Rally to protest school closings and teacher layoffs in Chicago. (AP Images)
Xian Barrett is the kind of hero-teacher about which they make sentimental, inspiring movies. A young, handsome guy of Chinese extraction, he was a statistics expert at a computer startup before he turned to teaching; then, working at a tough inner-city high school, he hit on an idea. Xian spoke Japanese. A lot of the kids he was teaching were reading manga, and riveted by martial arts culture. Because Percy Julian High was a “non-selective enrollment” school—the kind where they don’t expect much of kids—they would never get a chance to take a Japanese class. So he opened up the school's small, exclusive Japanese program to every student. Soon, it was massively popular—dozens of tough black kids, buckling down and learning something very, very difficult. And because of that, they were thriving like never before in all their subjects. “For a lot of kids Japanese was a gateway drug to academic success,” he told me this past spring when I interviewed him for my article on Chicago activism. He got a $10,000 grant from the Japanese consulate. A student of his gave a speech accepting the award—in Japanese.
Soon after that, in 2010, Xian was laid off from Julian.
For another of the ways Xian also helped his students thrive was by advising them in their political activism. Not guiding them; his kids never would have stood for that—when I sat in on a meeting of the thriving group Chicago Students Organizing to Save Our Schools in the basement of a DePaul University building, their hottest term of derision was “adultism”: activist jargon for “pushy grownups telling us what to do.” Xian just helped facilitate, and gave advice when he was asked. He was also one of the founders of the Chicago Teacher’s Union’s Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE), the militant faction led by current CTU president Karen Lewis, who won the strike last year against Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Although Xian wouldn’t say so, it’s hard to think of any other reason than his activism and dedication to teach as a hell-raiser, in order to educate hell-raisers, that he was fired.
Xian won’t say it—but I interviewed the student who gave the speech in Japanese, a really smart kid named Jeremiah Raye, who will. He described life at Julian after the a new principal, one beloved of the suits at the school board, arrived and ended up firing his favorite teacher: “The atmosphere changed…oppressive, to be honest with you. She usually targeted teachers who were more for the students…she would pretty much threaten certain teachers’ jobs, and then my junior year they got fired, like Mr. Barrett. The teachers that weren’t cut were the ones who were either neutral teachers or the ones who were on the side of the board.” Incidentally, with the layoff the Japanese program was gone with the wind, too—leaving $6,000 of the $10,000 grant on the table.