I have a new job at an old school. When I say old, I mean really old. Here’s a photo of my not-so-new library:
Yup, that would be a roof leak, which is apparently a regular occurrence. There are other signs of age as well: my desk is so old that the drawers sit cockeyed in their tracks, but with 2600 students to serve I don’t sit down much anyway. The mustard yellow storage cabinets remind me of my 1970’s childhood refrigerator, and I don’t have a laptop computer or fancy window shades. In fact, I don’t really have windows at all.
Yet I could not be happier.
The building might be old, but the people are cutting edge. I am treated like a valued member of an innovative team. I’m surrounded by professionals who are not only allowed to have opinions, but who are actually encouraged to share them as well. I feel years of untapped potential spiraling out at a rate I cannot control, and my mind races all night with new ideas that I actually have the autonomy to implement. The freedom is both exhilarating and exhausting.
Last week two of the Biggest of the Big Bosses from the administration building popped in to see how things were going in the library. A class had just left, so I had a few minutes for an impromptu chat.
“So what are you doing to draw more kids into the library?” one of them asked.
You know how the most obvious and brilliant answers often occur to you after the opportunity has passed? That’s what happened. I mumbled something about getting some chess sets and rearranging the furniture, and who knows what else. It was a coherent enough response, but the monologue I had with myself in the car two hours later was downright prolific. Why didn’t I say this? Or that? My brain kept drifting to an amazing TED Talk where Rita Pierson said, “Kids don’t learn from people they don’t like.”
It’s so true.
Kids aren’t coming to the library because we bought a few chess boards and moved the comic books to the front of the room. I’m sure it helps that we are cleaning up the space and moving out old books in the hopes that we can replace them with current titles.
But the truth is, kids are coming to the library because of the way they are treated when they walk through the door.
Education is so clearly about people, not stuff. So why did I only talk about the stuff?!
If I could have a do-over of my conversation with those Biggest of the Big Bosses, I’d share a few anecdotes from the past week:
I’d tell them about the boy who stopped by at lunch looking more like a boot camp soldier than a high school student, with his hair trimmed in a bright red buzz cut. He asked for a copy of Where the Red Fern Grows, and on our way to the stacks I asked if he had ever read it before. “Seen the movie,” he replied in a standoffish tone that let me know this wasn’t a kid who found reading particularly cool.
We talked some more as I traced my finger along the shelves to find the book. It turns out his dog had been hit by a car the previous week, and he’d found the body hidden behind a dumpster. He was tense and full of anger, but his eyes were pure grief. My eyes welled with tears and I shared that we had recently lost two dogs as well. Before he left I extended both the book and my sympathy.
Funny thing, he’s been back nearly every day since.
We are making connections, I should have said. That’s why kids are coming here.
Or maybe I’d tell a story about our regulars. The library is a safe place for many misfits, but one girl stands out more than others this week. She was a regular at my old library, then moved across town to a second school, and now is at my new library. Three schools within one calendar year.
We arrived at the same time one day last week. My commute had been miserable: it was raining so hard that my windshield wipers were chasing each other on their highest setting, and I still couldn’t see a thing.
Her commute was worse. She walks to school each day, and doesn’t own rain or snow boots. She had been doused by countless cars, and was absolutely soaked from the waist down. Being a twelve year old misfit is hard enough, but can you image walking around middle school in sloshing shoes and pants that leave a puddle? In addition to being humiliated, she was also freezing. My heart broke for this poor child.
Luckily, the school counselors and nurse have a closet full of clothes, boots, coats, and other gear for kids in need. I gave them her name, and they promised they would take care of her.
And they did. Probably more than they realize, because when she showed up the next day she was still wearing her new pants.
The adults in this school care, I should have said. That’s how you get kids to come to school.
Of course, that’s not to say schools don’t need any stuff. We do.
To get that point across, I could have mentioned all the boys who have asked me, “Hey where are the basketball books?” I literally winced the first time I walked a group to that section, only to find dusty titles about long-dead players and the 1993 New Jersey Nets. Who?
Or the ambitious high school student who declared he is ready to learn all about the stock market. Did we have any books? Again, I had to wince. Our most up-to-date title was from 1988: Wall Street – How it Works. Somehow I think trading strategies have changed since then.
So I don’t want to write off the value of stuff entirely. A watertight roof, for example. It’s always a plus.
But in the end, there is no doubt that the people make all the difference in the world.
Whether it’s the classroom or the library, the front office or the counselor’s office, the playground or the lunchroom, every person in a school has the opportunity to make a connection. To treat a child with respect. To honor their opinions and, ultimately, make them want to walk through the door.
The next time those Big Bosses come back, I’ll be ready. But more importantly, I’ll be there again at 7 AM tomorrow morning, ready for the kids.