Opening Letters

Union Made

Growing up with Schlitz-drinking, Lazy @#$%, Trailer Trash, Redneck Communists

Ken Szymanski, illustrated by Garrett Brunker |

After reading an article online about the hullabaloo in Madison, I made a mistake. I clicked the “Read Comments” button. Armed with the courage of anonymity, hundreds blasted union members – teachers in particular – who they viewed as taxpayer parasites. This brief comment stuck out: “Union = Communism, Trailer trash, Lazy @#$%, Schlitz-drinking rednecks, Obama sheep herders.”

Growing up in Eau Claire, I knew a union guy: my dad. He put in over 20 years at Uniroyal as a member of United Rubber Workers of America, Local 19. Thing was, he drank Grain Belt, not Schlitz. He didn’t live long enough to see Obama elected. Lazy trailer trash redneck? Hardly. And as far as being a communist, he fought against communism in the Korean War.

As for those unionized teachers, I’ve met plenty while climbing from kindergarten to a master’s degree – all without leaving Eau Claire. Consider this a slideshow of some of my run-ins with our local unionized, lazy, Schlitz-drinking, redneck, trailer trash communists.

Sam Davey Elementary

Ms. Krause – My kindergarten teacher … my first classroom teacher. She was savvy enough to not be fooled – or amused – by my attempt to skip hand-washing after using finger paste, yet supportive enough to agree to host my pet turtle in class for a day. Back in the days of field trips, she took us to the apple orchard, hospital, and fire department. Over two decades later, in a chance encounter, she amazingly remembered me. With ease, she even inquired about my brother and nephew. Communist.
Mrs. Wallace – My third grade teacher, who made her classroom feel welcoming, modern, and innovative with a Star Wars bulletin board, complete with rare trading cards from her son’s collection. Lazy @#$%.
Mr. Newman – My hard-knocks, gruff, mustached, fifth grade teacher who stayed after school for weeks and months to referee flag football and intramural basketball. He pulled my mom aside at parent-teacher conferences, a year after I had his class, to tell her that I had “really come a long way” in basketball. Trailer Trash.

Delong Junior High

Mr. Killoren – My Science 7 teacher who made it through the entire sex education unit without making eye contact with the class, or ever saying the word “sex”… instead repeatedly using the phrase, “this particular subject.” Schlitz-Drinking Redneck.
Mr. Matter – My cross-country coach who, on the side, taught me advanced chess strategies. Instead of crushing me, he let me take back bad moves to re-examine my choices and learn from my mistakes. Communist.
Mrs. Bejin – My English 8 teacher. She read my story of a soldier who, after fighting in the key historical battles of WWII, also fought in Vietnam … and then turned out to be a charter member of The A-Team. Instead of pointing out the story’s absurdities, she praised the “fun twist at the end.” I couldn’t wait to write the next paper, simply because I had an enthusiastic audience of one. Trailer Trash.
Ms. Backus – My algebra teacher who used a simple equation: two missing assignments = one detention. After my first detention, I decided to just do the work and avoid the hassle. To this day, I can tutor kids in algebra. Lazy @#$%.

North High School

Ms. Spenser – My teacher for English 10, English 11, and English 12. During a public speaking unit, I gave a persuasive speech about my bold, simple, and serious plan to eliminate poverty in America. She somehow kept a straight face and offered in her evaluation that, although my ideas were not necessarily practical, my idealism was noble. To me, this served as further proof that the older generation just didn’t get it. Schlitz-Drinking Redneck.
Mr. Hammond – My teacher for BASIC Computer Programming, Accounting I, and Accounting II, who always pulled over and gave me a ride to school if he saw me walking … and Mr. Kein, Driver’s Education, who taught me to drive with this wrinkled-brow demand: “Slow down, Hot Rod!” Communists.
Mr. Maier – my Marketing teacher and DECA advisor, who stressed the importance of being open-minded. As an example, he revealed that 80s guitar icon Eddie Van Halen studied classical music. Dumbfounded, I slowly considered it: If Eddie Van Halen studies classical music … then classical music can be cool. If classical music can be cool … everything – and I mean everything – must be re-examined. Trailer Trash.

UW-Eau Claire The UWEC

teaching staff wasn’t unionized back then, but they were already plotting...

Mr. Roger Anderson – My English 110 instructor, who bolstered my writing confidence by choosing to read my “Why We Should Not Have Class This Friday” persuasive essay aloud to the class. His encouragement also fueled my revisions to my landmark comparison/contrast paper: Beverly Hills Cop vs. Beverly Hills Cop 2. All in all, the experience helped me survive freshman year and earn my first “A” in college. Schlitz-Drinking Redneck Wannabe.
Ms. Jeannie Harms – My academic advisor. In a funk after two years of college with no major and no direction, I spoke of taking time off of school, relocating, and enrolling in the Woolworth’s managerial program, which seemed promising at the time. She warned me that I wasn’t going to “find myself” by “sitting alone in an apartment in Michigan eating TV dinners.” Young people sometimes need help seeing through the fog and figuring out the obvious. Communist Wannabe.

Dr. Chuck Hanson – My English 385 professor, who sensed I was metaphorically “stuck in the ditch.” He took me to lunch twice, paid for it, and not only talked, but listened – listened to a disheveled young man with a mullet who had a crazy idea of becoming an English teacher. He believed in me before I did, and like a tow-truck driver, he pulled me out of the ditch and back on the road for good. Schlitz-Drinking, Lazy @#$%, Trailer Trash, Redneck Communist Wannabe.

Here’s a toast to all of them (and the many edited out due to space limitations). Each is entitled to a free bottle of Schlitz. The word “entitled” shouldn’t be used here, though. It’s more like this: They Earned It.