Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Dreams Fulfilled and the Manchester Miracle

Last Tuesday night I dragged home, completely exhausted and despairing. I had spent the day sweating in a cement block room painted a peeling institutional and hideous mint green. Dirty windows, spider webs, piles of trash and discarded supplies, and a less-than-enthusiastic music teacher shared the space with a piano, untouched African drums and all the music teacher's lists of rules all over the walls. The long-gone Librarian's office was stacked to the ceiling with old boxes of uncataloged books, that when opened, offered little to be excited about: culled from closed schools a decade ago, they were dirty, outdated and had broken bindings. But that wasn't what I was despairing about. When I looked at the fiction section, sandwiched in between music text books and health text books-- both classes are taught in the until-my-arrival defunct library, there were only 40-60 usable books. For a Kindergarten-8th grade school. With many special needs classrooms, kids with differing and important needs, in a struggling and sometimes violent and dismal neighborhood. Walking to the public library is sometimes too dangerous. And, with No Child Left Behind, kids with low reading scores generally don't make AYP, which puts them in danger of losing more resources. Inequity, thy name is politics meddling in education. Anywho--

I had recently been placed in the Pgh Public Schools as a Librarian sub. I would have 1 day to serve a school of 300 and 1 day to serve a school with 2 campuses and over 500 kids, and the other three days a week, I'd serve as a rehab specialist of sorts for those libraries that hadn't had a Librarian for a long time.Our current Superintendent, Linda Lane, is making an effort toward equity in our city. She passed an educational delivery model that demands a librarian in every Pittsburgh Public School. Great, right? Yes, except that there wasn't money to hire a librarian for every school- with the end result being that each Pgh Public Schools K-5 and K-8 librarian still standing now has 5 schools a week to serve, with only a few exceptions. This is a terrible situation for everybody. But of course it is part and parcel of the current political movement toward making publics so untenable for parents and children that they are forced to consider either private schools (funded by vouchers) or for-profit charter schools. These for-profits are making CEOs rich. So are the test-making, checking and implementing companies stuffing themselves like pigs with the cash No Child Left Behind's obsession with testing spews toward them. Who is losing? Children. Poor children especially. And people who were truly born to be educators. Nobody wants to damage children, least of all people like me who have gone into excessive debt to gain the education and training necessary to devote myself body and soul to a low-paying career nurturing them.

So-- back to being despairing. I posted a picture of the empty library shelves on Facebook with a status about my state of mind and why. Then I made a Wish List on Amazon. (Amazon Wish List for Manchester K-8) And the magic started. Jessie Ramey, one of the most important voices on public education and equity writing today, is the author of the Yinzercation blog and my friend on Facebook. She wrote a wonderful blog article about what I experienced at Manchester (library-books-and-equity) and people started commenting, sharing, and buying books off of the Wish List. I spent some time tweeting to friends, people I admire, people I thought might care, and Pgh community organizations, referencing the list and Jessie's article.

 The thing went viral. The Pittsburgh Post Gazette came out to do an interview and on Saturday, they published an article about what was increasingly becoming a miraculous regional and national miracle. ( The Amazon list was going CRAZY. Every time I checked it, another 20-30 books had been purchased from it. Besides my full time job, keeping books on the list was literally my full-time occupation. I was staying up late and getting up at 4AM to wrack my brain for books that would well serve the Manchester population, poring over on-line "Best Of" lists and begging Librarian friends to log on to Amazon as me to help me keep the list full.

Jessie Ramey worked her magic behind the scenes. Emailing, following up with emails sent to me and to her, tracking down radio shows to talk to, writing additional blog articles, ( reaching out to people she knows and knows of, Jessie was and is the driving force behind the Manchester Miracle, as I've called it. To date, we've been offered grants, offers of help from far and wide, and almost 800 books have been purchased from the list. Plus there are thousands-- I mean it, thousands-- of books in boxes on my front porch and turning my living room into a book warehouse.

The world is good, people are good, and people Black, White and every color care about equity and kids. That's good to know, because getting our schools and our libraries to the place they need to be is going to require the back breaking work of all of us. I'm proud to be part of it.