Teaching mattered to Phyllis Bush. The retired South Side High School teacher, who died Tuesday after a long battle with cancer, taught English and so much more.
Close readers of our opinion pages recognize her name as an ardent supporter of public schools. Area lawmakers knew her as a formidable and persistent critic of vouchers and other education privatization efforts. Her students knew her as a dedicated, caring and creative teacher – the kind whose lessons resonate long after graduation.
Broadcast journalist Kathy Hostetter is among the latter group. She recalled a memorable creative-writing assignment in Bush's senior English class in 1987:
“I decided to write a first-person narrative in the 'voice' of my autistic brother, who was a year behind me,” wrote Hostetter in an email. “My effort threw some serious shade at fellow classmates for bullying him. It may not have been creative, but man it felt good!
“We all had to read our efforts aloud, and I may have – well, fired some shots across the bow with lines directed at some of the offenders, who were in class with me. At the end, there was stunned silence. Mrs. Bush asked who I had written about, and one of the students answered for me. Mrs. Bush remarked, I hope you all listened to that. School can be really hard for some, and here, some of your actions are personified in words. Knock. It. Off.”
Hostetter, now news director for the CBS affiliate in Pittsburgh, said the experience helped her find her voice in both written and spoken words.
“I wouldn't be where I am without Mrs. Bush's drive and encouragement to work hard, respect literary works, and always, always WRITE.”
After Phyllis retired from her 32-year teaching career – 24 years at South Side – she jumped into a second career as a public school advocate. A letter to the editor she wrote in 1999 is as relevant today:
“Take the millions of dollars being wasted on testing and inject them into ensuring smaller classes for all students, not just those that are academically at the top or at the bottom,” Phyllis wrote. “Require schools to clearly state what their focus is and then stick to it. Is it to create a better workforce? Is it to create higher standardized scores? Is it to help at-risk students or the non-mainstream students to feel more able to function in a world they increasingly view as dysfunctional? Is it to create an atmosphere in which thoughtful, caring human beings can learn and grow?”
Bush took on standardized testing, low teacher pay, block scheduling and more in her letters. But she did much more when lawmakers approved a school voucher program in 2011. Inspired by the first Save Our Schools march in Washington, D.C., she returned to join forces with a handful of long-time friends, other retired teachers and some public school parents to establish Northeast Indiana Friends of Public Education. They remain a small group of dedicated activists, but a powerful voice for Indiana public schools.
They were there when education historian DianeRavitch delivered an Omnibus Lecture at IPFW in 2012, and Bush's passion caught the attention of the former assistant secretary of education in the George H.W. Bush administration. Ravitch and California educator Anthony Cody were in the process of starting the nationwide Network for Public Education at the time, and they invited Bush to become a founding board member.
“She had the natural instincts of a great teacher,” Cody said Tuesday. “After she retired, she applied those skills to defending public schools.”
“Whenever I spoke with Phyllis, she was preparing for, or coming back from traveling to Indianapolis where she would speak with legislators about the importance of supporting public schools,” wrote Carol Burris, executive director of the Network for Public Education. “It did not matter whether they agreed with her or not – she was walking into their office and making her case. When she was not lobbying herself, she was organizing others to do the work. Grassroots groups in Indiana and Ohio looked to Phyllis for leadership. And she led them all with incredible smarts, dedication and a fabulous sense of humor.”
When the organization held its national conference in Indianapolis last October, her fellow board members surprised Phyllis by naming a new grassroots activism award in her honor.
Save Our Schools Arizona was the inaugural winner. Its teacher-activist members won the right to challenge the legislature's voucher law in a referendum. In November, Arizonans voted 65 percent to 35 percent to reject universal vouchers.
The standing ovation Phyllis received when the award was announced might have been the only time she ever was left speechless. To the end of her battle with ovarian cancer, her wry sense of humor kept family and friends laughing. But the deep sense of caring she demonstrated was what drew her friends near and kept them close. Nowhere was that better illustrated than in the response of a group of former students who jumped forward when Phyllis and her longtime partner Donna Roof decided to marry last Dec. 11. After they contacted Judge Andrea Trevino and attorney Tim Manges – both former Bush students – about arrangements for a Courthouse wedding, the two quickly made arrangements and contacted others for a joyous celebration at a moment's notice.
“People rearranged work schedules and drove from other cities and states to be there,” Trevino told the Journal Gazette's Ashley Sloboda after the event. “Over a dozen students and teachers who could not attend sent lengthy emails and/or videos of support. Flowers were sent to the Courthouse for the ceremony by another former student who could not attend. ... Without knowing it, Phyllis and Donna connected our Archer family yet again.”
The same outpouring of love was evident a few days later, when the couple hosted a Christmas party. Their home overflowed with friends from all parts of their lives, including the Parkview cancer nurses who had clearly come to love Phyllis.
She took the opportunity to offer one more lesson: “We need to do something to help other people instead of looking to someone else,” she said. “We are so focused on national things that we forget the real important things are local and state issues. As you all know, I'm crazy, mad, go-nuts about saving public education, but it doesn't matter if the issue is education – whether it's environment, guns, abortion. There are two sides to every issue and we need to listen to the other side.”
She gave another lesson in a blog she called “Cancer Schmantzer,” writing in one of her final posts: “Whether it is taking a kid to the zoo or to Zesto for ice cream, whether it is writing a letter to your legislators, whether it is running for office, whether it is supporting your favorite charity, DO IT! Monday morning quarterbacks are of little use to anyone. Whatever you do, live your life to the fullest. Do what matters to you.”
Godspeed, Phyllis. You were a teacher. You did what matters.
Karen Francisco is editorial page editor for The Journal Gazette.