My hope for all educators is that we never, ever lose a student. And while that is my hope, life has it that sometimes a student’s passing becomes a reality. In 2010, that’s exactly what happened. Francis Gittens departed our school community leaving behind his energy, electric personality, and smile that only those lucky enough to have had the opportunity to know (and work with) him experienced.
A long time colleague and friend asked me, “Erika, how are you going to continue Francis’s legacy?” At the time, I was overcome with grief and emotion and couldn’t possibly consider this very tall task. However, as I started to work with my new over-aged and under-credited student population, their thirst and desire to obtain information in order to quench their ongoing curiosities provided me the answer.
Not just any old library, but the Francis Gittens Lending Library. A library filled with rich pieces that have impacted other book lovers from all over the country. I’m talking all genres. I’m talking too many books for the amount of shelving we currently had. I’m talking opportunity.
Out went the email chronicling my mission. The recruiting had begun to wrap the two-hundred plus books that continued to be delivered and dropped off at my classroom door. Ms. Vasquez (Francis’s mother) had agreed to be present for the post-holiday surprise. Food had been ordered. Students had no idea how their lives were about to change. Full of emotion; I was ready.
What has happened in the two and a half years since must still be a figment of my imagination. Students are reading feigns who request piece after piece. Students and their families are continually donating to our class library. Not to mention all of the other generous donors who continue to surprise us with their favorites. Students have created Next-To-Read Lists because they can’t possibly read all the pieces they are intrigued by simultaneously, although many of them are juggling a couple at a time. Educators swing by to see what’s new on the shelves for their own reading enjoyment. And I have become quite the book connoisseur while perusing book store after book store seeking out unique pieces to book talk the very next day.
Just recently, after I reorganized our theme-based library, I sat back and found myself in awe. The growth of the library, now two-thousand plus books, stopped me in my tracks. I realized that as a collective, we have figured out a way to support our (sometimes struggling) readers and found a way for them to have all the access they want (and need) to the world beyond their own. Astounding.
I immediately phoned Ms. Vasquez inclined to show her what’s been taking shape in room 382. To no surprise her response was, “What day works best?” We both felt the urgency. She found her way to Brooklyn Bridge Academy without hesitation that very next Monday. As she entered the room, student conversations quieted and a hush fell over our shared space humbling us all.
As we all regained composure, conversations started to bubble and students were excited to share the literature they are (and have been) reading. Ms. Vasquez took her time scaling the length of the library and, overcome with emotion, she cried.
She took the opportunity to talk to students about their lives and the decisions they are making. As we sometimes say, “She went there.” She focused on the young men, their appearance, and the injustices they are ultimately always going to face. She spoke directly to the females and advised them in believing in themselves, taking care of their bodies, and their intelligence. She focused on the vast literature lining the shelves and how this (education) is their key to the lives they deserve to live.
As educators, it’s these ‘full circle’ moments that make us truly feel full with love, hope, motivation, and connection. Students are reading more now than ever before.
They are embracing their inquiries and willing to do the work to find answers. They are supporting me in my own reading journey and I them. We are collectively always looking for pieces of literature to add to our library and relishing in the ones that we can’t believe we actually found.
We have shared humorous moments. Tears have been shed. In-depth thinking has…and continues to take place.
From an incredibly tragic loss to a beauty hard to put into words, we are all so very thankful. But most of all, humanity came together for those sixty minutes on a random day in March that none of us will ever forget. We are in this together, as a whole, as one.
How will you continue to build and support literacy initiatives in your classroom?