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Life Turns on a Dime: A Tribute to Mat Taylor

January 12, 2014

Rebellion is a moral imperative…….You never know where the good goes. If you stand up to do what’s right and speak truth to power, there are many people who you think are asleep who hear it.”   Chris Hedges,  war correspondent, journalist and author

When I heard Chris Hedges close a speech with those last few sentences, I couldn’t help but think of Mat Taylor, who never shied away from a fight to help teachers and students.

And my first thought when hearing the news of Mat Taylor’s death was a bitter one. “Mat’s dead and the assholes who reconstituted, restructured (whatever  you want to call it) Fremont are still alive.”  Life turns on a dime.

And yet, as Chris  Hedges notes, no act of rebellion, such as the acts that Mat engaged in are wasted.  The people who you think are asleep, he says, are paying attention.   Maybe that’s why when I arrived late to Mat’s memorial after procrastinating unnecessarily, I was stunned to see the church overflowing, with over a thousand people in attendance.    There are many people who you think are asleep who hear it. 

I was stunned to hear about his life as a basketball coach, which I knew nothing of, and to see his childhood friends there and some former students who traveled from Georgia. But maybe I shouldn’t have been stunned, maybe I just wasn’t paying attention. Maybe I was asleep.

I woke up pretty damn fast when I heard the news that Mat was at St. Mary’s Hospital in San Pedro.  I couldn’t believe that the same Mat I used to see sauntering down the halls of Fremont with sunglasses, attired in a Hawaiian shirt and jeans was now lying unconscious in a hospital bed.  When I went to visit briefly, I thought about all the phony reform Mat had helped turn back like First Things First whose claim to fame was having raised test scores in Kansas high schools by two points.   What ever happened to them?  I guess they faded away when the money ran out.

When I visited Mat, I brought with me a book I was reading- a time travel book about an English teacher who steps back in time through a portal in a diner’s walk -in refrigerator to 1958.  He is sent back by the diner’s owner, Al to stop the assassination of JFK.   The only reason he agrees to it is because he happened to read an essay by one of his adult ed students who is the school’s gimpy janitor.  The essay reveals that the student’s father killed his mother and all of his siblings in 1958.  Only he escaped the butchery.    The teacher, Jake,  figures he can go back to 1958, stop that murder and then hang out until 1963 and stop the assassination of John F. Kennedy. But as in real life, things aren’t so simple.   I told Mat about the book, even though it didn’t appear he could hear me. You never know. Life Turns on a Dime.

I couldn’t figure out what to write until until I finished Stephen King’s new book 11/22/63, a complex and revealing look at how romanticizing the past and wishing we could change it could actually make things worse.  But it also includes an intriguing discussion of harmonics of how multiple futures can exist, accounting for the deja vu we sometimes feel when meeting someone or visiting someplace and knowing we’ve been there before. Maybe that’s why we all hung around Fremont for so long.

But the past as Stephen King notes, is obdurate and does not want to be changed.   That’s a bitter pill for me to swallow, given what happened at Fremont.   I dealt with this issue as it related to the experience of a displaced HPHS teacher who subbed for a few days in the new reconstituted HPHS.   It was only then once she saw the spirit of HPHS gone could she accept that it was no longer her school.  The same is true of Fremont. What made Fremont, well Fremont, was the people inside who respected  and loved it,  like Mat and the teachers who accepted and loved the community they worked in. They weren’t using it as a steppingstone to a cubicle at Beaudry or to some other administrative position.

And what if one of us could walk through a time portal prior to December 9th, 2010 and make sure Cortines never got to be superintendent or that Arne Duncan was never Secretary of Education? Would everything have turned out ok? Would we all be teaching happily at Fremont?  Or as in Stephen King’s book, would something just as bad or worse have taken place and would changing that past have screwed up one of our colleagues lives in some other way?    In King’s book, the teacher saves his student’s family in 1958, but then the kid is drafted during the Vietnam War and dies in the Tet Offensive.  Life turns on a dime.

The only thing that does make sense is to keep on fighting.

Mat was returned to his school, the Elizabeth Learning Center,  after being put in teacher jail, though very briefly before he become ill, when his students staged protests and the suits at Beaudry relented.   He was so upset when I last spoke with him and I was convinced that LAUSD might actually “get” Mat this time, but he fought, and he won…until the lung cancer won.  Life turns on a dime.

Mat at Pier

John_F._Kennedy_motorcade,_Dallas_crop“Life doesn’t hurt till you finally have time to yourself to think about..how much or at times how little its changed. how many people you lost along the way or just plain stopped talking to. And how much of it is your fault…”  From one of my former students.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. January 13, 2014 8:16 am

    So many lost so much, even our health on top of it all. Some have committed suicide. There oives were degraded by many lies. You come to doubt everything you one, especially yourself. I am not sure one can go back to teaching after what Matt went through, What I have been through, all of us are broken in some way by demeaning circumstance It would be impossible not to fight back. I can’t NOT fight, nor can you.
    The number of those willing to do this is growing as teaches realize our union is not going to do anything for us. Wide not need UTLA ‘s permission to have a revolution. In fact, we need to rebepl against the union and the district,. We need to accept that things will never be the way they were again.
    Maybe they can be better. I dunno. But we cannot go back . We must go forward

    Please be aware that SUPT Deasy is pulling a fast one today to comandeer local fundng formula control. UNITED WAYand Ben Austin’s so called parent revolution are orgaanizing an astro turf to to make it seem like the district consulted the community about the fate of these funds. Please go to http://www.hemlockonthherocks.com to get the 411.
    Before my school fell prey to a “new principal” things had been like you describe them –not exactly perfect, but we were alive and full of hope and purpose then.ni was never happier,
    I tnink of that time as Camelot.

  2. July 22, 2014 12:07 pm

    I am sorry to hear of this struggle. But appreciate the record you leave. Keep writing it all down!!!

  3. Anonymous permalink
    November 2, 2016 10:19 pm

    Congrats Mat!

    Your Cubbies Finally did it!

    Wish you were here!

    We miss you so much!
    Love,

    Sus

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