OK. I’ll admit I was not the child who devoured books. In fact, reading books was the least of my interests. Instead I was an only child with a great imagination who spent most of my time with imaginary friends and siblings or with my cousins who lived two blocks away. Although I knew reading was necessary and important, I enjoyed being read to rather than reading to myself or others. The library was not on my list of favorite places to visit. Instead you were sure to find me at the local school playground swinging, climbing, racing, and riding my bike. Reading…well, reading was just not my thing. Today, as a school librarian, I encounter reluctant readers of all ages who share similar backgrounds in which reading is not on their radars. It is in those moments that I find it a privilege to engage them. I seize the opportunities to reflect and share my story of how the library became my gateway to reading.
It’s been four decades, but I vividly remember sitting quietly in a round-robin style reading group in a third-grade classroom, waiting impatiently for my turn to read aloud. Knowing we each had approximately one to two paragraphs of our own to read, I would calculate my readings and sub-vocalize every single word. I wanted to make sure that I enunciated every syllable when my turn came because it was no fun to stumble and stutter over words. Students who did that were not called good readers. It was the students who used “good diction” and animated voices who were the readers. My voice had to be perfectly projected with inflections and intonations so that all would know that I, too, was a good reader. And so I did, over and over again, until one day my teacher asked a question directly related to the reading, and I was clueless. Until then I thought what I had been doing was reading when in fact I was reciting. Reciting memorized words on sight, better known as sight words, and answering lower-level questions that posed no challenge to my intellect. But on that day it became increasingly clear that I was not a good reader; I was a good faker–but that would soon change
For me it happened two years later in fifth grade during a classroom library visit. I perused the book cases, searching for something, anything, that looked interesting, but more importantly something that I could relate to, perhaps a person or character who was like me. Unfortunately school libraries during the early 80s were not aesthetically pleasing and were void of bright and attractive book jackets to adorn the shelves. Furthermore, I don’t recall school librarians doing a very good job of marketing new titles. It was a challenge. As I ran my fingers across the spine of biographies, I noticed a familiar name, Cosby as in Bill Cosby. The only thing I knew about Cosby was that he had something to do with The Fat Albert Show, and I loved that show because those characters reminded me of people I knew. I decided it was worth a try, so I checked it out. As I read about Bill Cosby’s life in this biography, I learned what reading was all about: connecting and identifying with what you read and creating new experiences and expanding others. It was exciting and it was liberating. My life was forever changed, and I began to read like never before–not only because the practice of it built confidence, but also because I learned reading was a gateway to my community and the world. There were pleasures, explorations of the unknown, travels around the globe for a young black girl from the inner city, and discovering the life of the mind, my mind. I increased my capacity to learn in the pages of books found on the shelves of a school library.
I am reminded of this experience whenever I look into the faces of my students who visit the library who, too, can be good fakers. They will recite with dramatic flair and note punctuations and quotes, and, truthfully, they have great voices that entertain their classmates, except for one thing: they rarely connect with what they read. They can neither recall nor reflect on the readings. Therein lay the teachable moments for not only students but also myself. And because I have witnessed this so much, I am immediately moved to develop a plan of action, a resolution, a proposal, a motion, a working-it-out of some sort. My answer: give them something that deeply piques their interests. Build relationships with students and find out what they want to read and what they need to know. I design a collection of books with which they can connect. Students desire books with characters who remind them of themselves, particularly students of color. Those with strengths and flaws that mirror their own. They enjoy texts that speak of otherworldly environments that take them away from daily teenage drama. Young readers yearn to unpack mysteries. Therefore as the school librarian who struggled with reading, it’s my goal to develop a school of readers who get hooked at the school library.