A Father And A Fighter
The fifth author in our series of guest posts commemorating the 20th anniversary of Al Shanker's death is his daughter Jennie Shanker, adjunct professor at Temple University, and a member of the Temple adjunct organizing committee. Eadie, Adam, and Michael Shanker also contributed to the piece. You can find the other posts in this series here.
It’s been 20 years since my father passed away at the age of 68, and he’s still not far from the thoughts of family and friends. The many incredible events of the past year have made his presence palpable for us at times, as the repercussions of the election unfold in the news.
His life’s trajectory was formed by the personal struggles of his family, the lens through which he saw the world. His parents were immigrants who moved to this country to escape the pogroms in their home territory between Poland and Russia. His mother came over on a boat at the age of 16 with her mother, arriving after weeks at sea with pink eye. She was denied entry into the country and was forced to turn back. She returned by herself a year or so later and settled in NYC. She worked behind sewing machines, rotating between different sweatshops that hired her for short periods of time. Her long hours of hard work, lack of decent working conditions, low pay and lack of job security led her to the unions of her day.
My father attended public schools in NYC, speaking only Yiddish in the first grade. He was unusually tall as a kid, had a large port-wine stain birthmark on his neck, and he was a Jew. Hitler’s Germany would have an ongoing presence in his family life.
It was on the front pages of the bundled newspapers that were piled throughout their apartment, waiting to be distributed on his father’s daily delivery route. It was in the anti-Semitic voice of Father Coughlin that permeated the air from people’s radios. It was in the hatred that they faced in their Queens neighborhood when they stepped foot outside of their door. It was in the singling out by teachers and bullying by students at school. Rocks carrying notes were thrown through the windows of their apartment. One day a group of neighborhood kids coaxed my dad out of the house to play. They tied his hands, put a rope around his neck and threw an end over the branch of a tree. Thankfully, his sister Pearl managed to catch sight of them before it was too late.
These and other experiences embedded in him an awareness of a dark side of human nature, and a sensitivity to ways that it’s expressed in societies socially, culturally, and structurally. He often seemed to be concerned about things that were unimaginable to us. He was conscious of the unevenness of social progress and the fragility of our democracy. The personal was political, and he had little patience for behavior or statements that, if applied on a larger scale, would be repressive. He was inhospitable to Communists, to put it nicely, which I assumed related back to his parents’ experiences. My brothers, Adam and Michael, remember him expressing that it was a type of thought that weakened the fabric of our country. It sometimes felt to me like residue from past struggles that were not very relevant to present life in our country. It was hard to relate to.
He tried to bridge the gap between his life experience and ours through literature. When we started reading as teenagers, he recommended books like Animal Farm, The Jungle, and Studs Lonigan. They were opportunities for him to try to convey a sense of urgency to us about things that he understood about human nature, and that had become part of the very nature of his being.
My dad was an incredibly shy man, yet, despite the hatred and violence he endured growing up, when something he cared about was at stake, he would speak his mind. He disliked “people who always have one finger in the air to see which way the wind blows”. Because of this, he continued to be the target of hatred at times. Adam said:
… I know people think of my dad in different ways. I always think of him as a fighter… Standing up for your rights, picketing, handing out leaflets was all a part of the process to help educate others, and win battles.
My father’s life was threatened while walking through Prospect Park with Adam during the Oceanhill-Brownsville strike in NYC. It was one of many incidents that targeted both him and the family, and it led to our move from the city to upstate. Adam has memories of walking in strike lines as a child at that time:
I wound up in many picket lines with signs that I’d get my choice of at each protest. We often just marched in a circle in what seemed an endlessly long amount of time... We would sometimes sing songs, and (there would be) some speeches. .. he always knew what to say to motivate people… sometimes he would talk a long time, and all of a sudden what he was saying would come into focus. I’m not sure if I really enjoyed those protests or not at the time. There were many times when people would shout at my dad, say bad things.
My dad would not back down. Michael remembers my dad yelling at Chinese authorities who were escorting them through the country on a trip in the early ‘90s:
…They toured us to many private schools and showed off their most gifted and privileged students. They kept feeding us propaganda: there are no conflicts of interest in China...we are Communist and all people are equal. My father got so mad. He told them “How can you say that there is no conflict of interest? You just showed me private schools. If this was a true communist country this would not exist!
Being outspoken in China had its consequences. As they tried to leave the country, the authorities who had toured them during their trip detained them. They wanted their word that they would bring back good news about doing business with China:
I can't remember a time seeing my Dad so angry. He threatened that if we weren't on the scheduled plane that there would be an international incident. He told me that if they let me go that I would have to go without him.
My dad was sent to jail twice for leading the UFT in strikes. Michael and I were very young at the time, and, because of our age, there wasn’t a sense that something bad was happening. Michael remembers:
I didn’t know what jail was and what I did know was we were receiving a lot of candy and gifts at our home to console our family. I thought: jail can’t be so bad if we are getting all these great treats. Then my mom explained jail was a bad place…the term sugar coating comes to mind.
Why would someone go to jail for doing something that was right? My mom explained that some people go to jail as a price that’s paid for doing what’s right. The adult version of right and wrong was very confusing.
The political atmosphere we’ve been recently drawn into is so polemic that it’s not even possible to remain Facebook “friends” with people who hold a different perspective. It is troubling to live in a world where everybody is so sure of right and wrong. It’s something that I imagine my father would attempt navigating. Like his friend and colleague Bayard Rustin, who famously said that he thought “enemies should get together more often,” my father was someone who made a point of talking with people with whom he didn't always agree. He used to say, “sometimes you have to hold your nose and sit down with someone who stinks.”
My mom has said that this election has reminded her of a story my dad told during a 1976 speech to NYSUT, when there was a power struggle with the NEA. It was a version of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Most Incredible Thing, where a king has a contest to offer his daughter’s hand in marriage to the person who can do the most incredible thing. An artist submitted a remarkable clock he’d created, which could look backward in history and forward into the future. Intellectual and spiritual figures from throughout history were carved into it, and came to life every time the clock struck a new hour. It was an astonishing accomplishment, and as the artist was about to be announced as the princess’ future husband, a man jumped out from the crowd swinging an axe, destroying the clock. Everyone was stunned but had to agree: this was the most incredible thing. The man with the ax became the prince. In the speech, the clock was the union, but at other times my dad would talk about it as an allegory for the fragility of a democracy.
In losing a parent, you learn that though those who are gone can’t be with us, they can’t leave us either. My father has been a constant presence for my family over the past twenty years, and lately it feels like he’s got a lot to say. It felt like he was amazed to watch Hillary and Bernie run for president, and to see the word “socialism” used in a positive light in American politics. We feel his outrage as the government funnels public funds into private interests. Fight wins over flight in response to stories that expose the new level of consent for racist and anti-Semitic hate. We see his parents struggle in the unjust treatment of immigrants, and when the treatment of workers is in the news, it feels like the story never ends. There’s always a fight and you don’t leave the ring. Sometimes you hold your nose and cross the line. There’s a man in the White House with an axe. What choice do we have?