A Bridge to School: Working at the New York Public Library
“In bestowing charity, the main consideration: should be to help those who will help themselves; to provide part of the means by which those who desire to improve may do so; to give those who desire to rise the aids by which they may rise…”
Andrew Carnegie, 1889
I, like most Americans, have an acquaintance with the U.S. Constitution and its Bill of Rights that extends far back to my days in grade school, and like those days the finite details are long forgotten. Never had I needed to consciously invoke certain rights ordained to me by our Founding Fathers because those rights seem inherent to my citizenship’s existence. Sure, Freedom of Speech is the chair I sit in whenever I wanted to verbally give someone the finger but the rest of those rights have been a forgone conclusion. I have lived my life with these freedoms guaranteed to me and my posterity and, like most guarantees, they are usually taken for granted. That is they are taken for granted until you see them under threat. In this way our freedoms blessed to the general welfare of the country is a little bit like fresh air. Only until you start to lose it do you realize the pains it may take to retrieve it back. Not to say I am in threat of losing my Constitutional rights (I’m not, am I?) but we in this country are in the process of debating who actually is ordained to invoke these rights when their freedoms seemed infringed upon.
Over the past thirteen months I had the privilege of working in Staten Island for the New York Public Library in the Adult Learning Center (ALC) at St. George. The ALC specializes in teaching English to adults for purposes of livelihood and potential citizenship and with the influx of immigrants from all over the world in the Staten Island community, it was an astounding realization as to the need of building a bridge of language for these people. Without trying to paint a rosy picture, I must say in all honesty it was the most interesting and satisfying job I have yet to have. When groups of people, whether it be the students, administrators, or the teachers, working together and building constructs of understanding toward each other, one begins to sit back and think that the problems in the world can be solved with a little peace, love, and understanding. Naive, I am, though not to a fault, it helps to see the optimism in programs such as this.
When I was filling out the application for Student Mentor at the NYPL, I had no idea what the job entailed nor did I care. I was fresh off of tutoring college students at Hunter College, but I was also back into working the restaurant life with the late hours and all the other trappings which come with it. With a newborn daughter to look after, I was inspired by the tutoring job but I was looking for something with more hours, better pay, and a more satisfying challenge. To put it succinctly, as a new father I was dreaming bigger. As my cover letter for the job could attest to, I believe the NYPL to be one of the greatest institutions in all of New York City, at least from a patron’s perspective. Free programs and exhibits, films, lectures, seminars, and of course books. Those with little means have a great resource to further their studies and integrate themselves into an environment conducive to learning and spiritual advancement. The library is a secular cathedral devoted to the charity of knowledge, and there is nothing more spiritual than the humble quest for understanding your fellow human being regardless of where they were born. When you walk into the doors of a library you are within the tomes of the ancients, the pillars of civilization adorn the shelves...books. Books do not discriminate nor do they care who you are. To those with the initiation of language and literacy, their words are offered as alms for those desirous of communication. But what about those who can’t read? What about those from other countries with the striving to advance and learn but without the grasp of the language in which many of these books are written? The library has a program for those, too.
The Adult Learning Centers thrive throughout all the branches of the library, from the Bronx to Staten Island and Manhattan in between. If you have the drive and motivation, the library will provide the service (free of charge).
For my job interview I was summoned to the Stephen A. Schwarzman branch, and I had to pass up the stone steps, through the pillars of the great lions. Those were hallowed grounds and they still are. But prior to that moment I had always been a patron, always taking and receiving from the library. However from that day forward I would be someone who would be a part of the giving of services. I entered into the building and was directed down a hallway, away from the Rose Room, away from the revelries of the students, tourists, and the curious. I went through the corridors of the bureaucracy, where the internal motor of many library programs are given life and money. In churches, there are always nuts and bolts, bricks and mortars. There is always someone to shine the altar and sweep up the dust from the floors. Someone to clean the cassock and pay the electric bill and so too with the library. Tremendous amounts of government grants and private donations are given in sweeping philanthropic gestures. As they say money doesn’t grow on trees and services which are free are only free from the perspective of the person not paying. These aren’t fashionable truths of the churches and libraries but they are truths nonetheless. There are a great many people who make the library work and I was beginning from where I could see everything...the bottom. It is like when you go sit in the nosebleed seats at Yankee stadium. It may be the cheapest seat in the house but you are able to see it all, the rich, the powerful, the workers, the players, the field. And this is what it’s all about. To see it all because if you focus just on the game, you miss the life going on behind you. It may not be the glitziest seat but it is a seat.
And glamourous the job wasn’t. But who wants glamour when you are in contact with such inspiring groups of people. On most days the only problem was getting to work. For people who don’t drive there is no easy way to Staten Island. From where I live in Brooklyn the fastest way to the St. George library is the bus or I should say busses. Four to be exact. When I would tell people that, their mouth would drop to the floor and repeat after me “four busses?” as if I told them I had some sort of incomprehensible disease. Here is a litany of the busses for anyone willing and able to make the journey: at Bay Parkway and Bath Avenue you hop on the B64 toward Bay Ridge. At Bath Ave. and 18th Ave. you transfer to the B8 toward Bay Ridge. Once you make it to 92nd Street and Fort Hamilton you have options for what bus you take but there is only one way to go and that is over the Verrazano Bridge. This is the bridge connecting the boroughs of Brooklyn and Staten Island but it is also connecting a multitude of worlds. Even my personal world would change upon passage over. I would be crossing the bridge and look either toward the ocean, that vast expanse of mystery tumbling away toward the horizon, or toward the city and see pillars of steel and commerce from the point of view of a seagull. The monolithic perspective of a pedestrian in lower Manhattan was replaced while looking from the bus to something fragile and needing to be nurtured and protected. Not the buildings themselves but the people who built this city, the people who live here, and also the people who travel from lands of hardship in search of a glimmer of light from the torch of liberty.
This piece is not about the condemnation of travel bans or the debate about the necessity for border walls. The courts will argue about those things. So with that being said, I leave the rest of my views to the ballot box or the barstool and keep this piece removed from the debates of policy. As I stated in my first set of articles way back on September 11th of last year, this magazine is about the people and their stories. Leaders and political movements tend to always leave a sour taste in my mouth, and this includes the politics I agree with. So much anger and spewing only furthers the depth of the trench we are building and widens the division.
While riding on the bridge those mornings I would also think how long and how much work was needed to build this bridge of steel cable and asphalt from one side to another, and how many worlds were created and connected from its construction. Groups which could never connect are now able to bleed into each other. But then the bus, either the S79 or the S53, would soon take me into the belly of the island. I could then either take the S78 or the S51. If I was lucky while waiting for the S51, the S81 Limited would arrive. This would get me to St. George faster.
The neighborhood of St. George, a small bustling community perched on a hill overlooking Manhattan in the distance, is a hive of government and social services. One is immediately struck by the homeless population and the drug addicts roaming around the area. There is also a population of kids wandering around with no good place to go. While working at the library I quickly learned of the half-way houses, detox clinics, and housing for homeless teens and adults in the neighboring areas. The library is a refuge for many of these people who just don’t have a place to go. Also at St. George are places which help refugees from war torn countries such a Syria and Yemen. Many students in our program were products of the strife created by the elements at work within their country and abroad. This goes for the Ukrainians fleeing Russian occupation in the Crimea.
Yet with all of these people suffering from the afflictions of our society, there is also the people working to help and change things. This is evident all over the neighborhood but for me it was most evident at the ALC. If one is to work at our intake sessions where we register new students, they would be in awe of the diversity of the students all seeking to learn the language which could help them cross that greatest of all bridges: communication. The vastness of the world converging into the basement at the St. George library was immense and the list of countries I attempted to name in this piece are in the many dozens. Truly the world came to our doors. They paid us with time and effort. For many this was a duty they dedicated their time to in between family and jobs. I worked the front desk and was a liaison for many students and knew the trials they had just to make it to class. But it is a joyous program. Personal problems were set aside and people from all walks of life and religion came together. At the best of times I can’t think of a better word than harmony. Of course behind the scenes it was not always perfect. Nothing is, especially labors of love. The people I worked with truly loved their work and it showed. Sometimes the nuts and bolts of the operation intervened but never did it appear to take away from the class experience. I would be hard pressed to find a better secular congregation than this.
Even I was allowed to teach some of the elective classes and I became the resident tech support, helping the teachers with any and all of their computer and printer needs. In many ways this job was an extension of school as all good life experiences are. While it may seem I am idealizing my experience and giving you all the good bits, this is how I remember it. The long days taking the bus to Great Kills and later to Dongan Hills were days learning a new terrain and seeing neighborhoods I had never known existed before I started working at the ALC. Also, because of this job I gained some experience and confidence to embark on a new journey back to Brooklyn to teach a few English as a Second Language classes. The only lament is that I won’t be seeing Elizabeth Schade, the manager of our program, or the teachers: Joanne Springstead, Geniene Monterossa, Art Freifeld, Stacy Brower, Roger Franz, Susan Bradley, Omar Hammad, Stephanie Cimino, Jo Lopez (Jo Lo), and also the Tompkins Square cohort of Michelle LoPolito and Sherin Hamad. To each and everyone of them I give thanks for enriching my education on the job. After I left the ALC, I asked Elizabeth Schade to give some words about the program and what the “maestro” had to say was quite true and poignant, “Our ALC is for everyone who wants to learn, no matter their race, religion, gender, political beliefs, age.... you name it. I try to foster the expectation that ‘you get what you give,’ in the sense that students who work hard to learn WILL learn. (And those who think a magic wand will magically help them learn English are mistaken.)” I am sure Andrew Carnegie would agree.
I began this piece talking about the U.S. Constitution and how it relates to citizens. But where the real challenge of the Constitution is being placed is on the people who may not be citizens. As I am now teaching my own classes, I am spending some time on issues of citizenship. Naturally a subject like this would be conducive to talking about the Constitution and even more naturally the conversation has been landing on immigration. In my classes now, like the ones at St. George, we have a diverse group of people. While some of the presidential policies may not affect some of the students, others are affected and afraid. So with these issues and upon reintroducing myself to the Bill of Rights, I have become quite acquainted with the strictures of the 4th and 5th amendments and am teaching the students what rights they have as immigrants residing in this country. As I said earlier, I am not too much interested in politics...unless politics becomes interested in me or the people around me. In this way I am a bit of a reactionary. I believe if someone isn’t hurting me or anyone else, they should be left alone regardless of their beliefs. But never did I think I would need to be warning people of government agents knocking at their door and teaching them about the rights that are given in this Constitution. But this has primarily been an enriching experience. As Khizr Khan, the father of a Gold Star army captain killed in the American middle-eastern wars, held the Constitution to the camera during the Democratic National Convention and asked Donald Trump to read it for himself, I have begun to view the Constitution in a new light.This has allowed me to do my duty as a citizen and impart whatever wisdom I may have on the subject. What has transpired from these developments is the opportunity to have conversations with my students while they utilize a new tool that may help them in their journey to American citizenship: the English language. Truly, this is a bridge we are walking across together. In that I am grateful. So I leave you with these final words and ruminations on my final trip from St. George back to Brooklyn on my final day at the library. As I was taking the bus back across the bridge I only looked straight ahead. I felt happy and nervous to be beginning a new job but felt confident I could deal with these situations no matter how challenging. People had crossed these bridges before and will cross them again. I am just one of many.