Helen Gym: The Agitator

Fiery Helen Gym has been the bane of school reformers. Is she eyeing the mayor's office next?

GYM WAS RAISED in the banal landscape of suburban Columbus, Ohio, by a pair of immigrant Korean parents. According to family legend, her father escaped from enforced enlistment in the North Korean army during the Korean War. He came upon an American patrol and shouted: “I am a Christian!” They shot him anyway—multiple times, in the back and torso. Taken prisoner, he recovered, lived hand-to-mouth on the streets of Seoul, then took a national education exam and got such a boffo score that he earned a scholarship to George Fox University in Oregon. Before getting on the plane, convinced he had parasites or some other malady, he swallowed a quarter cup of gasoline, hoping it would cure him and enable him to pass the mandatory immigrant health exam. Apparently it worked. Once he arrived, he changed his middle name to Golden. Won Golden Gym.

How much of the story is true? Who knows? But hearing it made me understand where Helen Gym gets at least some of her ferocity and tenacity. Golden settled down a bit with time, working as a computer engineer at Nationwide Insurance, while Gym’s mother worked in food service at Ohio State University. Gym found it all stifling.

She landed at Penn, where she was an erratic student, veering from the dean’s list one semester to the verge of academic expulsion another. “Sometimes what you learn about yourself is, you’re sort of an all-or-nothing kind of person,” Gym says. “That’s a little bit of a scary realization.”

Gym reluctantly went back to Ohio after graduation, and worked an unsatisfying job as a reporter at the Mansfield News Journal. When her college boyfriend (and now husband) Bret Flaherty finished up law school at Tulane, he moved back to Philly. Gym joined him.

In the next few years, Gym’s future activism began to take root. She latched on with Asian Americans United, a small racial-justice and advocacy group, and played a key role in the creation and early publishing days of the Philadelphia Public School Notebook, a nonprofit news outlet covering the city’s public schools. (Full disclosure: I’ve written a number of freelance stories for the Notebook, and I rent a desk in its offices.) Around the same time, Gym was teaching at Lowell Elementary in the city’s Olney section, helping to build an intensive small-class program for mostly immigrant students. In some respects, it was a school within a school, a genuinely innovative approach for the times.

But the model was savaged by the Daily News in a series of stories and columns charging that school administrators were shortchanging black students by packing them into large classes to free up resources for immigrant Asian kids. There were protests and testimony at Council hearings. Gym felt utterly helpless: “I realized that I didn’t have the language to talk about race and education.” She realized as well that schools can’t exist for long in a vacuum. “I embraced the idea that teaching is inextricably linked to a community’s values.”

Gym joined the board of AAU and began to fuse activism and racial identity in some very high-profile ways. It was Gym and AAU who led the charge in 2000 against the prospect of a downtown Phillies ballpark north of Chinatown, worried it would lead to rapid gentrification. She played a central role in 2008 when the owners of the proposed Foxwoods Casino wanted to build in the Gallery mall, adjacent to Chinatown.

By then, Gym was more or less a full-time activist. She was no longer teaching or working a full-time paying job (Flaherty is a partner at the law firm Berger & Montague), and she had the freedom and inclination to throw herself into all manner of causes.

Including, just maybe, a run for City Council—or even mayor—in 2015.

“THE IDEA IS to make a smooth but precise movement. It’s not a jerky kind of motion.”

Gym demonstrates: Attack with the elbow. “Da!” she cries. Palm to the front of the neck. “Da!” Tiger claw to the chin. “Da!”

Watching this, I can’t suppress the thought that Gym is imagining herself chopping the hell out of her foes—Governor Corbett: Da! Mark Gleason: Da! But in fact, Gym is smiling and seems utterly content as she leads a class of about 15 kids in a weekly kung fu lesson.

Apart from the performance itself, what makes the scene noteworthy is its setting: a white multi-purpose room on the first floor of the Folk Arts-Cultural Treasures School (FACTS, for short) just north of Chinatown. FACTS is a charter school—a very good one—and Gym is as responsible for its existence as anyone. She was one of a handful of people who founded the school. She sent two of her three children there. And her husband, Flaherty, is vice chair of the FACTS board.

Given Gym’s high-profile opposition to charter expansion, her critics—most of whom declined to be identified by name for this story—consider her role at FACTS proof of borderline bad faith.