Michael Soboeiro A lesson learned 40 years ago

September 18, 2018

Forty years ago this month, the Bridgeport teachers’ strike took place.

It attracted worldwide attention at the time, as it lasted 19 days and resulted in the incarceration of 20 percent of the teaching workforce.

Many feel it was the stimulus for binding-arbitration laws and stronger teacher rights in Connecticut.

It has been referenced lately as a template for the teacher walkouts in West Virginia, Arizona and other places.

The strike was significant to me — then and now — for a very different reason. As a 12-year-old, I watched my father, my hero and, in my mind, a perfect citizen, sent to jail.

I don’t remember being forewarned about his arrest. The doorbell rang and officers were present to escort him, without handcuffs, to a waiting school bus.

My mother was crying, as was I. I did not understand the concept of going to jail for a cause; jail was jail. The Bridgeport Correctional Center was only blocks from our home. It had fences all around it covered in barbed wire. Jail was for bad people.

That night at football practice, the coach told the other players that my father had been sent to jail and sarcastically said that they might take up a collection for me.

I guess we were not yet in an era when the emotional health of children was a consideration.

On the weekend, we went to visit him at Camp Hartell, a National Guard Base which had been converted to a prison camp for 247 Bridgeport teachers.

I must admit that what I observed there left me greatly relieved that his situation was not nearly so dire. We found him playing volleyball with knees and wrists taped to prevent injury from all the sporting events in which he was participating.

He seemed to be having much more of a camp experience than a prison experience. I suspect that, in the end, incarceration at Camp Hartell led to increased camaraderie and emotional bonding among the teachers. Maybe it hardened them to continue to hold out for the pay and benefits that they deserved.

The strike helped me learn, much earlier than I might have otherwise, that there were causes worth fighting for, and that all laws are not necessarily just laws, that respectful, peaceful protest is an integral part of democracy.

My father was no activist or rabble-rouser. But he, and many other Bridgeport teachers, stood up for what they believed in. They advanced the cause of workers, educators and students. And they taught us a lesson in democracy.

We should remember and heed that lesson today, not only because it is the anniversary of the strike but also because our democracy now more than ever needs our attention and defense.

Dr. Michael Soboeiro grew up in Bridgeport and is now a practicing physician in North Carolina.

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