Our school board moved from fully online teaching to hybrid in-person when February began. No transition day, no time to clear out the classrooms we had been teaching in when Winter Break began and online learning was abruptly declared. No time to move textbooks, supplies or decorations into our new classrooms. Friday we were at home teaching one set of classes; Monday we were teaching new classes in a new semester and often in new rooms. Less than ideal.
I have a prep period right now, so I’m trying to help clear out some of the classrooms that aren’t occupied this week. This gets a little complicated because teachers can’t go into classrooms with students who aren’t theirs, but there’s still plenty that can be done. For example, today I went into my old old classroom (from two terms ago) and found that my now sad-looking displays of student work were wilting off the bulletin boards. As I started to pull them down, one pushpin at a time, I spied a stack of shiny objects tucked into the corner of a shelf. Books! From a distance, I couldn’t tell which ones.
Ever willing to be distracted from a dull task, I cupped the sharp tacks in my hand and ambled over to see what people had been reading, but my heart was already sinking: these books were not appealing to readers. At some point in their lives, these poor novels had been denuded of their original covers and reclothed with paper, laminated, folded and glued on after someone used a thick marker to scrawl the title – but not the author’s name – across the front. Now the cheap covers clung somewhat desperately to the books’ spines creaking open to reveal torn, yellowed pages full of tiny print. I flipped sadly through one of the books and realized that a teacher had handed these out as a class novel last quadmester.
I’ve written several pages of unpublishable material about the infuriating task of trying to update a book room with no budget, but despite my frustration, our school is in no way left with only books whose very appearance actively repels readers. Teachers are not required to choose novels whose presentation tells students that their reading lives are not valued. We have better books than this. My initial curiosity about the books in the corner was rapidly shifting.
We have better books than this. What we don’t have right now are better books that require little prep by teachers because they have been taught off and on for 50+ years. No, wait. Even that is not true: Our bookroom houses many old “classics” that are in much better shape than this. We are trying to update our reading lists to better reflect our diverse student population, but we are far from throwing the baby out with the bathwater. We have plenty of books that would have honoured our young readers by showing them that they deserve books that still feel alive.
I stood there for a minute, laminated book slick in one hand, sharp tacks gently pricking the other. I loved this novel when I was in high school, but I am nearly 50 and so, I suspect, are these books. The world has changed beyond what the author would have recognized; it may have changed into what he feared. Still, few readers are hooked by books so old they are barely hanging together. Will we have enough money to replace these books? Will we choose to replace this title if we do have money? I didn’t know. I don’t know. I can’t know.
But I do know that we have to show our students that their intellectual life matters to us. These books didn’t do that. I threw them out.