I haven’t posted in a while, and while I have felt intensely guilty about my lack of posting it’s only because so many amazing things have been happening at work that I have been too too busy to put them into words. Now I will try to catch up.
Last week, on April 23rd (Shakespeare’s birth and death day), my students, colleagues, and I gave out 400 books for World Book Night. The mission of World Book Night is to get as many books as possible into the hands of light to non-readers on this evening. You apply on their website to be a giver (the application is simple–you have to state who you are, where you’d give, and why) and if you are approved they ship you books to a local bookstore and you go give them out at your designated location.
My student Asha and I collaborated and applied to give out books in the Rockaways, Queens, an area devastated by Hurricane Sandy this past fall. Many folks lost their homes, appliances, and furniture, but others items were lost as well, particularly people’s books. We applied to hand out books to people who lived in the Rockaways for this reason. Asha lives in Arverne, a neighborhood in the Rockaways. During the hurricane her and her family huddled on the second floor of their house as water flooded and filled the entire first floor. They sat up there and waited, wondering if they would die. The water receded, but their entire first floor was ruined. She schlepped to school every day–despite transportation challenges (which were immense as the A train subway line to the Rockaways went under water and was ruined)–and didn’t miss a day of class despite her situation. True resilience. We were all at a loss of how to help her. In some way, this service work was for her.
When approved to be givers for World Book Night, the faculty in House 4 were excited, but when I told the students about doing this House-wide service project the responses I got were appalling. Many students didn’t want to go to where “those people” lived because they believed they would get shot, killed, assaulted, etc. They didn’t want to go “out there” because “those people are crazy.” One student, as aspiring professional photographer, when asked if he would come and shoot our event, said, “No way I am bringing my camera out around those people.” The racism was shameless, vocal, and sickening.
I chided them on their racism. I was pretty disgusted. I told them that most of “my” people (read white middle-upper class professionals) consider ALL of my students “those people” and isn’t that WRONG?! I explained how I have to work tirelessly to convince my peers that my students–despite their “scary” urban exteriors–are just people. With this in mind, how could the students so easily claim that people who lived in a certain neighborhood were all violent, ignorant, and criminals? Unbelievable.
In the end, my chiding and cheerleading for the event didn’t change anyone’s mind, but it didn’t matter. About 25 students who wanted to come (of the 70 in our House) came out for the event. We decided to give out books at the Rockaway Blvd A train station to hit the maximum number of people. There is a triangular island of concrete that houses the bus stops for the two buses that now travel to the Rockaways (as the A train is still being reconstructed). Upon seeing this triangular piece of concrete, several students joked that it was a prime place to get shot (as it’s out in the open and wedged between three large roads), but then they just grabbed boxes of books, signs for World Book Night, and set off.
We gave out 400 books in ONE HOUR. ONE. HOUR.
IT WAS AMAZING.
The students walked all over, engaged everyone they met, and gave out books. I felt like I was witnessing a tiny metamorphosis of sorts right in front of me. I could tell they were astounded that 1. People WANTED books, 2. They could talk about books to people as college students, and 3. That doing this made them feel great.
The next day in class I shared the photos shot by our amazing Student Success Advocate for House 4, Ramon, with the entire class with the particular intention of rubbing our great time in the faces of those who were too racist to attend. The students who had given out books couldn’t hold back their enthusiasm. “When can we do something like this again?” they asked. “Can’t we go do a big service project somewhere?” one asked. “I can’t believe people actually wanted books!” another exclaimed.
Even writing this I get all warm and happy inside.
I was so damn proud of them and I told them so.
Here are some pictures from the event. For more, feel free to look on the public Dropbox site. Rock on, House 4.
Asha, Bianca, & Shantelle model the books.
Kadeem gives out books!