Jesse Turner

Portrait Image

location

New Britain, CT.

age

57

occupation

Director of the Central Connecticut State University Literacy Center.

interview date

05/17/2012

“Keep Walking. Take Another Step”

INTRO

Jesse tells me about the seeds of his walk to Washington, D.C. to protest standardized testing and how it led to the first Save Our Schools Rally in D.C.

PROLOGUE

“I am the guy who lost 50 pounds walking from Connecticut to Washington, D.C . to protest the top-down assessment mandates of No Child Left Behind and Race To The Top in 2010. I am one of the key people who collaborated with others to create the Save Our Schools March and Call to Action movement and worked to make sure we had a conference and a march in 2011.”

In A Letter to President Obama published in Education Week, Jesse writes, “Walking is an old story for me. When I was a child my mother, sisters, and I spent a winter without gas heat, (Father walked out on us–we could not pay the gas bill before the winter legal shut-off date). We had a little kerosene heater for our only source of heat in our apartment. It was the coldest winter of our lives. My mother was a waitress working ten hours a day six days a week. […]Mother came home from work one particularly bad snowy night to find us huddled together complaining about how cold it was in our little apartment. So she says “Let’s walk around. Let’s walk around the apartment. Let’s start in the kitchen, and move from room to room. Let’s keep walking. Don’t stop! Keep walking now. Let’s keep adding some more clothes. Put a pair of pants over your pajamas. Put an extra shirt on. Keep walking. Don’t stop. Put on an extra sweater. Put your coats on. Keep walking — don’t stop.”

I

I’m the last white boy in my neighborhood, that’s who I am. Had a father who abandons his wife and his family, you know. I’m ten years old, we’re evicted, we’re pretty much homeless. I’m in an inner city school system like many of the schools that they would say are failing, today. I’m a ghetto kid who is pretty bright, pretty talented, athletic. What do you do when you don’t have a TV in the house? What do you do when you don’t have electricity? Well, you get a little flashlight, little candle, you get your books out of the library, and you have the tent, you know? At night, I became a voracious reader. It was one of the things, salvation. And then I had an opportunity to go to college. But in my mind was, I’ll either be a lawyer or I’ll be a teacher. Then it came down to a point where I thought, well, you’ll be the teacher while you’re in law school so that you can pay to go to law school. But as soon as I immersed myself in methodologies classes, as soon as I started working in schools, I knew that I would not be a lawyer. I would be a teacher.

I always had this one little dream. I’m from Jersey City, New Jersey. We grew up to be teachers and firemen and policemen, the typical kind of inner city story. Later, when I was finishing my Ph.D., I came back to New Jersey. Went camping with some of the guys on the football team and someone said, “Hey, here’s our football picture.” They pointed out that there are only fifteen of us that were not serving prison sentences or were not dead from violence, AIDS or whatever the scenario was. And there were forty-five of us on that team. So for me, the little dream, the reason I wanted to be a teacher, it’s always been because I wanted all forty-five. All forty-five to make it. That’s what I’ve been fighting for.

When NCLB first happened, I’m one of those people that from the very beginning said this is a bad idea. I saw it as being reliant on high stakes assessment, standardized tests. If I wanted to know what people are capable of learning, those are the last measures I want to use. If I want to create a deficit view of a person, those are exactly the measures I would use.

So I’ve been an outspoken critic of NCLB, but I did think at first it was a matter of, quite naively, what I need to do is talk to my state department people, talk to my colleagues, talk to the community and tell them that we should be more democratic. Schools should be more open, they should be more progressive, and somehow in my mind I thought, if I could just tell them, they would see it and they would know it.

II

In 2003, I started changing to a more activist role. I started collecting what I called “resistance stories” from teachers and students and parents. And I started presenting them at conferences. First, local conferences, then by the time of the second term of George Bush, I would be presenting at Phi Delta Kappa’s international conference, National Council Teachers of English, so on.

Then an interesting thing happened in the fall of 2009. I had brought a group of faculty members and teachers who had resistance stories to the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) in Philadelphia. And they were different — some of those younger people. As a typical academic, (that’s who I am; I can’t help it) so I put up a PowerPoint and have the slide with the data, and I say, “You can see the trajectory. Bla bla bla.” But this was a new group. This group said, “No, we’re not going to do it that way. Here’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to dramatize the story, we’re going to use visual images, quotes, and we’re going to act out things over here.” They’re saying, “You’re great for it, Jesse, you’re great!” They’re building it up, and I had my doubts. Then what happens is, we do the presentation. Occasionally people are like, Hmm, that’s interesting. But this one time, people started crying. People were coming up and hugging us and thanking us! They connected!

Two teachers I’d known a long time, a couple of whole language teachers who are wonderful, dynamic teachers, were in the audience. They stood up and said, “All right, Jesse. You got us fired up. What do we do? Where do we go from here? Tell us.”

I’m like, Oh no! I’ve got some of them fired up. Okay, what do I do? Do I do more resistance story presentations? I looked at one of my colleagues, who was a younger faculty member in the teacher education department who always is advocating for the arts. I remembered her telling me that her students and her had walked in what we call the Manchester Road Race, which is a 5K walk on Thanksgiving Day. But when they’d been walking, they wore t-shirts that say things like Dump NCLB or No More Testing, and they give out literature as they walk. People pick up the literature and they talk to people on the walk. So I said, “Well, we walk.” One says, “Where we walking to?” I say, “We’re walking to D.C.!”

Then everybody says, “Yeah, we’re going to walk! We’re going to join you!”

So we’re having lunch afterwards and now they’re looking at me saying, “What the frig are you talking about? We’re going to walk?” Now, at the time, I was 278 pounds, so some of the young folks say, “No, we could walk. You don’t walk, Jesse. What you do is, you drive the car and you carry the water, that will do it, and we’ll take turns. I’ll walk five miles, Barbara will walk five miles, Josh will walk two miles.” They started figuring out how we could walk, and then others started asking, how could we even walk from Connecticut to D.C.? Where the heck do we walk? Do we walk on the highway?

Next I wrote a letter to Anthony Cody from Education Week for one of his Teachers’ Letters to Obama. It’s really a story of who I was. I’m saying, “Mr. President, what the heck is wrong with you?” Anthony said, “I want to publish this letter. But are you really going to walk?” So at that point I said, “Yeah, I’m really going to walk, because everybody has convinced me.”

But over time, they started dropping off and then others became pregnant and then, you know, other things. They said, “Why don’t you wait a year to walk?” But my feeling was that this was the time to walk.

III

Why was this the time?

Because it was really the moment! It was clear, in 2010, that what Arne Duncan, President Obama’s Secretary of Education, was proposing, was even more outlandish than No Child Left Behind. Race to the Top was an assault on equity in the worst way. You tell me you’re going to save all our children, not going to leave any children behind, but then you’re telling me you’re going to treat some schools differently? You’re going to give some schools support and some schools not? At that point we’re already realizing that some of our charter schools are the most segregated schools in our communities.

I saw this assault upon poor people that was saying, “Look, the best we can do for you is give you a lifeboat. Some of your children will be saved, but many will drown.” That’s the way I look at Race to the Top. We’ll get some charter schools, we’ll recognize some schools, we’re going to make schools compete. Now imagine if I did that to social security. Why don’t I tell the people who need social security, “Hey look, you’re going to compete. Some of you are going to get your check and some of you are not.” I can’t see this.

It’s immoral, it’s unethical, it’s about the money, it’s about power. And the bottom line for me, once you’re that guy, once you’re the survivor like me? You’re like, I’ll stand my ground. I drew the line in the sand.

So, I walked. Start to finish, it me took forty days. Nobody gave me any money for that trip, I did that on purpose. Some people suggested I could do that through Paypal and all that, but I’m a state worker. I didn’t think that would look good. In any event, I funded it, it cost me about $4,000-5,000 as well as time.

Beth Altwerger from Tulsan University and Vivian Velasquez from American University contacted me, they’re following my blogs. Vivian said, “We need to have a celebration when you get to DC. We need to welcome you in the right way, and I can do that at my university. I talked to my dean about you. We’d like to invite you. We’ll celebrate this moment. This is important.” Then Bess Altwerger, same thing. “Hey, you’re going through Maryland, you’re going through Baltimore, I want you to meet people.”

 After arriving at American University, the dean said Jesse had to come back the following year. They connected with Chris Janotta who had a Facebook page and was organizing a “Million Teacher March” in D.C. Then “we just started planning and planning and starting asking people to support us. We had the site at American University, and it just started growing from conference to march and rally. I think a lot of people came on board. Anthony Cody, Nancy Flanagan, Mike Klonsky because the idea was that they all, the groups all over the country were standing in opposition.”

Diane Ravitch was in New Haven. Her book, The Life and Death of the American Public Schools was the hottest number one seller. She was on a hot tour all across the country, and she shows up in New Haven. I’m in New Haven. Diane does her panel discussion, then it’s Q and A. So I go up. I said, “Hello, Diane Ravitch . My name is Jesse Turner.”  She said, “You’re Jesse Turner? You’re the guy that walked to D.C.? That’s what everybody should do.”

Afterward I asked Rita, “Do you think it’s good if I ask if she could come to D.C.?” Rita says, “Let’s ask her.” So I asked. Diane said, “I don’t know. I have to check my calendar.” My wife and I, we’re walking back to the car, and she says, “I don’t think we’ll get her.” The phone rings, and it’s Rita, and she says, “Diane’s coming to D.C.”

We probably thought we’d bring 100,000 people to D.C. Maybe we thought we’d move a whole million people to D.C. But sometimes what we have is smaller groups. So for me, the incentive to keep doing this, to keep fighting, is that it’s sort of like, “Hey. All I need is 300 today, like the Spartans, and you know what? If 300 can hold the path, the nation will rise up to defend its people.” I believe that. I don’t need a million people in D.C. Do I believe our actions will lead to a massive change? Yes. There’s going to be a day where the current crop of school administrators and reformers are going to wake up and find themselves on the face of every newspaper and being called liars and cheats and scandalists and abusers of children and teachers, as people who’ve sought to destroy our public schools. So for me, that time is coming, we’re getting closer and closer.

Sometimes I use the terminology, I say it’s a “gathering of angels,” you know? But — A gathering of Davids, like you said, that’s what it is, a better terminology. No, we’re not angels. Actually, oh my God, if you really looked at us, we’re beaten down and we’re all sinners, but Davids with slingshots we are. My feeling is, one vision, many voices, 300 Davids in D.C., 300 Davids standing together.

EPILOGUE

What’s the Goliath?

The Goliath is the status quo, the status quo of the wealthy, of the powerful, who were never really invested in a real democracy where people had equal access to schools and government.

What is your slingshot?

Keep coming back with the truth. Identify the myths, debunk them with facts. Every time someone tells a lie, someone has to stand up and say, “That’s a lie!” Here’s the truth. You can’t tell us that poverty doesn’t matter and then what you do is ignore poverty. You can’t tell us that every child will be reading at grade level because you’re going to test them and you’re not going to give them tutors, you’re not going to give them reading specialists, math specialists. You’re not going to reduce their class size, you’re not going to give them summer programs, you’re not going to give them the resources they need. You’re not going to feed them, you’re not going to give them the healthcare.

So truth, truth, truth. The lie is that change is impossible. That’s the lie.

POST-SCRIPT

The first Save Our Schools March and Rally occurred on August 2011 after a two day conference that included dozens of workshops, such as “Winning the Testing War” and “Dismantling the School-to-Prison Pipeline.”About 5,000 people, according to the organizers’ estimates, gathered in the heat on the Ellipse between the White House and the Washington Monument.   Speakers included Diane Ravitch, Jonathan Kozol, Deborah Meier, Nancy Carlsson-Paige and Matt Damon.

The White House invited organizers to meet with them prior to the event, but they declined saying they would be happy to meet afterward. That meeting did not occur.

Jesse is planning to launch another walk of 400 miles in 40 days on his 60th birthday June 11, 2015. He will walk from Central Connecticut State University to Washington DC, “to protest the education malpractice that is demoralizing parents, teachers, and turning our children into human capital.” 

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See my conversation with Nancy Carlsson-Paige about her own involvement in the march, as well that of her son, actor Matt Damon.