Friday, May 20, 2011

Ms. Hollar

I have never met anyone who loves books and reading more than Margaret Hollar, our Shamrock media specialist. That love shows in her face whenever she picks a book up from her desk, looks at the cover, then pages intently through, searching for a favorite passage. It fills her voice as she expounds on characters or turns of phrase or the many different lessons she believes stories can teach. And it is shining at full force this morning, as she sits at one end of our media center and describes the "Gift of Reading" program she's created. Each year Shamrock staff and volunteers gather several hundred books, enough for every student to give one to a classmate as a gift. Books are wonderful, Ms. Hollar explains, but they're even better when they're shared.

The visitors arrayed around the table smile with her. They've come from the Target Corporation and the Heart of America Foundation to consider Shamrock for an extraordinary gift – a full-scale makeover that would turn our beloved but shabby media center into the showplace of our school.

They're here because they believe that both libraries and community matter. The Heart of America READesgin initiative gathers groups of volunteers to create beautiful libraries at high-poverty schools. The foundation has two goals, to "teach the values at the heart of America," and to remind participants "that they help themselves when they help others."

I can't think of a better place to pursue both those goals than Shamrock's media center. It's the crossroads of our school, where staff and students meet to seek information, share ideas, help one another learn. It's a place where caring staff inspire children to fish for knowledge, then teach them how to go about it, both on the shelves and in the frequently treacherous waters of the World Wide Web. Like all the other school libraries across the nation, it plays a crucial role in our democracy – creating independent citizens who can think for themselves.

The center buzzes with activity from the time the school doors open until well after the last bell rings. Each morning, while the news team prepares its daily broadcast, streams of students come to return finished books and check out new ones. After school, following a day of class activities, you're likely to run into a group of teachers discussing books and projects, or a handful of students who've stayed late to work on PowerPoints, edit videos, participate in book clubs or research science projects.

Ms. Hollar knits all these activities together with a voice that carries, a laugh that booms, and that love of books and stories that spills out almost every time she speaks. She's full of great suggestions for students who want something new to read, and she always has the best costumes for reading dress-up day, from Pippi Longstocking to Pete the Cat to a can of reading spinach.

Anyone who works with children will tell you that learning depends on relationships. Kids don't just imbibe knowledge from books, computer screens or standardized tests. They learn because skilled and dedicated individuals inspire and guide them. We are lucky to have so many of those people at our school.

It's great to sit at that media center table and tell our visitors about what goes on in the space around us. We could rhapsodize all day about books and projects and the dreams we have for all of Shamrock's students. But the representatives can only stay so long. There are three finalists for the award, and they have to move on to the next school on their list. They thank us, and take their leave.

A few hours later, the phone rings. We've won.

It's hard to describe the feeling. Our staff members work so hard for Shamrock's kids. They do so much with our ragged building, our limited supplies, the little help that we can give them. Finally, they and the kids will have one room marked by the grandeur that their endeavors deserve – a room outfitted to help them all sail even further.

* * *

If you've been following the education budget cuts in Charlotte – or anywhere else in the country – you know what's coming next.

Last Friday, May 13, Ms. Hollar got a pink slip.

North Carolina's state legislators, steadfast in their zeal to slash every tax in sight, had cut state funds for support staff. On the ground in CMS, this cut translated into a requirement that every school eliminate one of three positions: counselor, literary facilitator or media center specialist. Principals were forced to make an agonizing decision. Would they cut support for students' physical and emotional needs (the counselor, who often doubles as a social worker), for basic skills (the literacy facilitator), or for a rich curriculum (the media specialist)?

The principals at half of CMS's schools – 80 of 164 – chose to cut a media center specialist. Shamrock was one of those.

North Carolina legislators are not alone in considering school librarians expendable. A brief Web foray turned up articles about librarians laid off and libraries shuttered in California, Michigan, Indiana, Washington, and many other states. I found a Google Map littered with tags that marked communities where school librarians had lost their jobs.

I read a chilling description of the way that the Los Angeles district "prosecuted" of many of its laid-off librarians during a Kafkaesque procedure in which school system lawyers did their best to prove that someone who had served as a school librarian was incapable of teaching children in a classroom.

We have come to a sad place if our country's elected leaders have become so pinched and parsimonious that they can't see their way to provide all our schools with well-staffed libraries, to keep in place the dedicated individuals who teach our children how to effectively embark upon a search for knowledge. To become well-informed citizens. To fish for themselves.

* * *

Monday I picked lillies from my garden to take to the staff members who got pink slips. Parker asked me why we were taking flowers to school. I explained. He stopped in his tracks, and his eyes went wide.

"Not Ms. Hollar!" he exclaimed.

He thought a minute.

"Does this mean I'll never see her again?" he asked.

It was the morning of the first day of EOG testing. Not the best time for a discussion of the painful realities of life. I told him we'd be fighting for Ms. Hollar's job, and that he should focus on his test. We'd talk more about it later.

Next week, our principal will accept our makeover award in the grand atrium of the Library of Congress, surrounded by stained glass skylights, gilded vaults and towering marble columns that proclaim the value of libraries and the knowledge they contain.

If any of our public institutions deserve such grandeur, it's our libraries, those places where members of a democratic society come to seek out knowledge.

I'm delighted that our media center will be transformed into the gorgeous space that it deserves to occupy. It's heartening to know there are still people and institutions who understand how much libraries mean to kids and to our nation.

But I would trade it all to get Ms. Hollar back.

Note: A few weeks after I wrote this, the Mecklenburg County Commission came up with enough additional money to bring back all the media specialists who had been laid off. So Ms. Hollar will get to run the library she dreamed of after all. We are all so happy.