For the past week, I’ve been taking my books out of my classroom.
I have over 1,800 books that I have purchased over the course of five years teaching at my school. Students recognized my bookshelves covering an entire wall of my classroom immediately, but very rarely did I receive comments on this from administration. In fact, I cannot think of a single time it had been praised or acknowledged. This was most likely because a) they could care less about expenditures and assets that produce no quantifiable value, or b) because they are embarrassed that teachers must compensate for a budget that hardly makes it to the classroom.
But now I have started to take the books home. The trips to school with cardboard boxes from recent food deliveries, the eerie quiet of the long hallways, the primary and secondary colored paint on the walls looking drab and unused in this stark building, a large facility with empty cells, it is a bell ringing the death of some idea I had about education. An event that was completely cancelled due to coronavirus left classroom door decorations up that now look post-apocalyptic. I stack full boxes on an office chair and roll them to the elevator, and then to the front door of the school. I have many different sized boxes, and for hours I maneuver the books into them with their awkward sizes, burning with contempt at the very idea that I would have to take the books home at all. What a foolish idea this all was. Why don’t we just give the students kindles in 5th grade? What was the point of all this waste?
The feeling I had over the existence of the classroom library inconsistently fluctuated between success and failure. Young people do not read (older ones don’t either), and they certainly do not read books. As such, it took four straight months of mandated read time for students to take the hint and pick up a book they enjoyed. I had no direction for them and no orders. They could start a book they liked, and stop when they pleased. They could reread a book, or never get past the first page. There were no quizzes.
I would ask so little of them, because for the first time in their lives, I wanted a teacher who gave them the cake, rather than the icing. I wanted them to see that reading could be equated with breathing, as a necessary function of adult life.
The results were mixed. Some students did not need me at all, and read over 25 books in the school year and checked out books in the summer. Some students would throw my books behind the bookshelves and their covers would tear and I would ask them politely to replace my book and then when they didn’t, I would demand of them to do it, and then I would email their parents to say they had to do it. And yet it would never get done. Students repeatedly stole and damaged books so often that I felt little better than Sisyphus.
The whole point of the library was to convince students to read, but now I see that I had every opportunity for the system to stop me. I could only see them for 90 minute blocks. Even then many students would simply stare at the pages, or would put their phones in front of their books, and then hold the books up. Some students would use the book as a shade and lay down and take a nap. 10th grade students had every habit from elementary school, and those years had stomped out any intention to read, save for the most dedicated. My ideas were always not for the students who were good as students, but for those who had given up on the educational system. Ever since my years as a special education teacher starting out, I knew that these were the most in need. The books were an attempt to persuade them.
Yet here I am, firmly realizing that I never did that.
Now I am taking the books home. They are stacked very unneatly in my garage. For a while I thought about leaving the books at school. It wasn’t worth all that work, I thought, taking them home. But then I slapped myself mentally. These are my books! I own these. And now there’s a renewed energy in my step, a newly clenched jaw of resilience. I have been given a gift in this time of a personal library. Many of the books are young adult, yes, but many are not. I have every right now to my library, as I did before, only I hadn’t seen it that way. I’m going to go home and finally dig out that copy of Anna Karenina.
There will be a sign up on the front of my house after all these books are back. It will be a black sign with bold and capitalized orange letters, and it will say:
BEWARE: WHITE MAN READING