly any aisle of your local supermarket)? If not, I say we chuck it all in a brown paper bag, toss it in the truck of a beat-up Buick Skylark, and start making a better choice (for a cleaner, healthier plate).

Monday, May 3, 2010

Tapping my inner BIG MEAN GIRL

As I was sitting in a professional teaching seminar this morning, one of the presenters asked us to reflect for a moment on why we became teachers in the first place. His ultimate point was this: We didn't go into teaching to be a glorified presenter (which we are, by his account, if we are only concerned with what we teach), but rather to help all students learn (thereby making the learner outcomes the most important measurement of us as teachers).

And I suppose on many levels, what he says it true, and speaks a great deal about those of us in the great teaching profession. I don't know a single teacher who would say that the learning of their students pales in comparison to their delivery of an articulate lecture or the sheer genius of their lesson planning. By and large, we are there for the students.

But who, I wondered, is truly there for us?

I mean, seriously. Everywhere I turn it seems that teachers are reviled, held up for public scorn as filthy bloodsuckers more concerned with financing their responsibility-free summer escapades than in educating America's youth. We educators -- not TV violence, not drugs, not absentee parents -- are the most to blame for the perceived "failings" of our youth and our society as a whole. How dare we ask for more than our due (which, according to the many fanatics who feel compelled to spew their hate at the bottom of online newspaper articles, is not much. We should not even dream of asking to make a wage that reflects our own educational attainment, to be given salary increases that are commiserate with our experience in the field, let alone receive benefits that allow us to receive medical care or retire)! Every time I read an online newspaper article about education, I pause at the bottom, wondering if I really need to read the comments down below. And while I hope that the hate mongers who write negative comments about how overpaid, underworked, and greedy teachers are single-handedly destroying public education won't appear, I am always disappointed. And once the written mud slinging ensues, I can't stop reading. I wade through the arguments that I am what is wrong with public education. My benefits cost too much, my salary is extreme, my salary is much too high, "my" test scores are much too low. And those brave souls who dared to write that about how teachers are NOT was is wrong with education today--I have seen their cases drawn, quartered, tarred, feathers, and otherwise eviscerated for defending the job teachers do.

And while public teachers are often targeted as one of the reasons why public education doesn't work, there is one other entity that seems to inspire an even deeper hatred. An organization that is, in the minds of these armchair "soap-boxers," unequivocally responsible for the spiraling demise of education.

Unfortunately, it is this abhorrent evil that I have embraced as the answer to my question above: who is truly there for us that draws even more hate speech than being a member of the teaching profession (and while it is not technically a four-letter word, mothers, you may need to prepare yourselves to shelter the ears and eyes of the innocent and, supposedly, under-educated children who might be reading this garbage over your shoulder [that is assuming, of course, that their teachers actually did their jobs and got off their spongy butts].

The union.

That's right. Not only am I a dues-paying, sustenance-sucking, card-carrying member, I also work tirelessly on behalf of the organization (but more accurately, for the teachers it represents). Why, you might ask?

Because I really feel like someone, somewhere ought to be looking out for those who look out for our nation's youth. Because someone needs to stand up for educators and advocate for them to be treated with respect, as professionals, as vital stakeholders in education. Because someone must stand up against the ravenous masses. And that someone might as well be me.

Truth be told, I take great pride in the fact that I am a grievance-filing, hard-negotiating, rights-defending, contract-toting bad ass. Yeah, that's right. I said bad-ass. "Union Tonya," as some of my friends refer to me when union business crops up, doesn't pull punches, mince words, or bow and scrape to anyone when the rights and livelihoods of fellow teachers on the line. I guess those years of being known as BIG MEAN GIRL (a nickname bequeathed to me by my brother's 3rd grade YMCA basketball teammate after spending a scrimmage being guarded by an older, taller, scrappier player) were just training for being a teacher advocate.  

The truth is, to do the work of the association is to take the hate-speech and disrespect that is so often directed at teachers and place it on broader, stronger shoulders. And while teachers may be one of the public's most wanted, there is no doubt the teachers' unions are public enemy number one. Want proof? Take this comment (just one of many, mind you) posted in response to a recent oregonlive.com article about the ill-conceived Race To The Top (RTTT) educational grants:

The lecherous teachers union, hugely supported by members, could care less about many things except maintaining exorbitant salaries and benefits. When they scream for more money, "It's for the children, blah, blah, blah...", it's only to provide themselves additional compensation.
Let's talk about this "exorbitant" salary that I make as a "worthless" school teacher. I will have been teaching for ten years this fall (and have the grey hairs to prove it) and hold both a bachelors and a masters degree (and not to toot my own horn, but I have YET to receive anything less than an A in any of these courses). I'd like to think that I am one sharp cookie and a darn fine educator, though according to the presentation I was at today, I'm not sure I have the conclusive evidence to claim that my students "actually" learn what I "teach."

Then I compare myself with my husband. He's a darn smart one too. He's working (and almost done) with his masters in business administration and has been working in his field of software programming for the past six years. And what he makes now, as a relative newbie in the field, is more than the most experienced, most educated faculty member in my school district will ever hope to make...over $15,000 more per year. And don't get me started on the fringe benefits (like 401K matching, stock options, annual bonuses, vacation time, and incentives). It makes my PERS contributions, my two personal leave days, and my four credits of partial tuition reimbursement look like what they really are--the scraps that those who are passionate about teaching, students, and learning are willing to accept for the greater good.

Educators are not in the profession to "harm" students, to suck the teat of government, to fail to do their absolute best for our society. I couldn't do the work of the association if I felt otherwise. As such, I am unwilling to see these teachers go backward in terms of pay and compensation (offering teachers a 0% raise when the consumer price index creeps ever upward and insurance rates--which we pay a portion of out of our pockets already--are going up 26% next year). I am unwilling to just sit by and let these soldiers of our democracy suffer the blows of biased evaluations, inappropriate discipline, and malicious complaints and hearsay. I am unwilling to let them fight the good fight alone, without an advocate in their corner to make sure that their rights are afforded and respected. That's why I belong to and work for the union (and for my fellow teachers). I think that Clarence Darrow says it quite well:

With all their faults, trade unions have done more for humanity than any other organization that ever existed. They have done more for decency, for honesty, for education, for the betterment of the race, for the developing of character in man, than the other association of men.
My respected colleague and personal sounding board, Dusty Humphrey, says this and more well about the role of teachers, of teachers' unions, and what we (the St. Helens Education Association) are fighting for in our school district. Consider the following reading your homework assignment, class: http://pleadingforsanity.blogspot.com/2010/04/caucus-caucus-cau-cus.html.

If I (and the association) don't fight for them, who will? The modern-day muckrakers who feel the need to smear their teacher hate (check out http://teachersunionexposed.com/ and prepare to be offended)? The school districts, who seem, at times, more concerned with maintaining ending-fund balances and boosting state assessment scores than fighting for a quality public education? The politicians who are elected on a pro-education platform and then institute unfunded mandates, develop copious testing that do little to nothing to improve instruction, and implement competitive grant programs (such as Race to the Top) to "improve" the quality of education we offer to students?

So I go back to the question that was posed today in my conference: Why did I become a teacher? Because I care about kids. Why did I become a union rep/bargainer/president? Because I care (deeply, whole-heartedly, passionately) about those who care about kids. Because I believe that what they take home in salary and benefits can never truly compensate them for what they actually "make."