I believe in the power of reading to take you places. It’s taken me lots of places, both metaphorical and literal. It’s taken me across four thousand miles of ocean on a balsa-wood raft with five crazy Norwegians; it’s taken me to Regency England to mingle in high society; it’s taken me to prison. That last one is both metaphor and fact—but more on that in a minute.
The place it took me recently was library school. At age 48 I decided that becoming a librarian was a great idea. Fortunately, UCLA agreed with me, at least to the extent of admitting me to its masters program, and in the fall of 2005, 28 years after graduating from college, I went back. Let me tell you, that took a lot of reading!
So how did reading take me to prison? Well, the metaphorical way was by reading The Count of Monte Cristo. The literal way was by choosing once a week to walk through six locked doors at the local juvenile detention facility. They don’t like us to call it a prison, and there are no bars; but those six locked doors tell the tale.
I ended up there, along with half a dozen of my classmates, because the library program includes a class that requires 20 hours of volunteer “service learning.” I stayed there because I believe in the power of reading to take me places and I wanted to get a bunch of troubled kids to agree with me.
Turns out, most of them do. These kids want to go places, but right now reading is the only way they can. Most of them weren’t readers before they went to “juvie,” but they’re busy changing that.
Now, everything you have heard about juvenile halls is true. There is gang violence, there is rebellion, there is depression and despair. But when we show up every week, we hear exclamations of “Look! it’s the library ladies!” When we sit down in the small rec rooms of the living units to participate in our book groups there, they call us “Miss,” shake our hands, and eagerly tell us about the books they read that week.
The kids’ ages range from 12 to 17, and their tastes are equally eclectic—everything from Goosebumps to Franz Kafka. Since we have no budget beyond good-will donations from librarians, schoolteachers, and supportive friends, we struggle sometimes to bring them what they ask for; but we always bring them something, and they keep reading.
I believe reading can take you places. I believe it can take these kids out of their cycle of crime and dysfunction. I hope that when they eventually get out, reading takes them into their local library, and I hope the librarian there sees them for who they are: not juvenile delinquents, not troublemakers, not kids with tattoos and attitude. I hope the librarian sees them as readers who are going places, just as I do.
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