The Schools' Library Connection

by Bill Peak

One of the joys of my job is that, from time to time, I get to serve as the library's representative at a school event. This past fall, for instance, after a teen book was—for the first time in the history of One Maryland One Book—selected to be the book all of Maryland would read at the same time, I was asked to speak about the chosen work (Sherman Alexie's “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian”) to students at Easton High.

Though I was scheduled to speak to eleven different classes, it was the Special Ed. class that really had me worried. The teacher of that class had already warned me that her students were uninterested in reading and, truth be told, learning in general. Sure enough, when I began talking to them, her pupils made a show of ignoring me: staring off into space, snickering at one another, putting their heads on their desks and feigning sleep. As the lack of attention grew obvious, I found myself speaking louder, bouncing around the room, trying to do anything and everything to catch their attention. But nothing worked. Afterwards, driving back to the library, I knew I had bombed.

About two weeks later, while making my way down the dairy aisle at the grocery trying to remember whether it was whipping cream or cold cream my wife wanted, I heard someone call my name. It was the Special Ed. teacher. "Mr. Peak," she cried, hurrying toward me, "Mr. Peak you just have to know ... They like the book! My students actually like the book! One of them's even taking it home with him at night and then coming in the next day and telling me all about what he's read!"

It isn't every day that a trip to Giant warms your heart. I may have bombed, but Sherman Alexie hadn't.

A month later, I was asked to judge a poetry contest at St. Michaels Middle-High School. The idea behind the national Poetry Out Loud competition is that students gain a better understanding of poetry through memorization and recitation. Quoting from the organization's literature, the struggle to memorize a poem forces us “to follow the mind of the poet; we recreate the logic, experience, and feelings that put the poem together ... memorizing a poem is as close as another person can get to composing one.”

On December 2 I got to see the results of that struggle. One by one, ten teenagers climbed onto a stage, stood all by themselves before an auditorium full of other teenagers, and recited a poem. They don't come any braver than that. But what really impressed me was those other teens, the ones filling the auditorium. They did not mock, they did not jeer; they clapped, they encouraged, they rooted for their friends. I found myself thinking how great a place this is, how lucky we all are to live in a community where our children grow up confident enough in themselves to embrace poetry ... in public!

Similarly, I know how fortunate I am. Working for the Talbot County Free Library may not be glamorous, and it'll never make me rich, but the benefits are manifold.