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No School Today

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"There's no well-paid teacher," said Lois Trang, meaning that there's no such thing as a teacher getting a decent salary. Trang isn't a teacher herself; she's a new mother who was trying to enroll her daughter Laura for her first day of school ever.

But on this sunny Tuesday morning, Joseph Stockton School at Beacon and Montrose streets in Uptown, like every other public school throughout the city, was locked and silent. With Chicago's teachers on their third strike in four years, a lot of parents like Trang didn't quite know what to do.

"I never register before," she said, looking wistfully at the locked doors. "I thought they should have somebody here for registering."

Nelly Torres is another young mother who had heard about the strike and decided to check it out for herself. Like Trang, she'd never registered a child before and wanted to get a sense of things. But she too found no one to greet her.

"I took some vacation time to be here," she said. "I work days, you know, so I can't do this every day, but I'm lucky, 'cause my boss, he knows what my situation is. And my mother, she helps me. It's crazy, though, isn't it? I mean, nobody but God knows when this'll be over."

It could be a long time, with the teachers demanding a 10 percent pay increase and the Board of Education pleading a need to cut its budget. Most Chicagoans had been all but saturated by strike news for days before it began, but at Stockton School, the steady stream of parents and children, especially Asians and Latinos, indicated that the news did not reach everybody.

Out front, 11-year-old Chuong Duong sat with his arms crossed on his Freespirit bike handlebars. "I thought there was school," he explained. "That's why I came. But now, I'm glad there's not."

Randy Hill, an eight-year-old buddy who usually walks to classes with Duong, had tried to tell him. "He didn't believe me," he said.

"My mother didn't say anything to me," protested Duong. Hill shrugged.

That wasn't the only confusion. William Henderson, Stockton's custodian for the past 21 years, showed up at 8 AM to walk the picket line, only to discover that school employees were marching at the district office instead.

"Well, my boss told me to come here, so that's where I came," he said, hands deep in his jacket pockets. With him was Kiri Kimura, a teacher's aide. She too had expected to see a line at Beacon and Montrose.

"What are you going to do?" she asked Henderson.

"I guess I'm just going to go home," he said. She nodded and they walked off the school grounds in dejected silence.

On a typical school day, Stockton is swarming with multiethnic primary-school children and their parents. Buses clog Beacon, and crossing guards with Day-Glo orange shoulder belts keep tabs on the intersection at Sunnyside. The kids play and jostle, their noises a growing hum from about eight to nine o'clock when the bell rings. Then the parade of bleary-eyed mothers leaves the school grounds, some smoking cigarettes, some in clothes clearly donned just to walk their children to school.

In spite of all the "No ball playing" signs at Stockton, balls regularly bounce off the three-story brick walls, where strike zones are drawn in white and annually painted over in brown. The sounds of children can be heard at least a block away.

But this year, sheer desolation hangs over Stockton. The brown splotches on the walls are ugly and somehow menacing. A shattered green bottle decorated the assembly hall entrance and a pair of men sat drinking beer out of a paper bag in a powder blue Chrysler near the back of the school.

When Lanle Le, a handsome Vietnamese mother in her early 30s, showed up, the school strike was news to her. "No school?" she asked over and over. With her was an entourage that included six-year-old Lisa, seven-year-old Lana, ten-year-old Laird, and a couple of neighbor kids, 15-year-old Quyen Lu and her 12-year-old brother Cuong. Lanle Le was holding still another child to her chest.

She stepped out to the middle of Beacon and went up on her toes, hoping to see life in a school window. "No school today?" she asked again. "When school?"

Pedro and Cirila Casales were asking the same question in Spanish. In spite of continuous coverage of the strike by Spanish-language radio and television, they had managed to miss it and were at Stockton to register their first-grader, Felicita, and Hector, a kindergartner.

"We just moved to be closer to the school, then this," said Cirila.

"I work two jobs, sometimes three," explained Pedro. "I have no time for television, not even for news."

They hovered about, waiting for an official word, but none came. Eventually they climbed back in their car and left. As they pulled out, other cars cruised by slowly. A Mexican man rolled down his window and asked when the strike would be over. He said he didn't know what to do with his children, since he had to go to work and had no sitter. A half dozen kids were spread out in his station wagon.

Elizabeth Castro, a pretty second-grader with ribbons in her hair, was having an entirely different problem. She and her two older brothers--Henry, nine, and Oscar, ten--had been unwittingly sent to school by a mom unaware of the latest headlines. She furrowed her brows and bit at her fingertips.

"My mom won't believe there's no school," she said. "I like school. I do homework; I like to write and color."

Trang Nguyen, a fifth-grader who, like Elizabeth Castro, likes school, came with her aunt Hien and a collection of children dressed to the nines. "We knew about the strike," she explained. "But I just wanted to see."

All of Nguyen's Vietnamese peers were decked in polished shoes and new dresses and trousers and had perfectly combed hair. But Kelley Bussey, her American friend, was casual in a T-shirt and shorts. "Heck, I knew it was worthless to come over here," she said. "I saw on TV last night that there was no school."

Chhay Chhun saw it too, but the idea that teachers have to strike for pay seemed foreign to him. He had such a hard time believing the news that he brought his daughter Frieda to register on the chance it was all just a bad dream. "I'll come back tomorrow," he said. "I just got laid off. I have time now."

"This strike not convenient," laughed Lois Trang. Then turning serious, she added: "But teachers very important. Teachers more important than doctor or policeman. Who teach doctor or policeman?"

She was looking to the future. But right now was what mattered to Loretta Bogden when she showed up to tug at Stockton's doors. Bogden was looking to unload her five-year-old, Lisa, and the rest of the school-age brood waiting at home.

"This has got to be over soon," she pleaded. "Those kids are driving us nuts at the house."

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