The devastating layoffs that shook our lives

After 15 years, I lost my job at an Austin school. Then something even worse happened: My wife lost hers, too

Published May 25, 2011 1:01AM (EDT)

When a fellow Latin teacher asked last February if I had read the most recent posting of the school board's minutes, my reply was, "Why the hell would I read that?"

Unfortunately, her answer changed my life.

Facing a projected $90 million shortfall, the board had chosen to eliminate hundreds of teacher positions. Not only was my Austin, Texas, magnet school among those listing teacher cuts, but also, my Latin program was one of the courses slated for elimination. There it was, buried in the spreadsheet online, like a knife in Caesar's back.

There could have been no mistake whose Latin program the school planned to slash. For 15 years I have been the sole Latin instructor. Now someone had decided that my program was not worth sustaining. Wounded and slightly panicked, I called my wife, "Have you seen this? What does this mean?"

Rhetorical questions. I knew she had no idea about this. Still, at that moment, awash in uncertainty and confusion, I needed a confederate. I needed that tacit assurance my wife has so easily offered over the years. But as we scanned the spreadsheet together, we instead found new reason for concern: Also slated for elimination was one of the three Spanish teachers at our school -- my wife's job.

I have always wanted to be a teacher. As a younger man, I held magnificent mental images of myself as an English teacher, expounding the merits of Matthew Arnold and Sylvia Plath to classes of wide-eyed students reaching out to grab every pearl tossed their way. But years later, while helping a friend grade freshman lit essays, I realized teaching English might not be where my talent lay. So I began a search for an alternate subject. When a professor suggested Latin, I scoffed. Who still taught a dead language? However, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that Latin wasn't just the study of one subject, it was the study of multiple subjects: The grammar was straightforward and, in fact, mirrors the Roman mechanical, linear character. The English language's indebtedness to Latin and Greek would be an extraordinarily long discussion. The history and mythologies carry the weight of millennia of acquired human experience. A week later I was persuaded: I wanted to teach Latin.

Switching careers at that age wasn't easy, and I was one of the older students on campus working toward another degree. I was also divorced, the single parent of an elementary school-age son and working full-time at night trying to keep food on the table. Things were kosher for the most part, but we lost the use of the telephone once while I was completing student teaching. (At least then the creditors could not disturb our dinners.)

In 1997 the local school district offered me a job even before the Latin diploma arrived. My first job was at an inner-city middle school. The school's population was such that two of my students, a couple of 13-year-old boys, were on parole. Not probation-parole; one for burglary, the other for rape. Still, I taught my classes as best I could and began to experience students on a more personal level. I watched 11-year-old African-American girls poke my forearm to watch the white skin suffuse pink then regroup to its natural pale when they pulled their fingers away. I helped out with the seventh grade football team, not due to any expertise but rather because almost every seventh grade boy at the school was absolutely certain a professional football career awaited him and the multitude of boys on the team was overwhelming for the two coaches. I sold tickets at the girl's volleyball games in the evenings. In short, I became a part of the community.

After one year I was called over to the neighboring magnet school. I have been there ever since. I have broken up more fights and chased more students around that campus than I ever thought would be necessary. There have been days when work began even before I got out of the car, when I'd pull into the parking lot to find students smoking pot next to their own cars or trying to break into someone else's. I have, as department chair, taught Spanish, German, French and Japanese when those teachers either quit without notice or simply failed to show up for work. I have been threatened by students and parents alike. Once, when I handed back an exam on which a student had done poorly, he said, "Why do you keep failing me? If I killed you, I wouldn't have this problem anymore!"

Conversely, my students have outperformed every other school in the district by merit of standardized exams, competitions and advanced placement exams. My Latin classes, the largest in the district, have filled our classroom with their achievements. Various colored ribbons won at contests paper the walls to the degree that they seem to be Gay Pride banners. Innumerable trophies fill all the available shelf space. This past year, my students, those enrolled in the advanced placement course, had a 93 percent passing rate on the college credit exam. Not only did their efforts award college credit but added $13,000 to the school's coffer. When I passed that information on to the administration no one responded.

For the past few months none of this has mattered one whit. Neither the work nor the successes have changed the thinking of whoever made the decision to eliminate the program. The best they have done, after vehement student and parent protests, is to offer those students who need the credit to graduate the chance to finish out the course before it is scuttled.

The Monday after I saw the school board minutes, I was called into the principal's office and told what I already knew. The news was delivered through a series of rehearsed statements and platitudes. As I stood to leave I asked whether my wife's job was the Spanish position scheduled for elimination. The principal said he did not know and would not until the next Wednesday when all the other teachers affected by this "Reduction in Force" would hear their fate. I was only being told because I had found out prematurely.

That evening, Valentine's Day, the dinner my wife and I had made for ourselves sat on the table like a corpse, cold as our mood. The Veuve Clicquot in the refrigerator, lacking its pomp under the circumstances, is still on the lower shelf. After a couple of hours the trash can ate the tuna and Swiss chard.

The following Wednesday my wife received a note to report to the principal's office after classes. Sitting with her, I witnessed as she was subjected to the same series of rote, stale commentary that I had endured 48 hours before. Wednesday's dinner, too, found its way into the trash.

During the next several weeks my wife and I lost sleep and weight with equal pace. We argued from fear. We cried from anger. We spent countless hours debating what we had done wrong. According to the district's rubric for these "reductions," job performance was supposed to be the primary cause for a principal's consideration. By any standard my wife's students outshine all others across the district. As for my own, the number of awards alone illustrates an august program. We could not understand how the administration would ax two teachers who shared 26 years between them on the same campus. We were incredulous that anyone would even consider firing a husband and wife knowing what that would do to the family and its satellites.

The news swept through our community like a west Texas wind. Students, current and former, expressed outrage. Their parents deluged the administration with their brand of invective. The local NPR station asked for an interview, as did the local newspaper. Even with the publicity, the district was intractable. No argument was sufficient to reverse the decision. A "well-rounded" education was out; all that mattered was for the students to pass the state-mandated TAKS (Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills) tests.

I've seen this occurring across the country. This morning, a former student attending Louisiana State University and majoring in classics told me that the university has chosen to eliminate that program. She will be one of the last students to take a Latin degree from that college. Additionally, after reading about my program disappearing, the parent of a former student sent me a newspaper clipping from Pennsylvania. The story was about one of the local community colleges severing its Latin and Greek courses. When considering that the first universities founded in this country required only a demonstration of Latin and Greek proficiency as their graduation requirement, it seems the fruit of our educational system has fallen far from the tree of knowledge. With this, those who have made their life's work the promulgation of this knowledge are now sidelined, pushed aside in favor of the mundane and mandatory.

When I first began teaching Latin I was certain that schools would always need or, at least want, my expertise. In fact, I felt this way about the entire profession. Nowadays, teachers are being put out of the classroom hundreds at a time. We increasingly find ourselves stocking shelves, tending bar or entering data for corporations. In Texas, at least, the money is there for the salaries (just ask the Legislature about the "Rainy-Day Fund") -- we have simply misplaced it.

It has been three months since this news first came to us. Since then the school has offered us about six-eighths of our jobs back. One of the remaining two Spanish teachers resigned, opening up that spot for my wife to reenter. As for the Latin program, it continues to cant heavily to one side. While the lower-level classes will still be in place next school year, these are solely for students needing to complete their three consecutive years' language requirement. But a college-prep school without a classics course is like a ship without a mast. The school has suggested I teach a couple of English courses to help make up my schedule. However, even with these I am behind full-time. In all it means a pay cut of around $10,000 next year. The Latin program will be allowed to slip into the dark waters of history -- and with it my teaching career.

The district has already announced that next school year's budget appears to be $111 million short, and more layoffs are forecast. My father-in-law said the district would never again set its sights on my wife and me for the next round of cuts. My wife laughed when she heard that. When he continued with this oblique reasoning, she excused herself and left the room.

We have put our home on the market in hopes of relieving that financial burden. The thought of foreclosure is simply too frightening. Equity in the home is low, and even though we have already put a couple thousand into cosmetics and repairs, the market at present is, well, we all know what it is. In an effort to salvage what little we can from the house, we are selling the thing ourselves; another anxiety to roil a night's sleep.

Early this past autumn I ran into a former student. She was dropping her younger brother off at the school before catching a plane back to college in New York state. She asked how my wife and I were doing. When I told her we had been having thoughts of moving now that our son was close to graduating from college her voice got louder. "Oh no, Mr. Browne! You guys can't do that. What would happen to the Latin classes? You … you're like an institution around here!" I told her I hardly felt as stalwart as all that but she would have none of it. She mentioned that she and all of her friends and classmates had long held our Latin program in a sort of mystical awe. She added that, as far as she could tell, that aura persisted.

Later that evening I sat, scotch in hand, wondering whether leaving had ever been a legitimate idea. Maybe there was more to stay for than I had realized. Maybe the students had been listening more closely than I considered.

There was writing on the wall -- but who the hell reads that anyway.

By Byron Browne

Byron Browne is a school teacher and writer. He lives in Austin, Texas with his wife, Angie. His first book, Driving Southwest Texas was published in February by History Press publishers.

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