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Tuesday, October 11, 2011

They Don't Need No Education

A kid recently asked me to help him print out some Google images of the following subjects:

- The Joker from The Dark Knight
- Tupac Shakur
- A poster for the movie "Scarface"
- An artist's rendering of the sinking Titanic 

The kid told me that he needed these pictures for an English project at school, and other than the fact that Tupac wrote a book of poetry,  I couldn't connect the dots. I casually asked the kid what exactly he needed to do with the pictures.

"These are for my writer's notebook. They're supposed to give you ideas."

He explained what the writer's notebook was (a place to write down thoughts while reading - to be used later for book reports and the like) and that he was going to paste these pictures on its cover for inspiration.   

This doesn't exactly scream "literary inspiration" to me,
but then again, I'm not a 10-year-old boy.
I contemplated the pictures. They had potential for sparking creative impulses, I guess, but they were also a little dark for the fifth grade. Although I didn't want to outwardly judge or give unsolicited advice, I still felt compelled to ask: "Do you think 'Scarface' is appropriate for school?"

The kid shrugged.

Me: "Why do you like it?"

Kid: "I dunno. It has a lot of action."

That's an understatement.

Me: "Yeah. It's pretty violent. Then again, so are things that the Joker does."

Kid: "Yeah. I want to be in his gang!"

Sigh. I guess it's good to have role models?

"Was THIS the grade on your your report card?"

I recently sent out a message on Twitter: "Helped a kid with homework. I had to inform her that Long Island is not a state and 'fivity' is not a number. Lord help us." I was being flippant, but this transaction really did bother me. This kid was definitely old enough to know the number 50. Did she really not learn this in school? Was it just a language barrier thing? Was the fact that she was asking ME for help after school, rather than a parent, a troubling sign of the times?

It's not really my intention to talk in depth about the state of education in America because A) Others have done it better B) I feel pessimistic about it for a variety of reasons C) thinking about it too hard makes my stomach hurt (primarily because I had a VERY brief and unsuccessful stint in teaching high school English, an experience that deserves its own blog post or possibly a tear-soaked memoir). But every day I see evidence that cutting funds for education and libraries is NOT in the best interest of this country. (Are you listening, politician people?) 

I took this few months ago outside a Manhattan B&N.
Kinda says it all, doesn't it?
The truth is, I worry I'm not doing enough as a librarian to guide these kids when they are in my care. I do storytimes, class visits, book displays, and endless reference work. How much responsibility do I have if a kid doesn't do well on a paper? How much guilt should I feel when I sometimes have to tell a kid "I'm sorry, I don't have time to sit down with you and help you with your homework"? Should I be running down children on the street to make sure they all have library cards?

It's a hopelessly complex topic, this education thing. (Another understatement.) There are no easy answers. Hell, even the questions aren't easy. But it's my hope that I am doing my own small part to help raise a generation of Homers instead of Homer Simpsons. Sadly, I'll never really know. Sometimes I wish I still got a report card too. 


  1. Deep breaths. We do what we can. If I spent every minute of the day that students are in school helping students, I would get under three minutes per week with each of them. Do I try? Yes. Do I always succeed? No. Parents have to bear some of the responsibility!

  2. Great post! Of course I agree about how vital it is to fund libraries and education. But I think the kid in your first example has awesome, operatic ideas for writerly inspiration.

  3. This was a heartbreaking post, but a well-written one. And at least all the kids you see in the library are the ones who are...well, in the library!

    I actually think it might be a positive thing that kids who don't have a grasp of States and numbers come to you rather than their parents. I know that I'd constantly be correcting a child if she made such mistakes around me and that hadn't happened. Thus, I conclude that she realized her parents either weren't knowledgeable enough or available enough to help her learn, while you might be.

    Good for the fivity speller for finding someone to help rather than not caring!

    Good for you for caring!

  4. I work at a university library. A few weeks ago, a student approached my co-worker and asked, "Do you have any books here?" It was not a joke.

    I'm glad to hear you're available to them when they're still young. It's very discouraging when a college student writes a paper with similar errors as the girl you mentioned.

  5. Thanks for the comments, guys. Paul, I appreciate your optimism! I know we can only do what we can do.

    I can imagine it's even more frustrating to face these problems in the context of higher education. I guess that will inspire me to do an even better job to help the kids while they are still in their formative years!

  6. Rita, from what I've been able to glean, you do a lot for the kids you come across. You're accessible and available. You CARE. That is so important, and it can make a huge difference in a child's life.

    Honestly, I think the education system is flawed. I don't necessarily know how to fix it, but I see kids who don't know things that they should. Some don't know that there's a difference between your and you're -- and they're at the age where they SHOULD know. So, what went wrong? That's the question.

    But I do know that anyone is lucky to have you as a resource. That you give as much as you can. I used to visit the library ALL the time when I was little, and I knew that I could always ask her a question. There's a security in that.

    Wonderful post, Rita.

  7. Ali, thank you so much for the kind words. It is nice to hear that you have good memories of your librarian - maybe it's not all futile after all! :)

  8. What also scares me are the kids (tweens and sometimes teens!) who not only don't know their phone # or address, but don't even know what city they live in.,

  9. Hopeless complex indeed! You would think Education is something we just began doing.

  10. I knew a kid who had a scarface backpack. He was in the fourth grade. This kid was always getting into trouble for stealing stuff from the teacher. That's how I became acquainted with his backpack. She asked me to search all the kids' backpacks. Very low point in my career as a teacher's aide. All I remember thinking at the time is what kind of parent buys their kid a scarface backpack? How do you reach the conclusion that such a purchase is a good idea? Sigh.

  11. The big thing at my library is that none of the kids can tell time. Also, they have no concept of time, because if I tell them something is in half an hour, they're confused. Not fun, but I did successfully teach a 7 year old how to read a clock a few weeks ago, so that's something.