I’m the librarian at a small alternative high school, where the student body is composed almost entirely of immigrants between 16 and 30 years of age. To enroll, the only requirement is that a student does not already have a high school diploma. We offer night classes along with day classes so that students who need to can work full-time as they earn credits to graduate.
Every day I encounter students challenged by tasks that might sound simple to someone who has grown up in the United States. For instance, this past week I helped a student in her mid-twenties print a document from a laptop. Although she can work all kinds of magic on her cell phone, she does not have a computer at home; no desktop, laptop, tablet, or printer. Nor were there any at her previous school in Guatemala. Is it any surprise that she lacks basic tech skills? Our school offers a class specifically to address those starter skills, and it’s always full.
I assisted another student as he applied for a scholarship that will, hopefully, help him pay for community college next year. He asked me what “postmarked by 5 p.m. on February 5” meant, and then, where might he buy a stamp and an envelope, what to write on the envelope, and how to locate a post office. Yes, all of that is learned in elementary school—but he didn’t attend elementary school here.
Our students struggle with basic English, so the phrasing on job, benefits, college, scholarships, or citizenship applications often confuses them. We have a robust tutoring program run by an amazing coordinator who helps students with these applications, as well as with their school work. They sit at the tables in the library for hours at a time, working on assignments in government, English, biology, and math.
At the beginning of every semester, I conduct library orientation sessions. I explain the difference between fiction and nonfiction books, where each is located, and how long they can be checked out (three weeks). “How much does it cost?” someone always asks. I see looks of surprise when I explain it’s free to borrow books. Often, there was no library at all where they came from.
Recently, we had a guest speaker. He has only one leg. Yet this man, Emmanuel Yeboah, bicycled around Ghana, and later around the United States, to raise awareness about people with disabilities in Ghana. A picture book was written about him last year; we purchased 24 copies for the school. Every class read it. Our school and five others chipped in to cover Yeboah’s travel from Africa. Our students, and those in the other schools, were amazed that a disabled man with one leg from a poor country could do so much to change laws and people’s perceptions. In class, we discussed ways that any one of them could bring about change in our community.
Although I work in a high school library, I keep a supply of picture books on one shelf. These are some of the most frequently checked out books. My students read the books to themselves, and, sometimes, to their children, who are also learning English. Often, students who are parents of elementary-aged children check out books on the topics their kids are studying, so they can help them with their homework.
The day after the presidential election was a quiet one; attendance was lower than usual. We saw worry on the faces of the students who did come to school. That Friday, we had a “town hall” meeting in the lunchroom. All students and staff were invited. We passed a ball of yarn around as we shared our fears. One student told us about her five-year old, who was born in the United States, and who asked what would happen if mommy had to go back to Honduras. Another student, one semester from graduating, asked if he should bother applying to colleges. Several of our students protected by DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, students whose parents brought them to the United States before they were 16 years old) asked if they would be deported. Many students, and staff, for that matter, cried. We didn’t know what to tell them, other than that they are entitled to an education and that, at our school, they are safe, and they are loved.
I do not know what changes our new secretary of education will bring to our schools, especially to policies and funding for immigrants. The recent rise in deportations has some of my students worried anew, and they are asking for advice from teachers, social workers, and legal representatives. I can only hope that in the years to come, I will still 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. Libraries are for learning—no matter where you come from.
Deah Hester is the librarian at Arlington Community High School in Arlington, VA.
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