My high school was a school of money, filled with the finest teachers, latest technology and teachers who had push us into discovering career goals, having a future, and education that was set in stone, prepping us for college since the 6th grade, having us take assessments to determine which path we should follow. By senior year, I knew, we all knew exactly where we would be heading in life.
That same year, I met my English teacher, Shelly Laveen. She had the most magical classroom. Whenever you walked in an aroma of honey butter candles filled the dimly lit room. She wanted to give an atmosphere a sense of peace and serenity. High School was chaotic enough and she never wanted to make her students any more stressed than they already were. If you looked at the ceiling, you would see that every tile had been hand paint as the cover of a different novel; she loved art, and the ability to share stories in all its forms.
Shelly and I clashed every now and then, perhaps it’s because both of us were incredibly passionate very opinionated, and full of different views of the world. She ran her classroom the way she wanted,not allowing any administrator to tell her what to do. Most students didn’t share her passion for English Literature, but I did. However,I had been intimated by her intelligence, how she spoke, how she lived her life. I feared her, yet I had the up-most respect for her.
Toward the end of the year, she had the class read Breakfast at Tiffany’s, the library across her class had a plenty in stock for us to check out. One day Shelly held a class discussion and she asked us what we thought of Holly Golightly. The class grew silent. After a few moments a guy raised his voice.
“I don’t really like her too much, she seems like a mess”
Shelly would always hold a poker face whenever students spoke their mind, but she replied, “Really? Elaborate, why do you think that?”
“Well… she just doesn’t know what she wants out of life, she just keeps running away from everything and not finding out what she wants.”
She looked at all of us, she was off to the side watching us converse, everyone agreed. She got up and asked “ Raise your hand if you’re going to college next year”
Everyone raised their hand
“Keep your hand up if know what your majoring in, and the career path you want”
Everyone’s hand stayed up
“Now I ask you, how old is Holly”
We flustered through the pages of the book,
“19, she’s just a year older than most of us”
She sits back at her desk, turns on the overhead projector. On the screen shows different statistics of college students or recent high school graduates.
“Before any of you even got to high school, our district provided you with the tools to help you figure out what you look, what you don’t like. Career fairs, college advisors on campus every other day, top of the notch sports, arts, academics. 18 different AP programs, and teachers than have consistently pressured all of you to have it figured out, time is running out. To the point that every single one of you knows what you want to do for the rest of your life. Now look at the charts. See how the category of 17-22 year olds still remain undetermined. Don’t you see, every single one of you, was taught in a bubble of privilege, you’re already 10 steps of the game, and you are going to bash on people your own age because they couldn’t get the same opportunities. That’s one thing your 13 years of this district will never tell you. They’ll let you how lucky you are, soon all of you will wear your college sweatshirts with pride as you wear this schools. Not only are you lucky, you are privileged. There are millions are kids your age, same dreams, same ambition, and yet they are not given the chance to go to college. Because their school provided them with teachers who didn’t care, with books that were falling apart, with counselors who told them they would never go to college. So don’t dismiss her just because you can’t understand how she feels. Let me be the first to tell you, all of you at one point, in the next couple years, are going to feel like Holly Golightly, more than half of you are going to change your major, most of you will end up going to into a field never expected to be apart of. All of you at one point are going to feel helpless and so lost. And then you’ll realized this small book you all tossed aside next to your bed, will suddenly be the most relevant thing to you. I don’t teach English to push random California educational standards down my students throat. There’s a book for all of you. You are Holly Golightly, you are Holden Caulfield, you are Jay Gatsby, there is a piece of you in all of the stories you will encounter in this world”
The classroom was silent, I think all of us were in-denial, none of us wanted to admit we hadn’t figured out our life by now.
When I graduated we had conversed a few times afterwards, a couple of facebook comments here and there. I remember when I took a picture of me and Holly Golightly in a Wax Museum, she commented how happy that picture made her. The next day I emailed her to let her know I switched my major, and bought a new copy of Breakfast at Tiffany’s. She had been right, about everything, though I didn’t want to admit it.
It has been nearly four years since I’ve sat off doodling in her classroom. A few months ago I ran into her at a coffee shop in my hometown. I said hello and she told me how grown up I look. I let her know that I wasn’t in school right now, but working instead at job I’m completely passionate for. She laughed, reminded me how much of a hard time I gave her when I was applying for a college in New York and kept telling me I should consider that my mind could change before I go hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt.
“17-year-old me can’t believe I’m saying this, but you were right. I’m still trying to figure everything out”
“You’re not the only one sweetie, 26 years of teaching and I still have students who are figuring out their lives. Nothing is going to kill you more than thinking you’re suppose to have it all together”
“I guess I have you to thank”
“Maybe, or Holly too, I see her story live on through so many of my students. You all give her the future she deserves”
I pulled out the book in my bag, “I’m reading The Book Thief, I remember you talking about in class, I read it shortly after I started college; it’s my third time reading it. Funny, It takes place in the 1940’s yet it’s still relevant today.”
“Stories are timeless.”
I smiled, bought my coffee, and said my goodbyes, wishing her well.
The other day I was scrolling through my Facebook, her name came across my feed. I stopped, because instead of the usual post about her children and her travels, her pictures were of an enormous pile of boxes filled with books. In the background I had recognized as my old school library. Her caption read “The Day the Books left the library;” the school was renovating the building into a student union- A place for students to “hang out” . They would keep the textbooks assign to the classroom. Any student inquiring about anything else would need to refer to other sources. Or as she put it, “the books are gone forever.”
As I looked through every picture, I see the boxes filled to the top, with no viable way of closing them, the books were just thrown in there like they do not matter; they no longer had a home. I thought about the bare shelves and the empty walls, how soulless they had turned the building into, how many stories they have ripped apart.
The comments were filled with former students baffled by the pictures, asking why the school would so such a thing. Shelly said the decision was made because “Times are Changing.” But I don’t understand that argument.
Throughout time, people change, technology advances, but despite it all, the stories and books have been a constant, allowing ideas, dreamers, broken hearts, and the world to come together. Libraries have been the central home, allowing humans to gain nothing more but knowledge and escape from reality. It can be the beginning of an opportunity for someone to find their character, to find their inspiration. Change is inevitable, yet never has progressiveness been about taking away books. While this decision may be due to “times changing”, I don’t believe they have moved forward. They instead have become an environment that limits the minds of their students. Perhaps most of the children will find a way to books again, but what about those who aren’t so lucky, those who use the school library as their only way to stories they can escape. A school’s job is not just to educate their students on standards written by people who sit in a cooperate office, but to provide resources and to inspire.
If this is the direction they’re going toward, then they shouldn’t be proud, no school should be. A school shouldn’t pride themselves in throwing away knowledge, they should be thriving in any chance to open their student’s minds. My mind went straight to The Book Thief, how I had just said few months ago how relevant it was to today. The Nazis use to celebrate the burning of books, preventing it’s citizens from learning and discovering anything that disagreed with their way of living, and just looking at those boxes, all I could think was “does the fire come next?” Stories are timeless after all.
Maybe this is all a stretch, maybe the students who want to continue reading on their own will find a way. Perhaps students have an easy way to get a hold of stories, but what about those who do not? What about the student who depended on their school to help them grow, someone who would sit in the middle of the only library they were able to spend time in, and soak up all the knowledge, latching onto every word to help them dream. Have we forgotten that they deserve the same opportunity as well?
I’m ashamed in any educational system that would not extend the gift of knowledge to every student that walks onto its campus. My school taught us we needed to have everything figured out before graduation day. While books taught us that it was it’s okay to be afraid, it’s okay to not know what you want from the world. These stories have given me, and billions of others throughout all of time the sense that we are not alone.
I could only imagine how much that broke Shelly’s heart as she could see from her classroom window all the books being tossed aside. What a horrible punishment for a teacher whose only crime was to teach students how to be individual in a system that consistently has told them how to should learn.
I weep for a Shelly.
I weep for Holly Golightly.
And I weep for every student who now may never know her story, and may never know they are not alone.