I run a not-for-profit organization that refurbishes school libraries. One Saturday, I arrived at a school around 7:00 a.m. to find the entire block around the school cordoned off due to an early morning shooting. The officer informed me that under no terms was anyone to be allowed near the school site (though the shooting took place a block away). It is communities just like this that need school libraries. There is no bookstore, and the public library, for most children, is a dangerous walk away. With fifty volunteers arriving and a carload of books and paint, I had to quickly schmooze my way past the barrier. After a bit, volunteers started to trickle in and the day began. One boy, Johnny, came early and was ready to paint his school. I quickly gave him a task and sent him to work. A teacher pulled me aside, “Oh, don’t give him anything important do to—he’s all trouble, that kid.” I had paired him with a wonderful artist, whom he followed and assisted all day. At the end of the day, Johnny helped me clean the last of the brushes and load the car. I offered him a ride home.
On the way home, he divulged that he lived with his grandmother, and had never met his mother, and this is relationship with his father was limited to occasional prison visits. He also revealed that he felt like he was in his own prison. “I live behind these walls at school and we are told what to do all day. We have to even walk a certain way to the lunchroom. I come home and we live behind bars and my grandma be tellin’ me what to do all day. I feel like I can’t breathe sometimes.” I let him know what a great job he had done as I escorted him to his grandmother’s door. When we were almost to the door he asked if he could paint another school. I talked with his grandmother and she agreed that he could come with me the next six Saturdays, as long as I picked him up.
As with every student that helps paint their library, Johnny was sent home with a stack of books. Each Saturday he reported that he had read his books, and asked for more.
The last Saturday we were to spend together, I followed our usual ritual of walking him to the door. This time, his grandmother was waiting for me, arms folded and looking quite stern. “I need to talk to you,” she barked. Though she was substantially shorter than I am, she seemed to tower over me. I meekly went into the living room, expecting a real scolding, though I had no idea why. She put her hands on her hips and declared, “I don’t know what you done to this boy, but he changed. It used to be them other boys would come by so they could run wild in the streets and he don’t go.” As I was silent, she continued “you know what he be doing?” Before I could answer, she continued, “HE BE READING. He be up in his bed—ALL DAY—READING.” She then shot me a smile.
I smiled back, relieved, then turned to Johnny and asked, “what is it about the books you like?” He looked up at me and responded, “Oh Miss Becky, they take me to a world I ain’t ever known.”
All my frustrations—with difficult volunteers, obstinate principals, back pains from moving books, and panic attacks about funding—washed away. Through my tears, I could see Johnny crying and I could see his grandmother crying. It was all worth it.
Rebecca Constantino is the founder and Executive Director of the not-for-profit Access Books. Rebecca holds a Ph.D. in Language, Literacy, and Learning. She has published over 100 articles and a book in the areas of literacy development, equity in education, urban school and cultural perspectives of language acquisition. Having lived and worked in numerous countries, she has been involved in language and literacy development programs in Russia, South Africa, and Eastern Europe. Currently, she teaches Language Acquisition and Reading courses at the University of California, Irvine. Her favorite chidren’s book is Caps for Sale. She reads it almost daily with two of her three children.
Access Books provides quality, high-interest books to Southern California’s most impoverished school libraries. Many students at the schools they serve simply do not have anything to read. They are changing that one library at a time. For more information, and to find out ways to help, please visit their website.