Wednesday, March 13, 2013

The Power of Books

Trying to organize, arrange, and stock a library at my school has become my biggest project. It consumes my free periods during the day, my Google searching when the hours of school have come to an end, and my brainstorming in the evenings and on weekends. It's become important to me because I've tried to think back and imagine my school years without a library, without books, and without imagination. I can't. And I'm glad. Kids should have access to that kind of knowledge, adventure, excitement, and control. It pains me all the more that most kids in my village haven't and probably won't have this outlet in their childhood and adolescence. Hopefully my school will be different, though.

In the past week and a half, I've seen just how powerful books are, especially to those that have never had them before. Back track to last week, beginning with Monday March 4th. I've been fortunate to have received some books from friends and family back home. I have a total of twenty four books that I compiled into one of the USPS boxes that transported them to me across the ocean. There are about three or four chapter books that are too hard for my learners to read, a bunch of kids books, an I Spy book, and a "My First Encyclopedia." We have obligatory "reading for enjoyment" by the Department of Education, regardless of the fact that we don't even have enough textbooks for a single section of a grade. Anyway, I've told my two sections of Grade 6 that they will get the books twice a week: 6A gets them on Mondays and Wednesdays, and 6B gets them Tuesdays and Thursdays. 6A is better behaved and always more engaged than 6B. I don't know what accounts for the difference, but that's how it is.

Tuesday the 5th was 6B's first day with the books. I figured they'd spend more time talking and hitting each other than paying any attention to them, which is usually how things go when there is no class going on. However, I was pleasantly surprised. I put the box on a plastic chair in the front of the room and told them they were free to come and take whatever they wanted. They stormed the box and all the books were gone in a matter of seconds. There are more boys than girls in 6B and most of them are way far behind, so they usually just stare at me when I ask questions. All of these boys had gathered into a couple of desks in the back corner and were sharing the "My First Encyclopedia." I've never seen them so focused on anything before. The benches usually sit two learners, comfortably. The boys were sitting three, sometimes four to a bench. They shared this book amongst the dozen or so of them, flipping through and stopping to laugh at animals and point at maps. "Miss, this is a monkey or a baboon?" they ask. "Look, a lizard!" I sat down on a bench next to the boy who can barely utter his name in an English sentence. He was holding the I Spy book, trying to figure out what to do with it. I showed him the pictures on the left and how he was supposed to find those same pictures in the bigger, more cluttered picture on the right. He completed the first page after a few minutes. The smile on his face completed my day. He had conquered a page of this book. And while it isn't the conventional book, it's still a start right?

Fast forward to the beginning of this week. The ugly cement storeroom across the way from the office where I spend my time planning was calling my name. I'd piled up a couple hundred books outside the door that were entirely useless: workbooks in Afrikaans, books from the 90s that had been eaten by mice and served as homes for the largest cockroaches I've ever seen, etc. The groundskeeper Mr. Tembe asked me what we was to become of these books, as I was running out of space. I went to ask the principal and he said "those books that we cannot use, we must burn." I was slightly shocked to hear this, especially considering the Limpopo textbook scandal of the not so recent past: newly delivered textbooks in Limpopo province were found thrown in rivers and discarded, while schools had no books to use for classes. South Africans (especially schools) have a really difficult time parting with things, mostly for fear of whoever the higher-up is; in this case, "the Department." Not long after the principal came over, my counterpart walked in. Goodness Bongekile (better known as GB) is the one teacher at my school that I can always rely on. She rounded up six boys from Grades 6 and 7 and the floor of the storeroom was cleared in a matter of two days. As more learners started to come out of their classes, a mob had formed by the door to this cement eyesore. The boys were carting the books to the fire pit, but were intercepted by the mob. I've never gone anywhere near a store or shopping mall on Black Friday (nor do I ever plan to), but this is what I imagine it to look like. These books were being discarded because they are old, eaten and dirty, and written in a language that no one in this area speaks. But that didn't stop kids from fighting each other (sometimes literally) for these books. I watched little kids in Grade 3 or 4 holding Maths workbooks written in Afrikaans, Life Orientation books for Grade 6, Grade 1 textbooks with yellowed pages. The looks on their faces as they sat down under a tree and opened these books are ones I will never forget. I guarantee most of them couldn't read a word of what was on the page in front of them. But the fact that they had a book (one they could call their own) was more important.

A few wonderful girls in my cohort are putting together a Books for Africa project, whereby participating schools (after raising the money needed) will receive roughly 730 books for their library. The slogan for this project is "Today a Reader, Tomorrow a Leader." I'm a big fan.

Is this a plug for throwing some books in the mail for me to add to this project? Maybe. Is this an undertaking and a series of mental images that I will always remember? Probably. Is this concrete evidence that kids need to have books, and need to be able to read and laugh and write about them? Most definitely.

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