Monday, November 21, 2011
Why is Change Inevitable?
I became a reader on my mother’s lap. An old, old version of Platt and Munk’s Illustrated Fairytales was our standard, and there was nothing politically incorrect about listening to her read Little Black Sambo over and over again. After all, I was 3, she was 26, and it was an exciting tale about tigers that melted into butter. Nothing inflammatory about that. As a young mother, I loved hearing my mom tell the same story to my children, who listened with equal wonder as she wove the story into magic strands for them. Who knew that 50 years later I would be reading the same tale, reprinted as the author intended in The Story of Little Babaji as my grandchildren gathered on my lap, equally enamored with tigers melting into ghi? Helen Bannerman told the story well about her adopted homeland of India and its culture. It had nothing to do with race or color, nothing to do with African children as it turns out. It was a folktale, and it’s the kind of story that deserves retelling and retelling and retelling. But I am a librarian now, and I know how to frame the story and put such tellings in perspective without losing the joy of the journey.
I remember my first day as a librarian. Fresh out of library school at age 44, newly widowed and trying to raise our 5 children on my own, I landed a job that I very much wanted to have. I was hired to revamp a library built in 1926, in preparation for a huge construction project that would bring that little library into the 21st century. The school had been known as a “strawberry school” as its calendar matched the agrarian year up until the latter part of the last century. Back in those days, children were useful on strawberry farms, for picking and such, and their parents had no time for the demands of the school day. So if you were a kid in Plant City, your summer vacation happened in December, January, and February, when the rich ripe berries were ready. But times had changed, along with schools and libraries, and I was excited about my new challenge.
Our enrollment was low, and it was explained to me that after Labor Day it would spike, as our migrant children would return from Michigan and points north where they’d accompanied their folks for cherry picking. So though we were no longer following the agricultural calendar in Plant City, our students’ families were, and we would have to wait to teach them until the picking was done. And they came, by the dozens, enrolling late with lots of enthusiasm and limited English proficiency. How I loved those early in the school year days, when I could open up The Very Hungry Caterpillar and share the magic and joy of reading that required very little English to gain meaning and wonder from the story. As our brand new library opened its doors, I stood in awe of my little readers who were thrilled by the thousands of new books with crisp white pages and bright book jackets, ripe for the harvest. We were good stewards of the many books that survived the weeding process over the years, and created our own “Heritage Collection” with Tales from Silver Lands and first edition copies of Strawberry Girl. I loved showing our readers not only how to find books they could love, but also how to access information they would need to be viable learners. I wanted so badly to see them break away from the lifestyle of their parents, by preparing them to access the knowledge and skills needed for careers that would allow them freedom from manual labor. Their parents were of the same mindset, as they entered our library doors in support of their children.
Several years later, I had the privilege of opening another new school library. This time it was at Fort Hood, Texas, where thousands of soldiers answered the call of duty and sacrifice in the Middle East. The tile was still wet on the floor when we moved thousands of new books into Oveta Culp Hobby Elementary, and our young readers walked from military housing into their post school. Full of vim and vigor, these military children brought wisdom beyond their years through our doors, and the library provided a shelter against the loneliness and fear that long deployments would bring. Though they knew their parents were in harm’s way, they understood they could find comfort in books like Wemberly Worried or Corduroy. Fear rustled just below the surface for all of us, and children who lost a mother or father at war disappeared overnight, never giving us a chance to say goodbye. Relatives would swoop in from out-of-town, pack up the family in cars and moving vans, and they would be gone. A month or two later, I’d get the overdue library books in the mail, coming with a short note from Missouri or Iowa or Puerto Rico. Uncle Sam’s kids were the toughest and most tender-hearted kids I’d ever met.
Six years later, after losing my own parents, I made another move to be closer to my five now grown children in central Texas. I took a new job at the oldest public school in Bryan, Texas. Open continuously since 1870, the library was tiny and there was no plan or money for anything new except a few hundred books. The library was desperate for attention, and so were my students, who wrestled daily with issues of poverty and limited English proficiency. I began the process of weeding hundreds of dirty books, gaining some semblance of order so my students would understand and locate the tools they’d need to gain a foothold against illiteracy. The principal and staff were in alliance, and their charge was to bring this underachieving school up to standards. But mid-year there were rumors of change, talk of no money, discussions of drawdowns, and I received the news that every librarian in town would lose her job. The board decided that each of their 22 libraries could be adequately staffed with a clerk, and librarians would be put back in the classroom where their pay could be justified. We fought and we fought, providing every tool or study we could find to verify the impact of school libraries and librarians on school achievement, but our arguments fell short of the budget shortfall.
So it was time to say goodbye. But how can that be said; how can it be done? How do you say goodbye? I could move to another community that embraces libraries and librarians, but that would force me to leave my grown children and the life we’d begun to share in this community. I could move to a public library, but the cut in salary would force me to completely alter my lifestyle, sell my home, live a different life. So staying put meant saying goodbye to a career I’ve loved, and I found that almost impossible to do.
As luck would have it, I was selected to remain in Bryan ISD, supervising 5 libraries instead of serving as a school librarian. The job entails a lot of things I love, but it also leaves out a lot of what I thought I was good at, as well as a lot of what I think our students need to face the challenges of the 21st century. What used to be the hub of the school has turned into a check-out counter, and our students are underserved. Today children enter each of my 5 libraries, but they don’t look for me and they don’t look for a librarian. They simply look for a book. The pressure’s on so high in the classroom that they’re not allowed to stay for long. They’re told, “Get a book! Get a book!” and rush back to their classes, trying to prove they’re readers instead of being allowed to grow into literacy. It’s a whole different ship I’m sailing now, and I think it’s sink or swim.
My favorite book from childhood was Miracles on Maple Hill. I remember my school librarian introducing this little gem of a book that had just been awarded the Newbery. It resonated with me because my own father had returned from war a changed man, and the story gave me hope for some complex problems in my own life. Books have always been a bulwark for me. I’ve often told my students that it doesn’t matter if you’re in a library in Tokyo or Timbuktu, you will find the books you love, whether it’s Where the Red Fern Grows or Trumpet of the Swans. That’s the great thing about libraries, a river of time runs through them. Books give us stability and security and hope. I am looking for a book like that, a book that will get me through this phase of my life. Leaving my job as a librarian has been in itself a kind of grief, and I must give myself time to adjust to the idea of not serving children in the same way in a library any more. I need a real librarian right now, someone who can steer me to the right book to help me deal with what I’m feeling and experiencing. I miss what I was, what we were in our libraries. I have enough faith to know that this is not life or death, that in the grand scheme of things we’ll survive. But we’ve lost something, something valuable, and I don’t think anyone’s realized that yet. But if there’s a librarian out there who knows what book will give me the reassurance I need right now, please send the title along. I will be forever grateful.