As the mayor’s hand-picked Board of Education prepares to vote on school closings, Joel Handley had the chance to confront Rahm Emanuel in person – and found a man lost without his talking points.
When he broke from his front row table at the breakfast banquet, I knew it was my chance to catch him. I followed him down the hallway from the Hilton Chicago’s Grand Ballroom, and called out to him, “Sir, Mr. Mayor.”
He turned around, and I shook Rahm’s damaged hand. With all the stories of his cursing and bullying opponents, I took him as the type that would try to out-grip anyone he met, but his hand was limp, uncertain, and cold as a mortician’s.
“I’m trying to use the bathroom,” he said.
“Me too, but can I catch you on the way out?”
“Sure,” he nodded.
The small, marble-tiled bathroom was filled with six or seven business men, all angling to or from the three urinals. As we each waited for an opening, the suits casually said good morning to the mayor.
Rahm and I pissed together, separated by just one urinal. And as I stared at the wall ahead, listening to his stream hiss against the porcelain, I was struck by the surreality–that a man who has become a demon in the imaginations of many Chicagoans still must do something so low and human as relieve himself.
He finished first, washed his hands quickly, and was halfway down the hallway, walking briskly back to the ballroom, when I got out. Not exactly surprised he didn’t wait for me, I caught up when an old, white-haired gladhand stopped him at the entrance. I continued through the main doors, into the ballroom, and waited for him to enter.
There were about 400 donors in the hall on Tuesday, May 21–each had paid somewhere between $250 and several thousand dollars for a plate of breakfast. It was a fundraiser for buildOn, a well-connected philanthropy that boasts about “breaking the cycle of poverty, illiteracy, and low expectations” for students in Chicago and across the country, largely by having student volunteers do the work, for free, that governments should be doing. In after-school and summer programs, buildOn has its students volunteer to tutor young children, feed the hungry, and build hundreds of schools in depressed communities around the world.
I’d been told that journalists could meet Rahm if they covered the event. Excited by the chance to confront him on closing up to 54 schools (with his appointed Board of Education voting on his closing list the very next day), I’d endured the Loop Capital CEO’s exaltations on the importance of charity. I’d endured the buildOn founder’s recitation of his origin myth–complete with, no less, a meeting with the Dalai Lama. And oh how he wrung the attendants’ moneyed hearts like a secular Joel Osteen, with tales of homeless youth breaking the chains of their poverty by nothing but their determination and grit!
But it became clear I’d been had–there was no chance to talk to the mayor unless I caught him myself. So when he re-entered the ballroom I asked, “How are you closing the schools of 46,000 students while supporting the building of schools around the world?”
He wasn’t pleased, naturally, but his expression was almost hollow. I’d been expecting some kind of combat–an angry response, a forceful denial, at least a stomping away with conviction! He took a meek step closer to his table before he tried an answer: “I’m not supporting the building of schools, I’m–”
“Well you’re here, as buildOn’s keynote speaker, and they’re building schools,” I said.
“I support buildOn because they work with children in Chicago.”
“But you’re closing schools on 46,000 students just like them.”
He looked up at me with his sunken eyes, his expression remaining blank. Above all he seemed uncertain, unable to speak spontaneously, like he’s prepared talking points and managed press corps for so long that he can no longer converse in real time. He tried, lamely, another reply: “This is a longer conversation.” He took another step towards his table.
I took him at his literal word. “OK, well, I was talking to a parent yesterday who’s so scared to send her kids to what will be their receiving school that she’s trying to figure out how to afford to pay for private school.”
He paused for a moment, as if scrolling through notes in his head. “Listen, to be honest, in these schools there’s a 56 percent dropout rate–we can’t accept the status quo.” He took one more step down the aisle.
Now separated by a table, I said, “The city administration has been closing schools for thirteen years–closing schools is the status quo,” and took a step towards him.
His security guard grabbed my arm and pulled me back. That same blank face looked at me once more, relieved it no longer had to answer.
Moments later, while addressing the crowd, he was comfortable in his platitudes about strengthening education. As he said lines like, “The test of a great city is how it treats its next generation,” citing the longer school day and early childhood education, there appeared to be no cognitive dissonance between his words and the devastation his policies actually create. Like a man who tells his wife he beats her because he loves her, there was no self-knowledge, and no remorse.
I kicked myself many times for not saying something stronger when I had a chance, for not challenging his fictitious statistic that 56 percent of students in these closing schools drop out (the widely quoted 50 percent dropout rate for Chicago is for high schools, while it’s elementary and middle schools that Rahm is closing). But it wouldn’t have mattered. The glint of his Global City Vision seems to have blinded him completely.
When students “can see downtown with all its promise, all its energy, all its opportunity … do they see their future in that promise and opportunity?,” he asked from the stage. His policies teach our city’s black and Latino students that they’re not even worthy of having a school in their neighborhood, that their own mayor would rather they risk their lives on dangerous walks to new schools than fund the schools they and their communities have grown up with. To believe this is all to show that Downtown is theirs! is either some deeply conniving hoax, or the mark of a mind that doesn’t even know the basics of humanity, let alone how to run a city.
But this is a longer conversation.
Joel Handley graduated from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism in 2009, and is one of the founding editors and contributors of the Occupied Chicago Tribune.