Monday, December 21, 2015

The Jane Heather McKee Library

When I was in fifth grade, I went to a tiny school in Delmont, Pennsylvania called Mamont Elementary. There was a room in the basement with books, and that was our library. No librarian, of course. One day I checked out a book called Girls Can Do It, Too! It had a picture of a girl in a cape making muscles. When I showed my teacher, my beloved Mrs. Silvis, whose pet I kind of definitely was, she said, "Uh-huh. I've been trying to get that out of the library for some time." She arched her eyebrow over her tortoise shell glasses. I felt bad for taking the book out. I don't think I read it.

Having the courage of my convictions is a daily struggle for me. That is why my friend Jane McKee is such an inspiration. She drives a huge, taxi-cab yellow monster truck with a license plate that says, EXPLORE. No money for exotic vacations? No problem. She worked as a maid so she and her daughter could summer in Maui. Fascinated by the Iditarod, Jane taught her 800+ students at Colfax K-8 about it, then drove to Alaska to work with a professional musher. Who DRIVES TO ALASKA alone with her 11-year old daughter? A brave woman, that's who.

Jane loves Assateague, the little island in Maryland where wild ponies roam. She spent so many days and night camping there, waking to gulls crying and waves crashing. I hate beach camping. Sand in cracks it shouldn't be in. Blah. But not Jane. Wild ponies. Crashing waves. Blue sky.

Jane dresses up each year in a different costume to make kids want to read more. She's the school Librarian. And what a Librarian. Believing mightily in the power of the sound of stories, Jane read stories aloud to thousands of kids. She started an international collection for the children from Mongolia, Japan, Haiti, Zimbabwe, Korea. With the help of her loving, supportive and mighty PTSO, she started a lending collection of American Girl dolls. She refuses to let kids be bullied. We call Jane the Pirate Librarian Queen.

But now Jane is in the hospital in serious condition. And a dream has started to form in my mind. And I thought, if I shared it with you, we might be able to think about it together and you could add your thoughts, and the kids could add theirs, and teachers could add theirs, and parents could add theirs. And since we are COLFAX, we could make miracles happen. Because that is what Colfax does. So here it is.

The Library at Colfax is too small. It does not function well as it is. And the space on the second floor is greatly needed as classroom space. So: let's build the Library the school deserves. For all the students. For Jane. For when she gets better.

You know where the garden is right now? Off of the art room? Great, sunny, beautiful space. Let's build a Library there, a 2-story space, with a courtyard in which the garden still is, and which an apiary and a bird watching space is. Let's put a star gazing space on the roof. Let's build a Young Adult Library inside it, with computers and a place to build films and robots. Let's make a story circle worthy of Jane's stories. Let's put a Maker Space in there. Let's endow it with a book budget worthy of the children who go to Colfax--- the East Hills children, who don't have a Library in their community, the Squirrel Hill children who may not have a Mom or Dad who can get them to the Library. Colfax is the experiment in public education, in desegregation-- in multiculturalism-- THAT WORKED. THAT WORKS. It is proof to all the Donald Trumps out there that the American Dream can be real. That it isn't just a lie.

Colfax is a crucible of the haves, the have nots, the Blacks, the whites, the browns, yellows, blues and greens. Colfax is the youngs and olds, the bused in and the walked over. Colfax is the place where the multicultural fair is attended by the whole neighborhood, where Orthodox kids come to play-- and sometimes come to school. It's the place where difference works. Can we build a LIBRARY, a treasure house of stories that opens children's hearts to this difference, to this value system? That will live forever in brick and stone, growing high with sunflowers inside and Jane's name over the door?

Can Colfax kids design it? Can Colfax parents build it? Can the District approve it? Can her friends be the mortar and the brick that help to make the miracle real? Prayers for Jane. Prayers for Colfax.

Post Script:
A teacher-leader at Colfax told me privately that she thought a building project at Colfax was a bad idea. She said that she thought there would be little support for such a project within District leadership, because Colfax is considered by some to be a privileged school full of privileged kids, and building in Squirrel Hill when schools in other parts of the city are struggling so mightily with much less that Colfax already has would be a poor political decision.

Maybe there are ways to make a library at Colfax, worthy of its many children, from all over the city and all over the world, possible. That will be something that the adults both inside and outside the school will have to do-- the staff and students and parents who loved Jane. I will join whatever effort is decided upon by this learning community, in any way I can.

In the meantime: I miss my friend. I keep her picture on the desk I use to get ready for work in the morning, and I talk to her every day. When somebody brings her up, I am startled, because I remember again that she is gone. I can't assimilate that very well. She is such a strong living force. I am still crying. But, Jane is a strength in my heart, too. She is and will always be the Pirate Librarian Queen for me-- a strong, independent woman who was kind, and loving, and righteous, without being self-righteous, or bitchy, or mean. She was the kind of woman I'd like to be more like. I am holding on to her example as a literal light out of the dark. Maybe the night we had the impromptu vigil for her at Colfax-- the night, it turned out, she passed away-- maybe that night her soul didn't fly to heaven, but nestled close to us, in each of those fragile, but glowing lights we held close. I love you, Jane.


  1. and costumes galore!

  2. Beautiful. Jane will love this idea!

  3. Yes. This can happen. I am in Florida and I love the idea. I want to help any way I can. Find me at my fb page... Jackie Rosenthal Pandey.

  4. Yes. This can happen. I am in Florida and I love the idea. I want to help any way I can. Find me at my fb page... Jackie Rosenthal Pandey.

  5. Amazing. We have to build.

  6. I woke up with my eyes still closed and saw three stained glass windows in Jane Heather McKee's new Library, on the wall that faces the art room. One is a waterfall scene from Maui, one is mountains and eagles and sled dogs in Alaska, and one has beaches and wild ponies at Assateague. On the door is a big, golden compass. And in the yard is a giant marooned pirate ship, with a pirate flag for kids to lower and raise as they play on it. I'm going to hold on to this vision today. All love.

  7. I just heard the terrible news! This really has to happen in memory of her.