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Chicago Public Schools students.

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The chaos IS the education

Parsing sentences, and the mayor’s directive, as CPS students return to school, again.

Chicago Public School students are set to be back in class on Wednesday; they may be learning more than we think.
| Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

All right class, settle down. Are you glad to be back? I’m sure glad to be here — at this point, I‘m glad to be anywhere. I bet your parents are really, really glad you’re here, and not pinballing off the walls at home.

How was your week off? Fun? Good. We’re going to have more fun right now. Today we’re going to diagram a sentence. Just three words.

[Walks to chalkboard. Squeaking chalk.]

“YOU’RE NOT LISTENING.”

Can anyone tell me who said this? C’mon, you’re not reading your newspapers. What? Yes Shirley? Sigh. Newspapers? Well, they’re like web sites, only printed on paper, wrapped in plastic and thrown at your house in the mornings. Don’t your parents get one? Very big in their day.

[Taps board with chalk.]

Anyone know who said that? Yes Claire? That’s right. Mayor Lori Lightfoot, chewing out the Chicago Teacher’s Union in that distinctive my-way-or-the-highway manner that wins her so many friends and allies.

Though in this case ... it worked, kinda, for the moment.

Back to the sentence. Who can find the verb? Lester? “Listening?” No, you fell into my trap. While “listen” is indeed a verb, here it is what is known as a gerund — a verb with “ing” at the end that acts as a noun. In this sentence “listening” means “in a state of compliance.”

Anybody? You’d think your schooling hasn’t been a chaotic jumble for, well, a long time. How are you going to thrive in the dystopian hellscape of rising totalitarianism played out against social collapse and global warming if you don’t know good grammar?

Don’t answer that.

The verb in the sentence is tucked within the first word, “you’re,” which of course is a contraction of “you” and “are.” “Are” is a verb, here acting as the second person plural form of “to be.” Here the mayor is telling the teachers that by not holding class in person, because COVID protocols are still the disordered hash they were a year ago, they are failing to heed her orders.

Where’s the subject? Is it that gerund, “listening?” No, it’s “you.” Now “you” is a special kind of word. That’s right, Awad. A second person personal pronoun. When do we use “you”? Flip open your grammar guide:

“We commonly use second-person pronouns when giving another person or people commands, directions, or advice.”

Giving people commands. Who does that? Your parents? That’s right. Anyone else? Generals, yes. Kings. And mayors, at least ours.

Though give credit where due, sometimes commands work — [finishes sentence muttering under their breath] as does being docked our pay. Commands don’t always work. Unlike teachers in many districts, the 20,000 teachers and staff in Chicago have a union, which means they can’t be ordered around like workers at Amazon. That’s why we don’t have to wear adult diapers when we teach.

[General laughter.]

Settle down, settle down. We’re straying into politics, and this is supposed to be English. But you can’t divorce one subject from another, just as you can’t teach American history without the upsetting bits that Republicans want banned, by law.

“Not listening” is a predicate nominative — it redefines “you,” the body of CPS teachers, all trained and devoted to their profession, into a stubborn mass of refuseniks, which is how the mayor views us.

Understand? Give it time. I don’t see how anyone can argue that you aren’t getting an education, and not only grammar. The realization that adults — parents, teachers, mayors, just about everybody — are in fact a gang of squabbling lunkheads who can’t pull together in a time of crisis to address something as vital as the education of their children, well, that’s an important lesson right there, isn’t it? The chaos is the education, though it’s not like we’re letting slip some big secret.

You’d think a perpetual, shifting crisis with no good solutions would bring us together, all Chicagoans facing one common enemy — the virus, not each other. But between Mayor “You’re Not Listening” rushing on national TV to wipe the floor with teachers, and the union responding in kind, it’s plain that whatever this is, our finest hour it is not. Then again, the schools were struggling before, and it can’t come as a shock that a globe-shaking pandemic wouldn’t make anything better.

That’s the bell. See you all tomorrow. Unless, of course, I don’t.

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