Wednesday, November 21, 2007

miss petra the librarian

The James M. Singleton Charter School is a K-8 public school in the central city area of New Orleans. There are approximately 600 students. They attend classes in the YMCA building, an old public library building, and a number of modular/mobile classrooms (a.k.a. trailers). Space for storerooms and classrooms is in short supply. A number of classes are taught out of the school cafeteria, often concurrently.

The library has about 8,000 books in it, all donated. A former Hands On volunteer started the library a little over a year ago. She worked with the school to designate a room, organized a fundraising drive, solicited donations of books, established a system for shelving and checking out books, etc. The library is still solely staffed by Hands On volunteers, of which I am the latest.

When I arrived the library had been without a volunteer for several weeks, and the place was a mess. The shelving system had disintegrated, donated and checked in books were building up in stacks, and boxes of school supplies, textbooks, microscopes, and other materials that hadn't made it to classrooms or storage closets were stacked everywhere. I’ve spent the past three weeks fixing all of that, and it’s taken all of that time. I've redesigned the cataloging system, and am in the process of re-labeling and re-shelving the books accordingly. Bookends are scarce, so I've made some out of bricks from a Hands On construction site around the corner. I took an inventory of all the random school supplies and bulk books, and have succeeded in moving most of them to where they are actually supposed to be. The excavating process uncovered a small table and three large and very welcome windows.

The atmosphere in the school is lively and busy. Classes are large, and the students have a lot of energy. The administrators are always doing at least three things at once. I learned very quickly to act first and understand that if I do something I shouldn't someone will let me know. People have no time to do things for me, and very little time to think about how I could do things for myself if I ask for advice or permission.

In New England, it’s generally polite to stay in the background when you’re new to a place, ask people if you want to rearrange something or change the way something is done, and wait patiently for people to finish their conversations if you would like their attention. That's not how it works down here. Doing these things down here makes people concerned about my competence and/or intelligence: If I ask about changing something they wonder why I can't figure it out for myself, and why I so distinctly lack confidence and decisiveness. Moreover, standing differentially on the edges of someone's conversation is creepy and weird. People wonder “what’s wrong with her that she doesn't know how to ask for help?” and/or “why isn't the white girl talking?” Things were a bit awkward in the first week, but have gone much smoother since I developed better southern manners. (My apologies if I’m rude when I get back up north.  )

I really like the students. I will unashamedly admit that a few of them ran circles around me at first—I even got played* by a first grader – but I like to think I'm a bit wiser at this point. They were very patient with my initial inability to understand them when they spoke plain English (I told them I was hard of hearing, and they could hear my funny accent for themselves). They’re now pleased that my ears have improved to the point that we can speak normally, and delighted that my feeble memory can now hang onto their names (Joniqua, Chrishikiante, Derika, Ashikira, etc., all said with a THICK quick drawl). My name is The Library Lady, and sometimes Miss Petcher, Miss Patrice, or Miss Patrick. If they see me outside the library some of them will confuse me with The Drama Lady, who is also white. A couple of them think that because of this, we must be sisters.

I’ve had a lot of fun figuring out what they like to read. As everywhere, the Goosebumps books are impossible to keep on the shelves. Nonfiction books are the next most popular, especially how-to books for particular skills (books that teach drawing or magic tricks), joke books, and sports books (primarily basketball). Equally popular are books about black history and famous African-Americans. Rosa Parks is a special favorite, along with Martin Luther King Jr., Booker T. Washington, and – of course – Babe Ruth.

They're generally not as excited about fiction. The science-fiction & fantasy section is almost entirely ignored, the exception being the eight or so students that make a beeline for it every time they come in. (There are some in every school.) The rest like historical fiction, especially if it’s about black history (a current favorite is My Name Is Not Angelica), and books about contemporary teenagers going to school. It's with these books that I am the most dissatisfied. The basic problem is that the James Singleton library’s fiction collection – especially when it comes to young adult friends-with-angst books – is very similar to those that were in my school libraries. This includes The Babysitters Club, The Boxcar Children, Nancy Drew, The Hardy Boys, the complete works of Beverly Cleary, multiple complete sets of Little House on the Prairie, Sweet Valley High ad nauseam, Encyclopedia Brown, Cam Jansen, Madeline L’Engle’s books, etc. Most of them are great books, don't get me wrong — as a kid I loved them. These kids generally think they’re all right, but there’s definitely something blatantly missing. Kids want to read about themselves, especially during adolescence. What they’d really love to read is a Babysitters Club equivalent where all the main characters are black.

What’s even more frustrating is that most of these kids really can’t read. The deck is really stacked against them. The literacy rate in New Orleans even before Katrina was incredibly low, with 40% of the city’s population unable to read above a 5th grade level according to a local friend of mine. And that’s including the white population. These kids are bright, and they want to read. They just aren’t being given the support they need to learn. It’s not really the teachers—it’s the whole system.

My saddest moment so far has been when the vice principal came by and dropped off a seventh-grade boy he’d pulled out of class for disruptive behavior. This happens fairly regularly, and frankly it’s fine with me. At first he only wanted to look at basketball books, and he was generally surly. I eventually coaxed him toward other books, eventually finding one that captured his attention: a coffee-table book with historical photographs of black women from colonial times to the present. His surliness evaporated, leaving a bright, intent, engaged young man who deeply wanted to learn about these women and their lives. He chose to be late for basketball practice to stay with me in the library, struggling through the captions on the photographs, which he just couldn’t read on his own. Together we painstakingly read through the entire book. I left glad to have been able to help him, and enraged at the system that left him and the hundreds of other students at this school like him with skills so inadequate to serve their intelligence and interests.

I don’t think I need to tell you why I find this work so meaningful. Yes, Mum and Dad, I am going to be a teacher. It just might take me a few years to get there.

Erika and I have started a wish list for better books to add to the library. I want to give these kids something they’ll see as worth expending the effort to read. The wish list is at, or you can click this button:
My Wish List

Thanks in advance for helping to give these kids a better library!

* being “played” is like being tricked or hoodwinked. Here's an example, completely fabricated of course: if a first grader manages to get you to confirm her story that you told her to pull all the books off the shelf and re-shelve them upside down, backward, and in the wrong place, you got played.

1 comment:

Reed said...

So very interesting... and yet saddening as well. Thank you for keeping us updated. Love,