Xian Barrett with his layoff notice. Images provided by the author.
I got my official layoff call at 8:28pm last Friday night.
I was one of more than 1,000 Chicago Public School District educators laid off this summer. It is the third time in six years I’ve been fired.
My principal left a cryptic message during the afternoon (I had been expecting the call since June). She tried her best:
“I’m sorry to have to make this call. They asked me to read a script, but I think that’s inhumane, so I’m just going to tell you.”
I immediately messaged those students (my former students? my forever students?) who had requested I inform them as soon as I knew. In the Chicago Public Schools, when inhumane decisions are inflicted on students and communities, there are a hundred protocols but there’s no plan in place to support the students who are the victims of those decisions.
As I’ve written before, the unelected school board and district leadership have designed the layoff process to minimize their own responsibility. Students (especially those of color) often end up blaming themselves or thinking their teachers chose to leave. I spent the evening talking to students online, receiving love and support from friends and internet acquaintances and sharing mutual support with my partner, Erin. All weekend, we did the mutual care work and, this being my third layoff, it felt almost horrifically normal. We went through the motions of surviving the indefensible.
I found myself doing some consoling of my friends and acquaintances. People asked how something like this could happen again to me. They were “shocked.” They “couldn’t believe my bad luck. Some asked what they could do to help.
Most tried to exceptionalize me, “Don’t worry you are a great teacher, you’ll find something better!” as if it would console me, as if seeing myself as more deserving would somehow protect me.
I want to be clear: Our friends were acting in love—in many ways it was salvation in a time of need—but it still felt wrong. I had to tell them that there were no personal solutions that would help on this because this was not an accident. I was not fired through some mistake by people who didn’t know how great I was. That whole idea is a desperate grab at rationalizing the atrocious. To the privileged, societal oppression is a random, rare happenstance like a single cruel blow.
But oppression is not an accident; it is a centuries-long design.
That is the only explanation for a Chicago where my students who have already lost parents to Immigration and Customs Enforcement have to persevere through more cuts in school funding, and the mayor who covered up the murder of one of their peers before he was re-elected sits comfortably in office. It’s the only way to explain a Chicago where an eighteen-year-old lies dead and those who were paid to protect him revel in paid administrative leave.
Oppression is the only way to describe the reason why I sit jobless, surrounded by piles of published student work from brilliant teaching and learning in a class I was asked to teach, while those who mismanaged the funds of the district collect their checks and continue to wield power over our students. We can’t shrug this off and persevere. To paraphrase Angela Davis, we cannot continue to accept what we cannot change, we must change what we cannot accept.
So how do we make this change? It is a problem of power. Stokely Carmichael said,
“If a white man wants to lynch me, that’s his problem. If he’s got the power to lynch me, that’s my problem. Racism is not a question of attitude; it’s a question of power.”
If a stray spark burns down someone’s house, we must mourn loss, heal and support resilience. If arsonists burn down that house for the third time, we must plot to take that power away from those arsonists and make sure they can never, ever do it again.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel, his unelected Board members, Frank Clark, Jaime Guzman, Mark Furlong, Michael Garazini, Mahalia Hines, Dominique Jordan Turner, and Gail Ward, his CEO Forrest Claypool and CEdO Janice Jackson are not careless children playing with matches. They are taking military grade flamethrowers to our schools and communities through their policies and support of violent policing.
We have no shortage of heroic, effective models of this path to justice. The #LetUsBreathe Collective’s occupation and redevelopment of a restorative, loving space in Freedom Square shows how we can build the capacity to govern ourselves in love. The #MovementforBlackLives’ vision document, released last week, gives us a model of what we are building.
For us at Brighton Park, healing is rooted deeply in the written word. Students’ messages were full of curse words, love and a readiness to struggle. Karina Ruiz shared a theme that was common among the students:
“I am lucky and so are my fellow students at Brighton Park to have had you for a short time. Maybe this is good in a way. I know you will touch other students’ lives in a powerful way wherever you go... I want to be an author and I want to dedicate my life to living a life worth writing about. Thank you from the bottom of my heart. P.S. the system is a fucking asshole”.
I share that hope and anger. My years at Brighton Park were incredible and I am so grateful for them, but I have never forgotten my Julian and Gage Park High School communities nor forgiven those who chose to attack them.
So comfort, love and rebuild. But we must also fight with all of our might to remove Rahm Emanuel and his unelected board of education from power; distributing that power to our own communities. We must institute a Civilian Police Accountability Council. We must destroy the top down, white supremacist education reform movement.
In Chicago, we will do this by marching. We will do it by writing. We’ll do it by striking and practicing disobedience. We will do it by speaking of the dark culpability of our oppressors to all within hearing of our cries for more justice. I’ve been checking occasionally into a Facebook thread where several dozen of them are planning their response to this injustice. They helped win a grant and started an oral history project to document what our time together has meant and what their next demands are. I’m proud of them for acting on what we’ve learned together.
I am not optimistic that I will be given a classroom for next year, but I am utterly positive that I will be teaching and learning. Whether my class size is forty eighth graders or a single newborn baby. Even in darkest times, I know that the seeds that the students and I have planted together will continue to grow toward the distant light of justice. We must continue to teach and learn because that is how we live. But it does make me wonder what one of my seventh graders asked me last year when we were studying ICE raids. “We are good kids. Why do they hate us so much?" I don’t know. I wonder if the folks who run Chicago Public Schools would have the courage to answer her?
Postscript: How Layoffs Work
In many districts, job security is directly related to seniority. In other words, teachers who have spent the most time building relationships with students and communities have the most job security. The newest arrivals are displaced, but as long as there are open positions in the district, educators are reassigned to an available school. If the district experiences massive enrollment cuts, new teachers lose their jobs first.
In the Chicago Public Schools, job security was one of the first targets of neo-liberal education reformers when the mayor took control of the school system. Like many top-down reformers, the mayor’s office pushed for changes in seniority, and later teacher evaluations, under the guise of “teacher quality”. Specifically, this means that principals are given a smaller budget each year and then asked to highlight areas to cut. Staff who are cut are placed in a displaced teacher pool and lose our earned benefits and tenure. We have to start over from scratch. If we are unsuccessful, we can continue to look, but due to the break in service, in the past we have had to redo drug tests, and get new recommendations from the administrator who just laid us off.
Due to these budgeting factors, principals have a huge incentive to skew their layoffs toward the most senior of their staff. What has resulted is extreme whitification of the teaching pool.
Again, please don’t consider this an unfortunate happenstance. This is a system designed to depreciate the education of students of color. It is a system that policymakers’ kids will never experience.
Xian Franzinger Barrett is a recently laid off 7/8th grade writing and social studies teacher at Brighton Park Elementary School on the Southwest side of Chicago. In between taking texts and messages from former students, Xian is quite active on social media. Find him @xianb8 on Twitter.