Thursday, April 26, 2018

Introducing the Appalachian Literacy Initiative

First let me tell you a story.

Ten years ago I was asked to do a week of school visits in a town near mine, in upper east Tennessee. I was not so much in demand for school visits in those days, and my fee for the week was about what my daily fee is now. Even still, one school asked if I could do a half-day instead, because they very much wanted me to come but couldn't afford the whole day. We messed around with the schedule and I agreed to do two half-days at schools close enough where this was feasible, though the one who'd asked for the half-day in the first place was pretty far out into the country, in a neighboring county. Rural Appalachia. I hate the stereotypes but some of them are rooted in truth.

For this school I dealt with the principal, which was odd--I usually deal primarily with the librarian. Come to find out, this school, grades preK-8, didn't have a trained librarian. They had a part-time teacher's aid with a high-school education who sat in the library three mornings a week, put on a video, and glowered at kids who tried to check out books, because then she'd have to reshelve them, and that was work. I am not kidding.

The library itself was half of the space behind what had once been a theater on the side of the gym, blocked off with plywood. When you climbed the steps to the former stage the first thing you saw was a Pepsi machine. To get to the library you had to walk past the Pepsi machine and through the teacher's lounge. Ancient, dusty books were crammed willy-nilly into ancient, leaning shelves. It felt like despair.

The principal was new and dynamic and trying desperately to change things. She'd gotten a local hardware store to sponsor my half-day visit. When I looked at her proposed schedule I'd realized she hadn't set aside time for booksigning. I suggested adding some. She said, "Oh, honey, these kids aren't going to buy any books."

I took a deep breath. I said that I would arrive with a box of books under the condition that they be given out to the students entirely at random. No books-only-for-good-kids. She agreed.

The kids went nuts. They acted like those books, which were mostly remaindered copies of some of my old titles, were solid gold. One girl ran with hers to the principal's office and put it there for safekeeping, until the end of the day.

The principal, shame-faced, showed me their library. I was horrified. That night I said, "Something has to be done."

My husband said, "It's not your job."

I said, "I know it's not, but it looks like I'm the only one prepared to do it."

So I did. That was my first book project. My son and his best friend earned all the service hours needed for their confirmations that summer by taking boxes of books I weeded from those shelves and carting them to the dumpster behind the school. I solicited donations. I bought new books. I wrapped them in protective covers and categorized them and rearranged the whole damn library and got rid of the Pepsi machine. There were science books and creative nonfiction and easy readers and a lovely selection of middle grade novels. I was so proud of that space when we were done.

I don't know if it made much difference. The principal was thrilled. The teachers, when they returned to school, were astonished.

The school is closed now--budget cuts a couple of years back.

I can still see that library as it was--they had a book on the shelves from the 1950s explaining, "Why We Have Different Races." They had all those old, outdated, racist "Childhood of Early Americans" biographies. They had books about accepting Jesus as your Savior. (I'm all for Jesus, but not on the bookshelves of a public school.)

These were the only books those kids had. There wasn't a public library within 20 miles. There wasn't a bookstore within 30. Every single child in that school was poor. No one was buying new books on Amazon.com.

I could drive through Appalachia today and find a hundred schools just like that one. I was shocked ten years ago; I wouldn't be now. If you're reading this I hope you read the guest post I put up on Tuesday, by Donalyn Miller, about why access to books is so crucial to children. If you didn't read it, please go back and read it now.

On Tuesday we held the first board meeting of a new nonprofit I'm directing. It's called Appalachian Literacy Initiative. We're partnering with Parnassus Bookstore to give low-income schoolchildren in Appalachia the chance to pick out several brand-new high-quality books a year. We're incorporated in the state of Tennessee, and, now that we've had our first board meeting, are ready to apply for nonprofit status. When we receive that it will be backdated to the date we incorporated, March 13, 2018, so donations will be tax-deductible. If you feel so moved, contact me. For now I've put up a gofundme page for initial donations, though we'll mostly be fundraising through different venues.

Thanks for reading. These striking teachers? They really do have something to strike about. Decent educations are a moral imperative. So is access to decent books.