How can I unlearn this toxic lesson when it’s so deeply embedded in our everyday lives?
I never wanted to teach. As a starry-eyed 20-year-old pursuing by BA in English, my family would ask, “What are you going to do with that? Teach?” and I would make the same face you make when you don’t get your dog outside fast enough in the middle of the night. I felt the same about children as I did about surprise dog crap. Teach? Me? No way.
So, after graduation, when my plan to write the Great American novel didn’t pan out, I did what any slightly emo, Southern gothic literary nerd would do, and went to library school. I wasn’t going to teach, I was going to read! And they would pay me to do it! Now, as a part-time teen librarian in a large-ish diverse suburb in north Texas, I look back on that 24-year-old library student and alternatively want to laugh and throw up. Read for a living? Clueless.
The disgust I felt for kids and for teaching, though -- that makes me sick to my stomach. I’ve met some amazing kids in the last couple of years, and their drive to do better for themselves is inspiring.
I got swept into the teen department at my library by the enthusiasm of the full-time teen librarian, and by the amazing ways she showed me you can make a difference in these kids’ lives. Like when one of my regular girls comes in after school, crying because her BFFs found out that she’d had sex with her boyfriend and have all changed her name to “slut” in their iPhones –- bam! "Read The Truth About Alice" by Jennifer Mathieau, I tell her, you are not alone.
Once, a teen boy I’ve never seen in the library before complimented me on my new nail polish and asked for a story to help him come out to his parents, so I give him some David Levithan and some A.S. King.
Every summer, there is a kid whose eyes light up when I give her a free book to take home and keep –- her very first book. Ever. There are the kids that come directly after school because no one else is at home and we have after-school snacks, which are usually their last meal of the day. There are the kids who can’t get their homework done without the library’s computers. These teens have parents working multiple jobs to keep their families clothed and fed and sheltered, and can’t spare any extra money for the Internet, even if the school will loan teens laptops for the semester.
I’m lucky. My library, which is in the poor side of town, is fairly well supported –- mostly by businesses paying taxes on the rich side of town. Their employees go to nicer branch libraries closer to home. These are patrons I rarely see. I have to do a lot of fundraising and grant writing, but we’ve been able to maintain our opening hours in the new economy. Other libraries aren’t so lucky, and can only open two to three days a week, or close completely.
If my patrons, the poor kids in a slightly wealthy town, need us for after-school snacks, computer access, and a sense of community, then the teen patrons of poorer communities struggling to keep their libraries open definitely do.
According to the American Library Association, teens are the most likely to suffer from lack of library funding. We are vital to learning –- social, digital, traditional -– and preparing teens to enter the changed workforce is a task that many schools have not been able to keep up with. In 2010, half of the teens in the United States reported coming to the library to use a computer, but libraries across the country are still closing. The necessary funding from local, state, and the national government is not coming.
In a time when Congress is gridlocked and the country seems ready to split in two, it is obvious to librarians and those who work directly with these kids every day that the next generation is the one that’s suffering. For all the talk of increased education and STEM programming to improve America’s place in the global economy during campaign season, one of the major players in supporting and continuing this education is constantly underfunded, under-staffed, and has dwindling support from the general public who see libraries as unnecessary in the time of e-books (which we totally have for you, for free!).
I have yet to meet a librarian who has not felt passionately about his or her job. We work with the public because we strongly believe in the principles that libraries were founded on: free access to information, the right to read, the right to improve yourself. We don’t charge for our services because we feel we’re upholding the cornerstone of democracy.
The full-time teen librarian and I host programs for our teens with e-textiles and Raspberry Pi. We use our grant money to install Macs, photo and video editing software, and teach ourselves to use it all off the clock so we can pass on the knowledge to our teens. This summer, I hosted a mini microbot program for tweens to educate them on the robotics used in the healthcare industry, and gave them the opportunity to design and create their own models with common household objects.
These are programs that are increasing kids’ creativity and sneaking education in at the same time, something that doesn’t get to happen in a traditional classroom setting. I’m not required to follow state-mandated curricula and I don’t give lectures. Kids who participate in library programming learn to adapt information in new ways. They get excited about coming to the library because we do amazing and fun things, but the information they pick up sticks with them.
A study by The Journal of Technology Education illustrates that this kind of collaborative learning enhances critical thinking. The services we offer at my library are no different than the services being offered by teen departments in libraries across the country –- all staffed by librarians who are passionate about improving the lives of their teen patrons. The only difference is that we can afford to do it, and many cannot.
Without proper funding and support, libraries will close. This will be an enormous blow for education in this country, and teens will suffer the brunt of it. Unless this country can get its act together and start agreeing that financial support for educational institutions and libraries is just as important as military funding or money for fighting a woman’s right to choose (here’s looking at you, Texas!), our teens will not grow up to be the great American workforce they’re expected to be. Another generation will finish college with massive debt, move back in with their parents, put off purchasing homes and cars and starting families, and the people who refused support for their education will be shaking their heads, wondering what happened.
I’ll be in my library, making the most from what I have, and trying to give these kids their chance.