Public Librarianship

Kids From the Projects

Hello, world!
On November 16th, I joined the Brooklyn Public Library system as an adult services librarian. I have been on the desk for two weeks now, and there is already so much to think about. I’m going to start by addressing a question I think a lot of people in my demographic wonder about: what are kids from the projects really like? The branch I work at is directly across the street from the housing projects, and so our main population of patrons is in fact kids who come here after school, because their parents are at work and it’s free to hang out here.

If you’re like me, you have long suspected that there’s something fishy about the pedagogy, and the social theory. They consistently fail to keep it real, because they tend to represent a middle class white perspective, and on occasion, I have had direct experience with their racism. And I’ve known bright, inspired people who have dropped out of their teaching certifications and degrees because of this culture. This is a sweeping judgment; obviously, this cannot possibly be true of every member of the field. But it dominates the literature, and if we’re being honest with ourselves, we have to admit that the whole framework inside which “the literature” lives is disconnected from the street on which this people it talks about live. And then we have the popular media, which tends to present the projects in two ways: 1) oppressors of the middle class and 2) victims of police brutality.

So that leaves people like myself, who have no real access to the projects, relying on what are obviously incomplete and often biased sources. What’s it like to wake up in public housing? To get ready for work or school? To come home and make dinner? To discipline your kids? To attend parent teacher conferences (or not)? To celebrate Thanksgiving? Do they text? Do they have smart phones? Do they all hang out with each other or is it like my apartment complex, where we might know each other’s names, but never really interact? Are they really violent all the time? Is the “broken windows theory,” which states that low level crime, like graffiti,  is an indicator of more serious crime to come, true? Are these kids getting ready to become criminals?

Well, if you haven’t guessed already, the answer is definitely nope, not even a little bit.

Here are some things that are true about kids from the projects:
– They have earlier access to “adult concepts” like sex and profanity. It is not uncommon to catch groups of grade school boys looking at porn on a library computer.  While they are younger than the demographic of middle class white dudes who do this, they are certainly not alone in their interest in looking at porn on public computers. However, it is evident that they have a pretty decent understanding of how hookup culture works, and how and when adults swear. While I have seen kids swear before, I’ve never really seen them swear like someone who knows how to swear. But these kids do. And when they want to act out, they’ll hide behind shelves and make sex noises.
– Like their more well-to-do counterparts, they represent a wide range of intellect and interests. Most of them love computer games. Some of them like to color dinosaurs. Some of them like to collect books that have been left around, and pretend to be library employees. Some of them really do just want to do their homework. All of them want to be here because their friends are here.
– They all want library cards, and they all lose them with great frequency. I spend a lot of time on the desk helping kids get replacement library cards. We give them these little library card holders that they’re really into. It doesn’t help them keep track of their cards though. They appear to simply have a different understanding of these cards, one that is more transient. For them, their identity as library patrons is only tied very loosely to a “library card.” My limited experience suggests they treat a lot of other IDs the same way. They’ll produce long-expired ID, or random IDs with no official affiliation, sometimes old tickets or school documents they have lying around, to prove identity. This is not surprising – I doubt they have much motivation to maintain a strong connection with their public or state identity representation.
– And I doubt this because despite the fact that these kids are not really very different in potential from any other group of kids I have ever met, they suffer from an obvious lack of attention. The kids here are regulars, I can tell you which ones are “precocious” (one quick way to tell you’re talking to someone who doesn’t know how to keep it real is that he or she uses the word “precocious” to describe a kid) and which ones would be future DMV employees. I can tell you which ones are afraid of their parents, and which ones never see their parents. The vast majority of them respond very well to one on one attention, even to small group attention.  The analogy that comes to mind is morning glories, they open up. Some of them roll their eyes, some of them are hostile – but even in those cases, it is perfectly obvious (I mean entirely uncontroversial to anyone who sees it) that their hostility arises from the a lack of familiarity, that given enough time and sustained attention, these kids would come around. I don’t have access to the reasoning for this lack of attention – maybe their parents work long hours, maybe their teachers have huge classes, maybe it’s racism.  I don’t know, and I’m not attempting to pass judgment here, I’m just telling you what I see: these kids are jonesing for some love.
– As a direct result, the security guards often play the dual role of disciplinarian and parent. And they know it. Our usual security guard is out on a vacation. It is notable that the kids have asked for him. But it has given me a chance to talk to the assortment of substitute security guards, who work full time going from branch to branch. One of them goes as far as to take off her uniform shirt (and use her “civilian” shirt) when she wants to have a “sisterly” conversation, instead of a disciplinary one. She tells me she has seven younger siblings, and she knows what to say to kids to get them to do the right thing.

What makes kids from the projects “at risk,” if you’re going by the ones who show up at the library every day, is not at all inherent to them – they are largely the same as their white, middle class counterparts. It is evident from watching this group of kids every day for the last two weeks that what puts them at risk is a lack of infrastructure.