I work at a small alternative high school that is composed almost entirely of immigrants. The average age of our students is anywhere from 16-30. The only requirement is that they do not have a high school diploma yet, from their home country or from a US school. We offer day classes and night classes so that students who need to can work a full time job at the same time they finish the credits they need to graduate.
I am the librarian at this school, and every day I help students with tasks that might sound simple for someone who has grown up in the United States, but can seem daunting to someone who grew up somewhere else. This past week I helped a student in her mid-twenties print a document from a school laptop. Although my student can work all kinds of magic on her cell phone, she does not have a computer at home- no desktop, no laptop, no tablet, no printer. There were none at her previous school in Guatemala. Is it any surprise that she is lacking basic technology skills as a new immigrant? Our school offers a class to provide such basic knowledge and the class is always full.
I helped another student apply for a scholarship that will hopefully help him pay for community college next year. He asked me what “postmarked by 5 pm on Feb 5” meant. I explained what a postmark is. He asked me where a post office is near us. Then he asked me where someone would purchase a stamp and an envelope, and what to write on the envelope. Yes, that is a lesson taught in elementary school across the United States- but he did not attend elementary school in the United States.
At least once a week I help someone with an application- for a job, for health benefits, for community college, for a scholarship, for citizenship. My students struggle with basic English and the phrasing on applications often confuses them. We have a robust tutoring program run by an amazing coordinator that also helps students with these applications, and with their school work. They sit at the tables in the library for hours at a time, working on assignments in English, government, biology, and math.
At the beginning of every semester the reading and English teachers bring their classes to me for a library orientation lesson. I explain the difference between fiction and nonfiction books, and where to find them in the library. I tell them that they can check out a library book for three weeks. “How much does it cost?” they always ask. “The books are free”, I tell them. “You can read them for three weeks and then return them to me and get another one”. I can see the look of amazement on their faces. In the towns and villages they come from, there was no school library. Often, there was no public library.
Although I work at a high school library, I keep a large supply of picture books on one shelf. These are some of my most frequently checked out books. My students read the books to themselves and to their children, who are also learning English. My students check out books on the same topics as the homework assignments their elementary-aged children have, so they can read about the topics and help them at night.
This year we had a guest speaker come visit. He is disabled- he has only one leg. And yet this man, Emmanuel Yeboah, bicycled around Ghana, and later around the US, to raise awareness for people with disabilities in his own country. A picture book was written about him last year and we bought two dozen copies for my school. Every class read it, and then my school, along with five others, bought him a flight from Africa so that he could come and speak to us. My students were amazed that this man, this disabled man with one leg, from a poor country across the world, could do so much to change the laws in his own country and be so famous and have a book written about him, an award given to him by Oprah Winfrey, and be invited to speak at schools throughout the US. In class, we discussed ways that one person can bring about change in their own community.
The day after the presidential election was a quiet one at my school. Attendance dropped. We saw fear and worry on the students’ faces. At the end of that week we had a town hall meeting in the lunchroom. Any students or staff that wanted to come were invited. We passed a ball of yarn around and dozens of students spoke about their fears. One student told us about her five year old, who was born in the US, waking up the next morning and asking what would happen if Mommy had to go back to Honduras. Another student, one semester away from graduating, asked if he should even bother applying for colleges. Several of our students, protected by DACA, asked if they would be deported. Many students, and many staff, cried. We didn’t know what to tell them, other than that at our school, they are safe, they are loved, they are entitled to an education.
I do not know what changes our new Secretary of Education will bring to our schools, especially our policies and funding for immigrants. I can only hope that in the years to come, I will be here in my library, checking out free books to my students, helping them fill out applications, and showing them how to use the computers so that they can complete their education. Libraries are for learning- no matter where you came from.