March 1, 2004 – There wasn't a lot of sleep to be had last Thursday morning before I headed to Bertha C. Boschulte Middle School to take part in the school's reading program. Those who work at home might know what I mean. Sometimes things just have to get done, and that can mean getting up in the middle of the night to finish them, if necessary.
But that morning, there was one thought on my mind: This Thursday is going to be a busy one. There's an interview to do with a celebrity at Frenchman's Reef, an afternoon commitment to a local radio station, and there might be a story or two to write after that. But the most important thing to do Thursday morning is to get over to BCB and read to the kids.
It's just something I wanted to do.
I ran into the school's librarian at the St. Croix Agriculture and Food Fair a little while ago. She's a young woman with a bright smile and a lot of bright ideas. "There's a letter coming in the mail," she said.
"Yeah? What's it say?" I replied.
"It's an invitation to come read to the kids. The letter will tell you the rest," she said.
The letter, which arrived soon after, invited recipients to bring their favorite books to BCB and spend 90 minutes reading their selections to a class. Those so inclined also could donate their chosen books to the school library.
I took two. One was a classic book of poetry written in 1923. It's an epic about an exiled Middle Eastern prophet who sees the ship on the horizon that's supposed to bring him home. He then goes out to thank the people in his exiled land for sharing his life and to say goodbye.
The other book was about hair, humorously written by a black sister, like myself, who had been through the hair wars in her life and had more than a few funny stories to tell and a whole lot of good advice.
Kids like to have a choice, I figured. Neither book was very big, and they were both easy to read and had pictures and illustrations. These were good choices. I passed them around the room so they could open them up and flip through. My seventh-grade class for the morning decided they wanted to hear more about their hair. Their teacher stood in the back checking out my copy of "The Prophet" by Kahlil Gibran.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's go back to the school library, where the sofa and the tables are filled with folks like me, an impressive crowd for eight in the morning. Gathered there were Pastor Wycherly Gumbs, who brought along a volume of his own poetry; Lorraine Baa-Elisha from St. Thomas Rotary II; Sens. Roosevelt David and Shawn-Michael Malone; and Monife Stoutt from the Human Services Department.
Dr. Bert Petersen, St. Thomian cancer surgeon and TV medical correspondent, slipped in from off-island and brought a volume of collected essays by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Petersen said he came because the librarian asked him and because he was once a student in the V.I. public school system. In those days, middle school and high school were all rolled up into one, over in Estate Nazareth. Also on the library was Elliot "Mac" Davis, assistant attorney general, hunched over an open book at a table, poring over his selected reading.
Kevin Rodriguez, acting Personnel director, was another reader. He said he wanted his essay to speak to the male students at BCB. Another visiting reader, Derek Gumbs, said he brought along the story of a school cafeteria. He wanted it to be about something all of the students could relate to. In the book, most of the students know there's a table in the cafeteria where all the cool students sit, but they don't think they could sit there, although some would like to. The moral of the story is to have confidence, Gumbs said.
BCB Principal Carver Farrow came into the library just as the librarian welcomed the guests and gave them some pointers about how to read to their students. Farrow thanked those who came and talked about the importance of reading.
Assistant Principal Earl DeWindt praised the school librarian for turning the school's reading room into an activity center. A few weeks ago, he pointed out, the library had been the scene of a sleepover/pajama party for mothers and daughters of BCB.
There was a wish fondly expressed by someone that morning: that the middle school library would be open after hours to serve the youth of St. Thomas's East End, where the largest portion of the island's population lives. The only public library on St. Thomas, Enid M. Baa, is miles away in downtown Charlotte Amalie.
Soon it was time to separate and make our way into the classrooms. Student attendants who had gathered quietly at the side of the library stepped up to escort their respective readers into their classrooms. There were about a dozen seventh-graders in mine.
They got to choose between the two books I brought. As I said, we spent the morning talking hair.
We talked about old-time traditional hairstyles and things they could go home and ask their mothers and grandmothers about. We talked about Angela Davis's 1960s afro, afro puffs, dreadlocks, black history and some of the hair habits of the ancients tribes of Africa. We talked about the braids and cornrows some of the students were wearing, and we talked about current events.
We were talking about how different people express themselves and how some people have to struggle for the right to do that. It was only last year that a boy on St. Croix was told by his school that he couldn't attend classes wearing his hair in cornrows.
"Yes," one student said, "but he challenged that, and he won, because he said he was being discriminated against."
These guys were pretty sharp.
The 90 minutes breezed by, and my impression was that we all had a good time. There were a lot of questions, and the kids had a lot of thoughts about the book we read. When the teacher dismissed the class, the students gathered their books and got up to go. I held up my copy of "Plaited Glory" and told them they could pick it up and check it out if they wanted to, because I would be leaving it in the school library.
My student escort walked with me down the hall, trying to flip through the book of classic poetry. "Will I get a chance to read this one?" he asked.
"Yes, maybe, but this one is going home with me," I said. "I got this book from my aunt when she died. It's like part of my family."
Then their teacher asked me about that book, "The Prophet." When I returned to the library, I mentioned it to the librarian, who said she'll look into getting a copy for the school.
I met some of my fellow readers coming back in from their classrooms.
"How was it?" I asked.
"Not nearly as bad as I thought it would be," this one guy said. He was smiling.
Baa-Elisha read to a class in the Music Department. "They played a song for me," she said. She read to them; they played for her.
And if we would all like to do it again, the assistant principal says there's talk that another reading day may be held before the end of the school year.
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