Monday, May 11, 2009

The Dirty Hippie on Garbage Patrol – Part 2 in a Continuing Series

I am the Lorax. I speak for the trees. Or the non-biodegradable Number 1 and 2 plastic bottles and bags. Whatever.

Since everyone in the first world is trying to find ways to reduce their “carbon footprint,” I feel a little foolish discussing recyclable plastics, but I did promise an update…

We’ve had a few setbacks, one of them being George. George is a man with special needs in the village who does odd jobs for community members. One of his responsibilities is burning the school’s trash…You, dear reader, can probably imagine where this is going…One morning, I checked the bin and found it empty. When I spun around in anger and disbelief, I saw George waving happily at me from the gully. “I burned your rubbish, Miss Betsy.” My anger naturally dissipated, but George and I have had a few heart-to-hearts since then. As a matter of fact, George has had talks with the principal and most of the teachers concerning Miss Betsy’s recycling project. He now knows to stay away (far away!) from the blue bin.

I played the role of Good Cop for the first few days—standing by the bin at break and lunch times, and positively reinforcing the actions that the children took to recycle. They were excited—“Miss, we recycled, Miss!” I hugged and high-fived them and told them that they were making Mr. Lorax—and me—so very, very proud.

I also played the role of Bad Cop—putting plastic baggies over my hands and digging through the bin with the children to retrieve the paper and metal that were wrongly placed in the bin. I inspected what the children tried to put in the bin. I went back into the classrooms and played games: “Can THIS go in the bin?” (NOOOO) … “Can THIS go in the bin?” (YESSSS) But I can’t carry the metaphorical big green stick forever—it is not my job to police recycling. If this is a project that will last, then I need to step back and let it last. And when I removed myself, I saw a few things that made that old green heart of mine swell with pride.

One morning, I came across a pair of legs sticking out of the tall recycling bin. I dashed to the bin and pulled out a very grim-faced Hayden Kinghorn by the collar of his shirt. “Hayden, kiddo, what are you doing?” I asked, brushing him off.

“Miss!” He said, his big brown eyes dark with fury, “Someone put a metal someting in wit de plastic dem. Mi wan’ fi get it out!”

Devontay, a second grader, ran to me the other day and threw his arms around me in a hug of greeting. But instead of his usual “Hi, Miss,” he grinned and said something entirely different. “I am the Lorax! I speak for the trees!” He chirped proudly. “Remember to recycle!”

But it’s the day-to-day monotony that makes me happiest. Seeing the students toss their plastics into the recycling bin without thinking twice is what brings me the most joy. They don’t all do it, of course, but the idea seems to be catching on. For a few students, it’s as natural as breathing: plastics go in the blue bin. There will probably be a Part 3 in this series, and with any luck, next year’s Mount Friendship volunteer will be able to add in a Part 4 or 5. But for now, know that the Lorax would be pleased with the progress occurring in a little mountain village called Mount Friendship.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Library Days

I was crammed into a taxi yesterday afternoon on my drive back down the mountain after a day of work in Mount Friendship when a woman in the front seat turned around.
“Yuh Miss Pepsi the liberryian up a Friendship School?” she barked at me. “Yuh mek de yout dem carry de book dem up a yaad?”

Four heads turned to me while the taxi driver, a man named Sugar, peered in his rearview mirror to wait for my response. I smiled weakly. “I guess you could say that,” I admitted.

I wear many hats. I’m “Miss” and I’m “Miss Pepsi.” I’m “de Catalic volunteer,” I’m “teacha,” I’m “whitey,” and now I am “liberryian.” And by that definition, yes, I’m the one who lets the youths bring books from school to their homes.

Mount Friendship’s first lending library opened last Tuesday thanks to donations on the part of my college friends, the enthusiasm of the school staff, and many willing students. The library isn’t much of a “library”—it’s a tiny classroom filled with broken furniture and rotting lumber. But all of that has been pushed aside to make room for two sets of shelves filled to the brim with gently-used picture and chapter books.

For months, children in the upper grades have helped me to prepare the books and have learned how to be “library monitors.” Through lessons I’ve taught in each of the classes, the younger students have worked hard to learn the rules and routines involved in using a library. And on Tuesday, April 28th and Thursday, April 30th, the library opened its doors for the first times.

Tuesday afternoon is the library day for Grades 1, 2, and 3, while Grades 4, 5, and 6 use it on Thursday afternoons. Grades 7, 8, and 9 are permitted to browse the library during their lunch and recess time on any days. The first Tuesday was filled with shrieks of delight and mass chaos, while Thursday’s group brought with them an awed quiet and a sense of purpose.

And these days brought moments that were filled with beauty and memories that will stay with me each time I walk into a library for the rest of my life.

Odain, a third-grader with special needs, tip-toed in cautiously but strutted out proudly after selecting his first library book. I asked him when he entered if he wanted me to select one for him, but he shook his head. “Me wan’ fi choose out my own,” he said, scrutinizing the shelves with the gravitas of a college professor.

During one of my home visits with Marcia, a hard-working single mother, she revealed to me that her little daughter Aliyah brought home a Cinderella book and that the two of them read it together every night. “It’s such a good story,” Marcia said, her face glowing, “And Aliyah love it.”
One of the rules is that students should leave the library after they check out a book to make room for more students to come into the crammed space. My monitors and I are pretty good about enforcing this one, but I found Grade 4 student Daijean hiding beneath an old table in the corner.

“Come on, DJ,” I said gently, “you’ve checked out your book, you need to move out, okay?”
“But Miss,” he pleaded, gripping four or five books tightly, “it’s just so nice in here. Please mek me stay.”

I let him stay.

Today, I was pleasantly surprised to see that almost every child returned the books in immaculate condition. I was even more pleasantly surprised to see the library running smoothly--my monitors had the scene under control, the students behaved well, and I had the time to just sit and read with several of the children.

Trips to the library were always the highlight of my life growing up—all those books, all that possibility. It is a joy to see my Mount Friendship kids experience that same exciting thrill for the first time. Our tiny library may not visibly increase the literacy rates in Jamaica, but being a “liberryian” isn’t about saving the third world. It’s about letting de yout dem carry home de book dem. And what a world will open to children when they can carry home a book or two.
Library monitors show off their books and badges