Longtime Latin teacher retires following last-minute restructuring

As educators, Lorene Custer and Jeff ‘Doc’ Greenberger have taught with a simple philosophy: never-ending possibility.

“Our favorite thing is to close that door and have the most subversive fun that a teacher can have,” Ms. Custer said Tuesday. “We always said, ‘How can we be getting paid to have this much fun?’ It’s just been our life.”

Latin, middle-school students and their families are all factors that created what Ms. Custer described as an “incredibly gratifying” career — one she never imagined would end so suddenly.

At a special meeting Monday, the Riverhead Board of Education accepted Ms. Custer’s retirement while also accepting the resignation of Charles Sloan, who was hired Aug. 6 to teach Latin at the secondary level.

Now, Riverhead’s Latin program, lauded for its academic benefits and lasting impact on students, faces an uncertain future once again.

Ms. Custer had been gearing up last week to return to her classroom for the first time since COVID-19 caused schools to close in March when she said she was told she was being transferred to the high school.

“I was told it was because of my expertise,” she said. “If they cared about my expertise, they would have listened to my expertise about what’s pedagogically sound for the department and where I belong.”

The involuntary transfer and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Ms. Custer said, were the final straws.

She and her family have been personally impacted by the coronavirus, losing several close friends and family members, including her father-in-law, Robert Greenberger, in March. 

“It’s all too much,” she said, noting that under normal circumstances she would have agreed to move to the high school. But the uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus solidified her decision.

During Monday’s special board meeting, interim superintendent Christine Tona said the district is still planning to offer Latin, though the new school year will begin without the program in place. 

“Please know that our personnel department is still recruiting candidates for a Latin program,” Ms. Tona said. “Unfortunately, students will begin the school year without a Latin teacher, but we are hopeful that we will have qualified candidates in place very soon.”

According to an Aug. 28 job posting, the district is already seeking to fill the Latin teacher vacancies, with résumés due to curriculum director Lori Koerner by Thursday, Sept. 3.

Some parents, however, doubt the district’s sincerity in continuing the program.

Kathy Maciora was one of several parents thrown for a loop earlier this summer when she received a phone call that her incoming seventh-grader would have to choose between Spanish and French. Due to enrollment, parents learned, the Latin program would be quietly phased out.

“It left the feeling to me that this has been an engineered and pre-planned execution of the Latin program,” Ms. Maciora said. “It’s another disappointment to all of these kids.”

Just 17 new students were expected to enroll in the language program this year, a number Ms. Custer acknowledged is lower than usual. “There’s always been fluctuation,” she said. “And the foreign language department isn’t a competition, but there’s a magic about Latin.”

Ms. Maciora’s seventh-grader already had his Latin name picked out after hearing storied tales about the course from his two older brothers. But she also worries for her 10th-grader, who must take one more year of language and a corresponding exam in order to fulfill a diploma requirement.

In a letter to parents Wednesday, Ms. Tona reiterated that the district is in the process of searching for a candidate and will begin the school year with a substitute Latin teacher.

An update is expected by Sept. 11, Ms. Tona said. “At that time, should we have no candidates, we will present other options for foreign language,” the letter said.

With no new students enrolling in Latin this year, Ms. Custer would have continued teaching eighth-graders while assuming secondary level classes as well.

But the decision received swift blowback from the community, prompting over 500 people to sign a petition to save the language program.

“I think that shows that there really is not just an interest, but a love for the program in the Riverhead community,” said Colin Palmer, a 2009 Riverhead graduate who started the petition.

Part of his love for the program stems from tradition: Family members have been taking Latin in Riverhead since the 1940s. “This is a part of Riverhead and to let it end with these two teachers is not only a disservice to the work that Doc and Ms. Custer have done over their decades of teaching, but a disservice to the teachers that preceded them and to the community in general,” Mr. Palmer said.

John Fallot, also a 2009 graduate, described the Latin program as the “lodestar” of his education at Riverhead.

“It afforded ways to discover meaning and context about the world, ways that are often overlooked,” he said. “The Riverhead Latin program taught me the value of hard work and being smart about where you place your efforts.”

Mr. Palmer said the course provided him with a well-rounded foundation for college that went well beyond linguistics. “[Mr. Greenberger] was teaching the entire subject. He was teaching it as literature, as history, as mythology, government and politics,” he said.

Ms. Custer said Tuesday that they’ve been overwhelmed by the community’s support of the program. 

“We can’t even begin to thank our former students,” she said.

In retirement, she said she’s looking forward to substitute teaching across the North Fork, spending time in her garden, traveling and perhaps even one day opening a Latin camp. 

“I don’t think I’m just going to walk away,” she said. “I love kids. They are my people.”

While she feels bad for Riverhead students who may possibly miss out on Latin, the decision ultimately rests with the district.

“Now, it’s at a juncture,” she said.