Ditching Work--for School/Picture This | Media | Chicago Reader

Ditching Work--for School/Picture This 

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By Michael Miner

Ditching Work--for School

The trouble with growing up is that the million things we could imagine becoming dwindle to the one thing we are. And how often is that one thing so special we never wonder who we might be instead?

As a teenager, Leslie Baldacci wanted to be a disc jockey. But she had to pass an FCC test, and she flunked it in Baltimore, Detroit, and Chicago. "But I could be on radio as a news reader with someone else running the board," she remembers, "so that's what I did, starting as a freshman in college."

The news was sort of interesting, so she took a journalism course at Western Michigan University. "This teacher was a dyed-in-the-wool journalism guy, and he lit a fire." Life happened, and there she was at the age of 44, an editorial writer and columnist at the Sun-Times. A success. But not a perfectly happy one, which is why she went to see Frank Tobin, who's over on Pershing Road.

Tobin helps run a program called Teachers for Chicago. As many as 1,000 wannabes in midlife apply each year, and the program accepts 100 of them, paying them $25,000 a year to intern at public schools for two years and also paying them to earn their master's at night. Afterward these recruits owe the school system two years of full-time teaching at full pay, and Tobin told me that 85 percent of them stay on beyond their commitment. The average age of the interns is 35 or 36.

Baldacci is ten years past that, I said.

"Oh, we've had people in their 50s," Tobin replied. "And she's younger than her age. She's alive. She's got energy above and beyond her age. She's one of those people you run across when you're recruiting for this program who are really looking for something in their life that's more fulfilling."

What was the reaction at the paper? I asked Baldacci.

"They burst into applause," she said. "I didn't want to do some weenie thing like E-mail everybody or post something. So I stood up on the desk and said, 'Ladies and gentlemen, I want you all to know I'm leaving the paper to become a schoolteacher.' A couple of them smiled, and I realized they didn't believe me. I said, 'It's true. I'm leaving.' Larry Finley was walking to the printer and I had the pleasure of saying, 'Larry, please return to your seat.' Then they all clapped."

Tobin said his interns leave many fields behind, but he couldn't think of anyone else who'd left journalism. Not that there aren't plenty of old reporters in classrooms--but look for them at Medill. "No!" Baldacci shouted. "I would never, ever teach college journalism. I don't know whether it's a larger waste of my time or theirs, quite frankly. What a bunch of bullshit that is!"

This fall she enters an eighth-grade classroom at a Roseland public school where 90 percent of the children live in poverty-level households, 61 percent of the eighth-graders don't meet state reading goals, 30 percent don't meet the math goals, and 41 percent don't meet the writing goals. "So I have my work cut out for me," she said. "I'll be teaching every day. I'll have my own classroom. Every school that participates has four interns and a mentor freed up from classroom responsibilities to help the interns. There's a lot of support built in."

Baldacci and her husband have two kids in a public school in Morgan Park. Her oldest was just getting out of diapers when she first began thinking about doing this. "Ten years ago I looked at it as a way to have a more accommodating schedule, but the things I would have had to do to get my academic credentials were overwhelming. I'd have had to practically repeat my bachelor program. Then when I started coaching basketball three years ago, fifth- and sixth-grade girls, I had the best time with those kids. I just loved being in the school. Both my parents were career teachers. I would go to my dad's school on weekends and jump on the trampoline and stuff. It wasn't a strange place. For me it was a very familiar and positive place."

The public schools launched Teachers for Chicago in 1992. Baldacci heard about it and was curious enough to go to a meeting. "Frank Tobin said two things that made me think maybe I wasn't insane. He used the word 'vocation,' and he used the words 'social justice.' I realized I was in the right place, and I never looked back."

Journalism is also a vocation to a lot of the people in it. I asked why journalism didn't do it for her anymore.

"Over the years I have done every kind of reporting and writing, editing, prototyping, special projects, series, investigations, editorial writing, news, sports," she said. "I think I've done every type of journalism work there is to do. That's part of it. I also think that the business has changed. I started in the days of Watergate, and that was a huge inspiration to me. The crusading spirit of social justice was alive and well in this industry. I think if we look at recent times, on the concentration on celebrities and the rather shallow, knee-jerk coverage of the OJ trial, the Clinton-Lewinsky thing--those are not the kinds of things my instincts tell me are worthwhile."

About 40 percent of the student body at her new school--which she doesn't want to name before she's there--turns over in a given school year. But the truancy rate is minuscule; the principal is obviously doing something right. "I look at this number--61 percent not reading at grade level," Baldacci mused. "I think, what are they reading? I'll ask my buddy at the secretary of state's office to send over 30 copies of the 'Rules of the Road.' Maybe we can rewrite it, make it better. We'll just try to hook our work into the real world as often as possible. Mike, an African drummer, is a guy on the street--he'll come in and do a math lesson on fractions using the drum. I think I could teach a pretty rocking social studies class."

Two kinds of teachers last in urban schools, Tobin told me. "You can survive if you're strong and sensitive, and you can survive if you're strong and insensitive. And the strong, insensitive ones are usually very vocal and cynical and disastrous for kids." And out of envy, he said, they can be hard on interns too. The interns are fresh and passionate, and the system is paying for their graduate degrees. That's why interns are always placed in teams of four--for support.

"I am filled with joy," Baldacci said. "I am eager. I know there are going to be days when I put my head in my hands and go, 'Oh Lord! Why am I here?' I fully expect that to happen. And another day will come."

Picture This

If you ever try to talk to an emissary from a thousand years in the future, the first thing you'll notice is that he doesn't speak your language. Rich Cahan wants to communicate across a millennium, and he's not sure how to do it.

Cahan, who until last month was photo editor of the Sun-Times, has taken an astonishing job. He's been hired by Gary Comer, the reclusive multimillionaire who founded Lands' End, to document Chicago in the year 2000. Cahan expects the professional photographers he'll hire and the amateurs whose snapshots he'll solicit to turn in tens of thousands of pictures. "I hope a million. The more the better. I love to look at pictures."

A lifelong Chicagoan and avid photographer, Comer, who's in his early 70s, wanted to make a gift to his city and this project is it. "He said he wants this to be something that is worthwhile for 1,000 years," Cahan tells me. "I'll be thrilled if it's valuable in 100 years, but it's fascinating to think about a thousand years."

To think that far ahead is to run into what Cahan calls huge questions. "Will they have digital? I doubt it. Will paper last? Will negatives last?" Will people in the year 3000 clamor for the images of Chicago in the year 2000 that Cahan intends to provide? And will what he shows comport with how they see? Our flat, two-dimensional photographs might be as uninvolving in a thousand years as medieval tapestries are today.

Fortunately, creating an archive of images that will sate the curiosity of a civilization we can't begin to imagine is only the more poetic half of Cahan's new job. "There are really two components," he says. "The other is providing Chicago with a mirror of itself that's fun and exciting. If all of this is just for the future, nobody's really going to get excited about it."

A mutual friend gave Cahan's name to Comer, and he called. "He told me what he was doing," says Cahan, "and I told him that he needed more than the names of architectural photographers. He needed someone to direct the project--a picture editor." So they met. Comer immediately asked him if there was anyone like Berenice Abbott in Chicago today. Abbott was a documentary photographer of New York City in the 30s, and in retrospect Cahan decided that Comer wanted to find out if he was someone who knew who she was.

Comer arranged for Cahan to fly to New York and meet Daniel Okrent. A Lands' End board member who's a former managing editor of Life magazine, Okrent has nothing formal to do with the Chicago project, but his opinion of Cahan was critical. Fortunately, Okrent's also a baseball historian. A few years ago Cahan brought out a book of old baseball photos called The Game That Was. When he was in New York he slipped into Okrent's office and put a copy on his desk.

"I really flipped for it," says Okrent.

"He didn't know me," says Cahan, "but he called to say how much he liked the book. So it was fortuitous this was the man I was going to talk to about the project. He was pretty enthusiastic, and I thought I was in a dream. I actually left his office and rented a bike in Central Park and rode to Harlem and back, and then took a plane back home. It was just this amazing get-together. Here he was, starting this photo project, and here I was--my career was photographing Chicago. I felt it was a perfect match."

Cahan hadn't been looking for work, but he was ready for a change. Comer offered him the job on June 18; Cahan gave the Sun-Times two weeks' notice and by July 4 he was gone. "I think the key is going to be to surround myself with the best photographers there are in the city right now," he says. "I keep going back to the Farm Security Administration as to what the project's basically all about. I think they had 12 photographers documenting the United States in the 30s and 40s. They were all so talented--Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, Ben Shahn, Gordon Parks. All 12 of them were just phenomenal." About 55,000 of those FSA photos are now on-line. "I hope we'll produce a book. I hope we'll produce a bunch of exhibits all over the city. And I hope the Tribune, the Reader, the Sun-Times will want to run some of the work as the year goes on. We'll do a lot of things never done before. I hope museums will show our work. I've talked to the Art Institute already, and I want to get them involved from the beginning, so they don't look back and say once there was this great exhibit and we weren't involved.

"One idea is, I hope everyone takes pictures of the first minute of the millennium and sends them to me. There's a value to professional photographs, and there's a value to snapshots. And if the exhibit ends up being by thousands of people, that'll be a way of showing what we're really like.

"It's the first days of the project, and I'm rather limitless now. Maybe it won't be a book. Maybe it'll be a DVD disc everyone gets. You know what I'm saying? We have two years to figure out the format."

He figures he has a job for two years--6 months to organize, hire a staff, and round up photographers, 12 months of shooting, and 6 more months to pull everything together. He's just begun reaching out. "Somebody I saw today suggested a Columbia College student and said she'll be the Dorothea Lange of this project. I've got to call her. I'm trying hard to look at both photojournalists and artists. There's always been a gap between photojournalists and artists. If we all start thinking we're great artists it's going to be a disaster."

But it won't be. Cahan's sure he can pull this off. "It feels like what I've been working towards all my life."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jon Randolph/Bill Stamets.

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