In Defense of Facing Educational Reality

by Diane Ravitch

I recently wrote two review articles for the New York Review of Books about the teaching profession. The first was a review of Pasi Sahlberg's Finnish Lessons (http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2012/mar/08/schools-we-can-envy...), about the exceptional school system of Finland, which owes much to the high professionalism of its teachers.

The second of the two articles was a review of Wendy Kopp's A Chance to Make History (http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2012/mar/22/how-and-how-not-imp...), and it focused on her organization, Teach for America.

I expressed my admiration for the young people who agree to teach for two years, with only five weeks of training. But I worried that TFA was now seen -- and promoting itself -- as the answer to the serious problems of American education. Even by naming her book A Chance to Make History, Wendy Kopp reinforced the idea that TFA was the very mechanism that American society could rely upon to lift up the children of poverty and close the achievement gaps between different racial and ethnic groups.

Wendy Kopp responded to my review of her book with a blog called "In Defense of Optimism" (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/wendy-kopp/in-defense-of-optimism-in_b_133...?). She wrote that:

... over the last twenty years we in the United States have discovered that we don't have to wait to fix poverty to dramatically improve educational outcomes for underprivileged students. In fact, there's strong evidence that one of the most effective ways to break the cycle of poverty is to expand the mission of public schools in low-income communities and put enormous energy into providing children with the extra time and support they need to reach their potential.

Now I certainly agree with Kopp that schools are enormously important, and that it's vital to have talented educators working in them. We both want to see the day when every child has access to an excellent education. She believes that the teachers and the leaders produced by TFA have figured this out. I disagree. I think that the lesson of Finland and other high-performing nations is that we must improve the teaching profession, so that career educators receive the respect and working conditions they need to succeed, and we must also reduce poverty.

If it were true that we now know how to break the cycle of poverty, poverty would be declining. But poverty is growing in the United States; child poverty is more than 20 percent and rising. Among the world's advanced nations, we are number one in child poverty. It's facile to blame schools and teachers, but more realistic to recognize that poverty is a reflection of economic conditions. Schools cannot create jobs, provide homes for the homeless, or change the economy.

Kopp is right that TFA has become a training ground for leaders. Some of its alumni have moved into high-level positions, like Michelle Rhee, former chancellor of the public schools of the District of Columbia, who now works closely with the nation's most conservative governors to strip teachers of due process rights and to promote charter schools, vouchers, and for-profit education corporations. Another TFA alum, John White, Commissioner of Education in Louisiana, advances the same hard-right agenda for Governor Bobby Jindal.

In my reviews, I contrasted the five-year preparation of teachers in Finland with the American hodge-podge approach to the recruitment and training of teachers. In the U.S., states offer many ways to become a teacher, and our non-system has produced low standards for entry and a revolving door, with 40-50 percent leaving in their first five years of teaching. Finnish teachers are highly respected and seldom leave their profession.

Kopp dismisses Finland as a model because less than 4 percent of its children are poor. But that's part of the story of their success and should not be waved aside as unimportant. Teacher professionalism is also part of Finnish success. In this country, our public school teachers are constantly criticized and disrespected, and few are recognized for their dedication and hard work despite budget cuts, growing class sizes, and a hostile media. So long as the attacks on teachers continue, so long as the politicians continue defunding the schools, and so long as our society continues to tolerate high levels of child poverty and intense racial segregation, we will continue to have low-performing students and "failing" schools.

We will have to learn to hold two ideas in our heads at the same time: We must both reduce poverty and improve our schools. We cannot fix our schools without strengthening the teaching profession and addressing the social conditions that shape their outcomes.

© 2012 Huffington Post
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/diane-ravitch/wendy-kopp-teach-for-america...

Diane Ravitch is a historian of education at New York University. She is a non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. She lives in Brooklyn, New York. She has written many books and articles about American education, including: The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education, Left Back: A Century of Battles Over School Reform, (Simon & Schuster, 2000); The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn (Knopf, 2003); The English Reader: What Every Literate Person Needs to Know (Oxford, 2006), which she edited with her son Michael Ravitch.

Chile, Camila, Student Activists: Education as a Right

by Francisco Goldman

The hotel had a musty, Pinochet-era atmosphere — dark bar, heavy furniture, bartenders in white shirts and black ties — and drew mostly businessmen. But when the bartenders found out that my friends and I were going to the student march, they cut lemons for us and put them into plastic bags with salt. In case of tear gas, you were supposed to bite into the lemons to lessen the effect. With guarded smiles, they let us know they supported the Chilean student movement and especially its most prominent leader, Camila Vallejo. A bartender said, “La Camila es valiente”; he laughed and added, “Está bien buena la mina” — “She’s hot.”

Camila Vallejo, the 23-year-old president of the University of Chile student federation (FECH), a Botticelli beauty who wears a silver nose ring and studies geography, was the most prominent leader of a student protest movement that had paralyzed the country and shattered Chile’s image as Latin America’s greatest political and economic success story. The march that Thursday afternoon in November would be the 42nd since June.

In what became known as the Chilean Winter, students at university campuses and high schools across the country organized strikes, boycotted classes and occupied buildings. The protests were the largest since the last days of the 17-year dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet, who in a 1973 military coup overthrew Latin America’s first democratically elected Marxist president, Salvador Allende. The students’ grievances echoed, somewhat, those of their counterparts across the Mideast or in Zuccotti Park. Chile might have the highest per capita income in the region, but in terms of distribution of wealth, it ranks as one of the most unequal countries in the world. A university education in Chile is proportionally the world’s most expensive: $3,400 a year in a country where the average annual salary is about $8,500.

Sebastián Piñera’s right-wing government was plunged into perpetual crisis. The Harvard-educated Piñera, founder of Chile’s major credit card, Bancard, and Chile’s first president since Pinochet to come from the right, promised to govern Chile and its economy in a new way — as a businessman whose billions didn’t come from mining or manufacturing but from investments. The student movement exposed the Piñera Way as business as usual — if public education was virtually abolished under Pinochet in the ’80s, his successors had done nothing to bring it back.

Just 40 percent of Chilean children receive a free secondary-school education, in underfinanced public schools; the rest attend partly subsidized charter or private schools. To finance their university educations, most students take out bank loans, which saddle them and their families with years of debt. Piñera defended Chile’s educational system by calling education “a consumer good.” Vallejo countered, saying that education was a fundamental right and that “for more than 30 years,” entrepreneurs had “speculated and grown wealthy off the dreams and expectations of thousands of young people and Chilean families.” By September, Piñera’s popularity ratings, so robust after the rescue of the Chilean miners in October 2010, had sunk to 22 percent, the lowest of any Chilean president in modern history, while the student movement’s national approval rating stood at 72 percent.

I had heard a lot about the joyful, carnival madness of the marches: hundreds of thousands of people roiling the streets of Santiago, with bands and costumes and colorful signs and floats and shouts. When a freezing rain fell on the day of a scheduled demonstration, protesters filled the streets in what became known as the March of the Umbrellas. Whimsical “happenings” and flash-mob actions drew international attention. There was the Kiss-In, when students made out for 1,800 seconds (30 minutes) in front of La Moneda, the presidential palace, to publicize the $1.8 billion it would supposedly cost to finance public education — and the 1,800 laps students jogged around the building, in round-the-clock relays; the protest where people dressed as zombies and danced to “Thriller”; the cacerolazos, tweet-ignited outbreaks of people banging on pots and pans, raising a swarming metallic-insect racket.

This march began at 6:30 p.m. in the Plaza Italia and proceeded through Bustamante Park. It was relatively small (official estimates were 7,000 people; unofficial 15,000) but still formidable. Horseback-mounted carabineros in olive green uniforms stood stiffly in a line at the edge of the plaza. Armored water cannons and troop carriers with wire-mesh windows were parked nearby. The protesters hoisted banners imprinted with the names of their schools; small marching bands and floats carried guitar players and drummers. Most marchers were students, but I saw people of all generations. I hoped to catch a glimpse of Vallejo, but she was nowhere in sight. Street dogs always ran in front of the big marches, my friend the writer-journalist Rafael Gumucio told me, and, right behind, came the student leaders, Vallejo protected by a barrier of young bodyguards, as rowdy secondary-school marchers shouted, “Have my baby!” and “Friend me on Facebook!”

The atmosphere was relaxed and cheerful, as if we were headed to a picnic on a beautiful summer evening. Shirtless adolescents leaned out of the windows of an occupied high school, shouting and pumping their arms. As another group unplugged the cable of a TV camera crew, my friend Patricio Fernández, known as Pato, the founder of an alternative weekly called The Clinic, shouted for calm. But even a march as seemingly peaceful as this one, I’d been told, would very likely turn violent. Hoping to erode popular support for the students, government spokesmen and conservative media portrayed the protesters as lawless radicals. Most notorious among them were the encapuchados, who wore scarves around their faces and hurled rocks and Molotov cocktails at the police. Students insisted that most encapuchados were from outside the movement and that at least some were infiltrators, planted to incite police counterattacks.

At the end of the march, about a dozen encapuchados appeared as if on cue, dancing into the streets with adolescent grace, hurling rocks and bottles at the row of armored carabineros with riot shields who stood waiting at the end of a long street. People began getting out their lemons. A pretty girl in a dress sat on the curb, red scarf held over her mouth and nose. Nobody seemed too worried. (The marches frequently end with arrests and students hospitalized, but so far there has been only one fatality, a 16-year-old boy killed by a policeman’s bullet.) An armored truck spraying water from mounted cannons — called a guanaco, for the llamalike Andean animal that spits — rolled toward the encapuchados. Pato and I pulled back into the park, where thousands of marchers milled peacefully amid the trees. The jeeps, called zorrillos, skunks, began wafting tear gas into the park. The crowd surged in the opposite direction, where another guanaco came rolling toward us, and I looked up into the impassive face of a helmeted policeman as he doused us with his cannon. People panicked, trying to huddle under trees, slipping in the muddy turf. Pato and I charged south into another guanaco. We were, thousands of us, trapped, in a guanaco pincer movement. I was drenched, my body and eyes burned, and I couldn’t catch my breath. I sprinted and slipped, tried to get up, fell again. I had a bloody gash on my forearm. I got up and ran to the right. Armored carabineros charged into the crowd, swinging their clubs. I heard screams behind me as I ran.

Pato and I took shelter behind the barred gates of an apartment building whose tenants let us in. Zorrillos zipped up and down the street, hunting for stray targets to gas. The police corralled fleeing marchers, most of them adolescents, pushing them onto the ground or into police vans. A chubby girl who screamed at us from the sidewalk to come out and fight was arrested moments later. I took pictures at the gate with my iPhone, but the tear gas drove me back into the corridor. My face, my eyes, were grotesquely swollen, and my skin burned all over.

In the early days of the protests, after students occupied the Casa Central, which houses the University of Chile’s main administration offices, carabineros used tear gas on the students, and professors gathered inside, refusing, at first, to let anyone out. Finally, they relented. “They made way for us,” Vallejo said afterward, “and then they attacked us directly.” Following another confrontation, Vallejo told a correspondent for The Guardian: “My whole body was burning. It was brutal.”

When I got back to my hotel and into the shower, my skin ignited as if from napalm. What was shot from the cannons that was reignited by fresh water? Days later, when I put the clothes I’d been wearing into a laundry bag, they lightly burned in my hands.

By December, the student protests had forced the resignation of two education ministers and succeeded in placing educational reform at the top of the parliamentary agenda. Much of this was thanks to Vallejo’s charisma and talent for capturing the public imagination. Back in October 2010, during the FECH elections, when few if any sensed the storm ahead and fewer still had heard of Camila Vallejo, she and four other students made a video called “Students of the Left.” Sitting on the lawn of a university campus, backed by a rockabilly score, they took turns enunciating campaign propositions, with Vallejo rushing her memorized sentences like a spelling-bee contestant. In a move worthy of a dorky student-council campaign, the students stood in unison and thrust out laser-emitting fists. But beneath their idealistic slogans and promises — “the university should be a motor of change in society” — there was a more vital message. Education wasn’t just a student issue; it was a symptom of what was wrong with Chile.

A few months after the protests began, President Piñera spoke from the steps of La Moneda. “We would all like education, health care and many other things to be free,” he said, “but when all is said and done, nothing in life is free. Someone has to pay.”

“Obviously someone has to pay,” Vallejo retorted, “but there’s no reason why it must be families financing between 80 and 100 percent of it.” Why not the state — through taxes on large corporations, the nationalization of resources, a reduction in financing for the military? When yet another march ended in violence, Vallejo and her fellow students collected hundreds of tear-gas shells and brought them to La Moneda. “Here are more than 50 million pesos worth of tear-gas bombs,” announced Vallejo, money, she said, that could have been spent on education. Students formed the shells into a peace sign on the plaza, and Vallejo crouched in the center. The resulting image was published all over the world.

By the end of 2011, Vallejo would be featured on the cover of the German weekly Die Zeit as the emblematic figure in a year marked by worldwide political protests. In a national media poll, Chileans elected her “person of the year.” So did readers of The Guardian. Vallejo’s Twitter account has more than 400,000 followers. Pop stars court her. (Franz Ferdinand’s lead singer tweeted: “Camila Vallejo. I have a crush.”)

“They made her an icon, which is impossible to live up to,” the novelist Alejandro Zambra told me. “But she turned out to be more than equal to it.” Vallejo’s air of serene self-confidence, he elaborated, her girl-next-door demeanor and, of course, her pretty face, won sympathy and trust in working- and middle-class households throughout Chile. Before long, it seemed, La Camila was appearing on TV news and political talk shows almost nightly — and when people listened to her, they found that they agreed with her. Why, for more than two decades, had Chileans passively endured an unjust educational system imposed by a discredited dictatorship?

In late November, the stately Casa Central, still occupied by students, was festooned with posters, graffiti and cartoons mocking government figures. A banner strung across the facade read, in capital letters: “The fight is the whole society’s. Free education for all.” Someone had placed a hood over the statue of the university’s founder. On one wall was a life-size reproduction of a photograph of Rimbaud, next to a quote, in bold black type, from “Illuminations”: “My compañera. Beggar girl, monstrous child. Come join us with your impossible voice. Your voice! Only flatterer of this vile despair!”

Change was looming. Many fretted that as the school year came to a close, the movement was waning. A few weeks earlier, students at the University of Chile voted to resume classes. The semester would be extended, cutting the three-month vacation in half. And now Vallejo’s term as FECH president was ending. The movement’s other prominent leader, Giorgio Jackson, a leftist from the prestigious Catholic University, had also finished his term. A new student election was under way.

The FECH election was a big story in Chile. The student federation has no official role in government. But the University of Chile has always exerted an influence on the nation’s political life, especially before Pinochet: it graduated all but three of Chile’s 20th-century presidents, including Allende, and like him, many were former leaders of the FECH. To diminish that influence, the Pinochet government slashed the university’s budget, closed many of its faculties, broke up its campuses outside Santiago into autonomous regional schools and financially propped up the Catholic University as a conservative alternative for elite students.

Now the campaign had a relentless schedule of debates, rallies and television appearances. There were nine slates, most affiliated with the fringe parties and organizations of the long subterranean history of student politics in Chile, some suspected of ties to right-wing governing parties. Only Vallejo, a member of the Communist Youth, flaunted her link to an established party. The student movement was perceived to be at a crossroad. It had won some concessions from the government, but students were frustrated that their most important demands — restoring free education and removing municipalities and the private sector from the running of primary and secondary schools — hadn’t been met. Vallejo’s supporters argued that a second Vallejo presidency was the best way to carry the fight forward. But no one knew for sure what the new school year would bring — would the movement become more radical and increasingly violent? Or would it dissipate altogether?

At the Casa Central, students milled in the open balcony overlooking an elegant courtyard, where 20-foot white banners were spread out on the patterned tiled floor, next to open cans of paint. Students were making campaign advertisements for the slate known as Luchar, or Fight, which the media routinely, but inaccurately, described as anarchist. Only one banner was finished. Two girls lay face down, sleeping. Later I would see banners representing all nine slates hung, like large painted ships’ sails, from the walls of university buildings.

That afternoon’s session was packed with Trotskos — Trotskyites. They listened raptly to a speaker who recently led the occupation of a factory in Argentina, breaking, now and then, into tongue-twister-like chants. It was hard not to recall their 1973 counterparts, the ones the narrator of Roberto Bolaño’s novel “Distant Star” describes as speaking in a “slang or jargon derived in equal parts from Marx and Mandrake the Magician,” whose dreams of revolution would end in torture dungeons and prisons or in long years of enervated exile and bitter reckoning — the story of a generation.

The parallel is not lost on the student movement’s critics. “The University of Chile as revolutionary vanguard,” Patricio Meller, a University of Chile industrial engineering professor, wrote in El Mercurio. “We’ve seen that movie, and we know how it ended.” But Meller’s pessimism may well miss what is really happening in Chile. This is the first generation to come of age without personal memories of the dictatorship. In a profile of Giorgio Jackson, published in the Mexican magazine Gatopardo, Rafael Gumucio asked the student leader, “What does the dictatorship mean to you?” and Jackson responded: “Nothing. I was born in 1987.” What has struck Gumucio, and many others, about this movement is that for all its revolutionary rhetoric, it has remained pragmatically focused on educational reform. “The student protests that have mobilized Chile are perhaps the result of a radical change in the roles of fathers and sons,” Gumucio wrote. “Because in Chile it’s the fathers who are the nihilists, the suicides, the silent ones, the frustrated, and their children the reformers, the realists, the strategists.”

One Monday evening in late November, I attended a FECH candidates’ debate at the school of public administration. Vallejo waited her turn, standing within a small coterie of supporters. I noticed how the others doted on her, that she did most of the talking and that she made everyone laugh. Her eyes shone, and her smile was sometimes wry, even rakish. Later Giorgio Jackson told me that Vallejo’s jokes are exceptionally “salty.” Salty how? I asked; but he wouldn’t say. Vallejo guards her private life with iron discipline, and those who spend a lot of time with her, including some of her rivals, are equally guarded. So little is known about Vallejo that what does leak out creates a tabloid excitement. When someone posted a photograph of her in a bikini at the beach, it went viral. The false belief that a fairy-tale romance had blossomed between her and the handsome Jackson was so widespread that even his longtime girlfriend was jealous. In fact, Vallejo did have a steady boyfriend — a pololo, in Chilean parlance — a Cuban who moved to Chile as a teenager. He was the tall, bearded, soulful-eyed fellow who I’d first guessed was her bodyguard.

Vallejo’s reluctance to put herself forward was partly strategic — she was determined to give the impression that she might be the movement’s spokeswoman but that she was merely one among many. She had other reasons as well. In August, a minor government functionary, Tatiana Acuña, tweeted, “Se mata a la perra y se acaba la leva” — meaning, more or less, “Kill the bitch, problem solved.” It echoed a phrase infamously spoken by Pinochet on the day of the ’73 coup, when Allende committed suicide as troops stormed La Moneda. Everyone understood the tweet to refer to Vallejo, and Acuña was fired. That same month, Vallejo received death threats, and the Supreme Court ordered police protection for her. Then someone posted her address on Twitter, and Vallejo’s parents insisted that, for her own safety, she move from home.

That week, because of the demands of the election, Vallejo was even more difficult to speak to one on one than usual. But I caught up with her father, Reinaldo, on a street lined with auto-mechanic shops and hardware stores — he owns a small air-conditioning and heating business with his wife — and we stopped in a cafe to talk. Reinaldo, a lumbering man with fair hair and melancholy blue eyes, once starred, around 1982, in a popular Chilean soap opera. He is also a veteran Communist Party member and belonged to a political theater group that traveled the country, putting on shows for copper-mine workers. Camila, as a little girl, accompanied him. For most of Camila’s childhood, the family lived in La Florida, a working- and middle-class neighborhood, where she attended an alternative school called Colegio Raimapu, which educated the children of anti-Pinochet parents (neither Reinaldo nor his wife was ever imprisoned). He told me that she liked art and drawing and was originally going to apply to the University of Chile to study theater design. As a teenager, she joined the Communist Youth. He said he missed having her at home. Then the conversation turned to the elections, and he said: “We Communists are used to losing. I tell Camila that she won’t really become a leader until she learns what it is to lose.”

In the FECH elections, Vallejo’s rivals were making her association with Chile’s Communist Party an issue. She was blamed — though it was hardly her decision alone — for the movement’s agreeing to negotiate with the traditional politicians of the Concertación, the coalition of center-left opposition parties (among them, the Communist Party). All of Chile’s leaders since Pinochet had come, with the exception of Piñera, from the Concertación, and what had changed? In November, student leaders, including Vallejo and Giorgio Jackson, traveled to the Parliament in the coastal city Valparaíso to hold dialogues with some Concertación politicians on the educational budget, but in the end, only a modest increase was passed. Chile’s peculiar “binomial” electoral system ensures a virtual tie in both houses of Parliament between the Concertación and the right-wing Alianza and, many believe, makes true structural reform in Chile almost impossible.

Vallejo’s leadership was being portrayed by her critics, most of whom were running to her left, as too institutionalist, too trusting. Her main rival, Gabriel Boric, spoke of working outside the system toward a complete change of the country’s political structure. “It’s principally the 1 percent who control this country, the economic elites, those who refuse to consider tax reform,” Boric’s associate, Francisco Figueroa, told me one evening. “We have to create a great social block for change, because it’s not enough to convene marches and news conferences.”

On a Friday evening, the Communist Party was holding a fund-raiser for Vallejo in an Ecuadorean restaurant, and I was invited to attend. The tented patio and back room were crowded with veterans of the long, mostly futile march of Chilean communism, as well as members of the Communist Youth, including its secretary general, the dark-haired, dark-eyed Karol Cariola (people are always debating who is more beautiful, Camila or Karol). Among those present was the elder party president, Guillermo Teillier, imprisoned under Pinochet and now in the Chilean Parliament. While the young people looked hip and modern, many of the older men, dour and stodgy, recalled stereotypical Soviet-era Communists.

Everybody wanted to pose for photos with the party’s most dazzling figure, its future. I did, too, standing between a husky Communist and Vallejo, and then I took a seat at a table of young people, only to be pulled away to the table of honor. Vallejo sat at the other end. The talk at dinner reminded me of conversations I had years ago in Nicaragua, Sandinistas earnestly trying to convince me of how moderate they were, of their belief in democracy, a mixed-market economy and so on. I didn’t want to be having such conversations again. The old Communists had switched from wine to water — the first round of wine was on the house, but now we had to pay — and looked baleful. Maybe all their cash had gone into donation envelopes for Vallejo’s campaign. I ordered two bottles of wine for the table and drank.

It was poignant how unwary Vallejo was of showing me this part of her world, given the criticism her affiliation with party had brought her. Like Boric and other student leaders, she expressly identified with Latin America’s recent wave of leftist presidents, Lula in Brazil and Evo Morales in Bolivia, but she frequently floundered when interviewers pressed her on Venezuela or Cuba, blaming the lack of free Internet service in Cuba on the U.S. blockade, then becoming impatient. “Just because I’m a Communist, I don’t strictly defend the Cuban regime,” she told one interviewer.

The young publicist through whom I’d been trying to make arrangements to speak with Vallejo told me I could interview her the next day, at the University of Chile’s school of economics. Later, I looked over and saw Vallejo, languorously kissing her boyfriend.

The next day, as the FECH candidates held an outdoor fair, each slate offering food and drinks, Vallejo and I finally sat down at a picnic table to talk. She and her rival Boric, she stressed, share common goals, “the same horizon”: a more participatory democracy and a stronger state. At one debate, she called her rival “messianic,” saying it was important to talk to “all the structures.” She elaborated on that now. Boric’s group “goes on about its principles, but there’s an infantilism: because the Concertación did this last year, we can’t work with them,” she said. “But we have to pressure the Concertación to be more on our side and prevent them from making pacts with the right.” Her soft, confident voice had a pleasing musicality. Speaking about parliamentary strategies, she was knowing and precise. She mentioned how the government had pushed for more, not less, privatization of the education budget and that this time the students had been able to persuade the Concertación to abstain. “It’s not a victory, but it marked a position. For the first time ever, the Concertación didn’t betray the students.” As she talked, her eyes were calm and steady.

The secondary-school movement was less organized, more unruly, than the university one. High schools were occupied by teenagers, often with the support of parents frustrated by the educational system’s inequalities and costs, even though, once the strikes were over, students would have to repeat the school year to make up for lost classes. Some students commuted from home; others had been living in their schools for months. I’d heard people say that if the university students’ demands weren’t addressed, the generation that came after — now in high school — was going to be more intransigent, more violent.

One afternoon, the novelist Alejandro Zambra accompanied me to the National Institute, Chile’s most prestigious public high school, which had been occupied for six months. Founded in 1813, the National Institute prepares the county’s most intelligent boys to triumph in the exams that guarantee admission to the University of Chile and the Catholic University.

When I arrived, classroom chairs were jammed through barred gates, a bristling symbol of occupied secondary schools throughout Chile. We were met at the door by José Soto, president of the school’s student group, a tall adolescent with a solemn air. He was wearing his school uniform, gray pants and a navy blazer with the school’s insignia. Soto didn’t want to let us in. Parents came and went through the vestibule, taking food to their occupier children. A woman in late middle age approached and joyfully embraced Zambra. She was a literature professor; he’d been her student nearly 20 years before. The occupiers had asked for informal classes, and she’d just given one. She prevailed on Soto to speak with us.

Later Zambra described Soto as “the perfect combination of nerd and revolutionary.” Soto said he wanted to study history in college. The day the students voted to occupy the school, gathering in the courtyard and in the corridors overlooking it to hear speeches, had been, Soto said proudly, like “democracy in ancient Athens.” He finally decided to let us walk around the school, appointing a slight, cheerful-looking 15-year-old boy, Claudio, to guide us. The visit moved Zambra. As we crossed the patio, he remembered the chaos of 40 soccer games going at once and the toughs who would steal your ball. He studied there during the dictatorship, and the education, he said, was martial and brutal. Still, he said, “it was the one place in Chile where a 12-year-old boy could experience social diversity.” If the students at the school were lucky to be there — why were they protesting? Zambra and Claudio agreed that if there were quality public education throughout Chile, a school like the National Institute wouldn’t be necessary. “I should be able to go to a good school closer to home,” Claudio said. “We’re not fighting for ourselves but for everyone else and our own future children.” He’d been living in the school for six months. He didn’t think, when the occupation was over, that it was going to be easy to live at home again; he said he’d lost the habit.

We’d heard that for a time, teenage anarchists — not all of them students at the school — occupied the National Institute and created a dangerous “Lord of the Flies” atmosphere. Was it true, Zambra asked Claudio, that the anarchists’ girlfriends had slept over, and that there’d been liquor and drugs? Claudio shrugged uncomfortably; he didn’t want to talk about that. Finally the “good” students had rebelled and, with the help of parents and teachers, driven out the anarchists. One anarchist, Claudio said, held a knife to his stomach, and told him that in the new school year, he was going to kill him. When I asked Claudio if he was afraid, he quietly said, “Yes.” There was a plaque on the wall that listed the 30 alumni who perished at the hands of the dictatorship and another listing the 17 Chilean presidents, including Allende, who attended the school. This plaque had been spray-painted with the anarchist’s symbol, which Claudio pointed out disapprovingly, saying, “They have no respect for what this school represents.”

The first day of the FECH election ended with Vallejo’s slate leading Boric’s by 200 votes. By the end of the second day, after ballot counting that didn’t end until near dawn, Boric’s had won by 189 votes. Photographs showed a euphoric Boric standing next to a devastated Vallejo. Though she received more individual votes than anybody else, Vallejo would be vice president now.

A few days before Christmas, the student assembly ended the occupation of the Casa Central, as did the secondary-school students at the National Institute; 70 high schools remained occupied. During the vacation months, Boric tweeted constantly about his activities and ideas. Jackson announced that he was forming a “progressive democratic” movement for radical reform. But Vallejo remained the face of the student movement, her every statement treated as news. Vallejo let it be known that she was open to running for a parliamentary post. But no one was sure what would happen when classes resumed in March.

March came with a bang. Even before the start of the new university year, uprisings broke out in such far-flung cities as Calama, Puerto Arenas and, most fiercely, in the remote Patagonian fishing town Puerto Aysén, instigated by local public university students and fishermen, among others. The protests were over local issues — corporate exploitation of natural resources, for example ­ — but also over a lack of representation. Carabinero special forces were flown into Aysén, subsequently supplying social media with a steady stream of images of shocking brutality, reinforcing the impression of a government that, as one observer wrote, “criminalizes social demands.”

The first protest of the new university year, on March 15, was held in support of secondary-school students. It was relatively small and ended in violence. Boric was tear-gassed and roughed up when carabineros briefly stormed the FECH headquarters. Vallejo wasn’t at the rally. It was said that she stayed away in order not to overshadow her successor in his debut. Boric, many were remarking, was just not catching on with the general public as Vallejo had and probably never would.

Giorgio Jackson, who is close to both leaders, told me that Boric’s dilemma is “unfair” but inevitable. Boric, he said, “comes from a very wealthy family, and that makes it harder for him to connect with people. He’s a law student, and when you speak in such a complex way, it’s sometimes harder to reach people. Camila speaks in simple phrases, without technicalities, that people understand.”

I was struck, on my return in March, by the widespread admiration and affection for her among so many Chileans, men and women alike. Her political capital and power, at the national level, seems only to have only grown. When Vallejo accepted a Communist mining leader’s invitation to participate in a march in the copper mining city of Calama, she prompted a chorus of public commentary. One Alianza politician said: “She has nothing to do with Calama. . . . Just an attempt to keep herself in the media.” Another tweeted: “It doesn’t bother me that she continues her publicity campaign and fashion show. I asked the security forces not to mess up her dress or her hair.” Piñera’s spokesman, Andrés Chadwick sneered that she was going only “for the photo shoot.”

Vallejo and Jackson have become national figures, not just student leaders, and no one disputes that they have gained real power. If the students and those organizing Aysén-style uprisings come together, that new great social block starts to seem less of a pipe dream. A March poll showed that 85 percent of the population still backed the students’ demands, but no one was expecting significant concessions from the Piñera government.

The movement’s goal, Jackson told me, is to influence the 2013 presidential and parliamentary elections. In the meantime, he said, the new student leadership has to avoid allowing the encapuchados, who feed government accusations that the movement is increasingly violent, to dominate the demonstrations. Marches should be carefully planned, he said, in order to bring people out en masse. When a march is small, 50 or so encapuchados stand out, but when tens of thousands march peacefully, they become a sideshow.

Jackson’s organization currently counts 3,500 activists, all volunteers. He says he would run for Parliament only “if all the stars align” and the moment for profound change is at hand. Creating a parliamentary majority committed to reform, he says, is going to take years of patient political work. When we finished talking, Jackson, in a T-shirt and scruffy Bermuda shorts, sped off into the late summer sunlight to renew his annual pass to University of Chile soccer matches. A well-dressed woman on the sidewalk asked if that was the student leader. “I would have liked to greet him,” she said. “When I was a girl” — before Pinochet — “I studied for free, and I see no reason why students shouldn’t now.”

A few days later, on March 21, I caught up with Vallejo at a rally held in the Plaza de Armas, in support of the Aysén uprising. She greeted me with a friendly embrace. I asked her about the politicians’ reactions to her Calama visit, and she smiled. Calling the remarks “misogynist and very grotesque,” she said they were an attempt “to try to isolate our leaders from the social movements. But the movement doesn’t have frontiers, we can go wherever we want, it’s our right.” The student movement, she said, had irreversibly changed Chile. “They’re afraid, terrified. But when the dogs snarl,” she said with a tiny laugh, “that’s a sign that we’re advancing and advancing well.” The plaza was densely packed, and a musician was performing a political song full of rowdy profanity. Pato Fernandez, who had been with me at the November march, guessed that we were standing where the carabineros were likely to attack, maybe imminently. Neither of us wanted to go through that again. We left, hurrying only a few blocks to the Clinic’s restaurant and bar. About 10 minutes later, as we sat over drinks in the outdoor patio, we began to smell tear gas in the air.

Francisco Goldman is the author, most recently, of ‘‘Say Her Name: A Novel.’’

Copyright 2012 The New York Times
http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/08/magazine/camila-vallejo-the-worlds-mos...

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