Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Let's Get Ugly and True

Another day, another dismal library to fix. The Manchester Miracle is almost over. The Library was redone by Sam's Club. Truly. I know-- its strange: Sam Walton, the Wal-Mart goon who oppressed millions with his Carnegie-esque gospel of wealth philosophy fixing up a public school library. But let's face it: Sam is dead. The good Sam's Club did here was because of a community organizer named Kezia Ellison, who started a foundation called Educating Teens About HIV, Inc. and a solid group of working-class Sam's Club managers.

Kezia lives a few streets over from Manchester and became aware of the library situation there because of the media push Jessie Ramey and I engineered. She showed up the Monday after the front page article in the Post-Gazette and asked me what I wanted for the space. This is what I told her:

* new paint
* new carpet
* a gorgeous, fancy author's chair
* new blinds
* clean everything: windows, wooden shelves, etc.
* more bookshelves
* a story circle carpet
* a bank of computers for kids to search the catalog on
* a new circulation desk
* more books
* giant, good quality bean bag chairs
* a SMART Board
* a wall-sized political map of the world

Kezia took notes, the map I drew of where everything should go, and left. I didn't think anything of it until she came back, telling me she had spoken with the entire North Eastern region of Sam's Club and had gotten them to provide everything on my list for the library. In a matter of five weeks, the Manchester Miracle Library went from prison block hell to professional designer-designed (Perlora Furniture donated professional interior designers and a pale green wool author's chair) heaven. The pale warm yellow walls reflect the sunshine. A 6'6" ficus tree spreads out behind the author's chair, which sits on the enormous story circle carpet. A political map shows computer surfers the world while they work the three new laptops. An enormous and brand-new YA section faces the bean bag chairs. We have had the first meeting of our first middle school book club.

Our miracle, begun via social media and made true and real by the good hearts of people all over the world, broadened, expanded and grew into a glowing jewel, a gift: a gorgeous community center for teachers and underprivilged kids inside a poor school. A sanctuary in the middle of a struggling neighborhood that is beautiful, rich and full of resources.

You know what it doesn't have? A librarian. Seriously. Theoretically, one day a week kids can get in their gorgeous sanctuary, when the librarian comes. But in reality she doesn't come once a week: she's on a 6-day schedule and comes when her schedule allows. So, the most beautiful room many of us will ever see sits empty and echoing while kids go book-less, library-less, sanctuary-less. Welcome to my freakin' world.

Other posts by me and by better writers like Jessie Ramey of Yinzercation explain in detail why this is. In short, our state has an incredibly corrupt governor and state system that instead of protecting public education as a public good, gives it away to the highest bidder. In the name of supporting his largest campaign contributor, Tom "Corporate" Corbett cut $1 BILLION from our schools this year and is relaxing PSSA and other standards for charter schools. This is killing the public schools. The Philadelphia system is dead, and now he's coming for Pittsburgh. Dr. Linda Lane, our Superintendent, was left trying to run a school system with less money and teachers than ever. She set up a system where schools have library service once a week-- the best she or anybody could do under the circumstances.

The problem is that many libraries in the public schools hadn't had librarians for years prior to this mess. So-- now that each library must serve children once a week, somebody was needed to "redd up" the libraries and get them in shape to see kids. That's where I come in. I'm paid as a sub three days a week to rehab unloved libraries.

And my newest library is Pgh Carmalt K-8. The poor thing. It's filthy, sad and bereft of books. Broken book shelves, empty bookshelves, bookshelves with torn, dirty and worn out books, stained carpet, a storeroom more than a classroom, with TV-VCR carts crowding aisles between bookshelves and old curricular materials where the biographies should be. For 100 bucks a day I'm paid to clean out the back rooms, clean out the library, and try to bring some light and organization to the collection. So I'm schlepping boxes of books, tossing old crap, dusting, cleaning. With a Master's Degree and five years' experience, this is what I'm doing. Not that there isn't some professional expertise needed: there is. What you throw out and what you put on the shelves draws on training and experience and can't really be done by anybody but a professional librarian. It's the dimming light down the tunnel that kills me: the lack of resources with which to enliven these libraries. Miracles don't happen all the time. And the fact that I probably won't have a job at all next year in any capacity within my chosen field.

Mismanagement and poor allocation of resources makes me crazy. Put a really talented and motivated teacher like me in front of kids full time. Provide each library with a full time librarian and a part time aide so that each library becomes what Manchester is: a gift, a gentle light for good, a sanctuary, a place of growing. Give each librarian an iron-clad book budget so she can build her collection free of the fear of that money being grabbed to pay for other needed supplies in school. Quit being so damn stupid, world. Do the right thing. Demand library service for kids. NOW.




  1. I am very moved--and angered--by your story. I don't know what else to say. All I can do is pass it on and hope for more miracles. Certainly, we know the corporate politicos won't lift a finger to rectify this injustice. Pittsburgh is lucky to have you, a person strong enough to continue fighting for what kids need.