I was about to be another lost librarian in the Chicago Public Schools system when I got my dismissal letter a month ago. But my students surprised me with a “read in” protest at DuSable (three small high schools in one building) on the South Side of Chicago. About 200 of them walked out of class, came to the library and took a book. Then they sat either in the library or the hallway reading for three hours. Students covered the hallway with posters. They followed up with a social media campaign and petition. Aided by the teachers and other adults that I work with as well as parents and alumni, we were able to have the decision overturned.
The school district has been cynically cutting school librarian positions especially in high schools and especially in African American high schools for a number of years. When I heard about several other librarians that I know whose positions were cut, I got the data from the Chicago Teachers Union research department. I am one of three remaining high school librarians working in an all Black high school – out of 28 such schools. System wide at this point, one in three CPS schools have a school librarian so the disparity is clear.
CPS network officials were shocked that my students were willing to risk punishment to demand their right to have a school librarian and library. It is not often that we see this type of activism on Chicago’s South and West sides, but it is happening more frequently recently, due to the BlackLivesMatter movement.
Why did my students take this risk? Let’s look at their own words. During the protest, they were told by adults from outside the building that they would still have access to the library, it would just be staffed by a volunteer, so what were they complaining about? My students knew better.
“Who will help me to do research when I have a big project?”
Librarians are generalists and specially trained in research skills so be it a science, a history or an art project, we know how to find online and print resources and we educate both students and teachers.
“The library is my sanctuary.”
We are trained teachers as well as librarians and have clear ideas what a well functioning library where students are free to read, inquire, think and relax looks like. It is often the only such place in the school and a refuge for the quieter more intellectual students.
“Being from the South Side is already a huge disadvantage.”
Students have few books in the home and live in dangerous neighborhoods where strolling to the public library is not an option. For many, the school library is their only library. Consider also that the students may come from environments where people do not read and they need help navigating the world of books. Many are eager to do so but unable on their own.
“I always go there at lunch and she helps me.”
With computer skills, research, finding a book, essays and college scholarships, job searching, organizational skills, and even social skills.
“She brings extracurricular activities to our school.”
Working for the two schools, I am in a unique position to act as a bridge between them and also to do outreach to the local community. Students recognize that I am the engine behind their access to clubs and programs such as Book Club, Improv and Jazz Band. After school clubs other than athletics are very scarce at our schools but sometimes can be the one thing that inspires a student.
Increasingly, our society is like the Hunger Games with winners and losers. So while I am satisfied for now with the outcome for me and my students, the larger battle is being lost. Every child has the right to have a librarian and library in their school and once it is gone it is so hard to get back. As for the reasons behind this, a quote from CTU president Karen Lewis on our petition says it all, “Librarians are the vanguard of critical thinking skills. These technocrats know this. Purposeful sabotage.”