Sunday, June 5, 2011

Learning to Read on Zero Dollars a Day


The New York Times

June 4, 2011

Learning to Read on Zero Dollars a Day


Boise, Idaho

MEET Pat St. Tourangeau, a school librarian at Boise High. Her eyes are pale blue; her hair is straight; she has an indomitable look, as though this morning, while you slept, she might have baked a mean batch of cookies, towed someone out of a ditch and repaired a snowmobile.

I ask her how the library is doing.

“Our budget next year is going to be zero,” she says. “Again.”


Our two local papers, like yours perhaps, are awash in articles about embattled teachers, increased class sizes and diverted education money. But I had foolishly assumed school libraries were something sacred. Picking on libraries is like picking on premature babies: what sort of person would actually do it?

Apparently my naïveté knows no bounds. Pat makes a circle with her thumb and forefinger. “Zero,” she repeats.

Boise High and its more than 1,400 students sit four blocks from the Idaho Statehouse, where the Legislature votes on budgets. Its library is a bright little place full of posters; there are aisles of metal shelves, wooden chairs at veneered tables, twin rows of outdated computers with big black monitors. But this is not the school library of 20 years ago: Pat blogs, uses Twitter and teaches students to make video book trailers; she throws out the names of online databases as if they’re ice cream flavors.

“Twenty years ago,” she says, “we had challenges helping kids find enough information. Now we have the opposite problem. There’s plenty of information out there. Now it’s a matter of training students to think critically about what they find. Because 90 percent of what they find on the Internet is garbage.”

It’s not as if the research skills that students learn, online or off, are becoming less relevant, or are in less demand. There’s a little counter on the turnstiles into the Boise High library: in February 2010, it had 6,787 visitors. A year later, it had 7,331. From last September through February, students logged over 110,000 minutes just on reference databases from Gale Cengage, a library information service.

Pat’s job title is teacher-librarian. She says she thinks of herself as an information specialist. Except lately, her job title might more appropriately be fund-raising specialist. When she found out, last spring, that this year’s budget for the district libraries would be zero, Pat held brainstorming meetings, wrote grants, sold coupon books and organized the school’s calculator rental program. For alphabetizing and distributing student photos, the library got the Associated Student Body Fund to pay $1 a packet.

Including income from fines, the library staff managed to raise almost $20,000 last year. That’s the budget for everything: buying books, videos and magazines; replacing furniture; subscribing to newspapers; and updating technology.

That last one is critical: all of their computers are five years old, and some are seven or eight. “And they’re busy all the time,” says Pat. “This is the only place in the school kids can drop in and use computers.”  

But that was last year; now the library faces another year with no budget.

“It has been very difficult to continually write grants and send out pleas for donations,” Pat says. “I think we all have post-traumatic fund-raising syndrome, an almost chronic inability to face a grant application — again! — or set up another book fair.”

When I was a kid, my mother, a schoolteacher, turned to the library to solve basically any problem. How should we make costumes for Halloween? What’s that rash on your leg? What phylum do trilobites belong to? Off to the library!

Thanks to her, in my imagination libraries were little holy lands, as integral to a school as functioning toilets, or lockers, or bad pizza. They were a place where a child could learn that books could be mind-blowing, unpredictable, bawdy and frightening, that books could break down the divisions between nations, between foundations of thought, and between fantasy and reality.

I sit in the Boise High library for a half-hour or so and watch. Classes come and go with waves of noise. A boy peers into a computer screen; two girls work on a project together. It is a glorious spring day: little silver clouds blow past the windows.

And in the corner, at a back table, one boy I hadn’t noticed sits alone: a lean, muscular kid. Hunched over his knees. With a book open in his lap.

Anthony Doerr is the author, most recently, of the short story collection “Memory Wall.”

© 2011 The New York Times Company

Donations can be sent to the Baltimore Nonviolence Center, 325 E. 25th St., Baltimore, MD 21218.  Ph: 410-366-1637; Email: mobuszewski [at]


"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs


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