Be the Lighthouse

“Be the lighthouse, not the storm…” — Anonymous

Over the last few weeks since school started, I’ve struggled to find words to explain what it is to be in a new role this year.  To, for lack of another way of describing it, live another life.  For the first time in thirteen years, I don’t have huge rosters of students to plan lessons for.  I don’t have weekly lesson plans due.  I don’t have over 100 names to learn by the end of the first week.  I don’t have grades due every Wednesday.  I don’t have to create a perfectly worded CLO…


I do have grants to write and book lists to compile. I do have students from previous years wanting help with assignments.  I do have community members and students asking me fairly frequently, “Why isn’t the library open yet?” I do have to come up with a response that is both satisfactory and apolitical so as not to fire up the already fired up community that does not understand, nor at this point care, about the inner workings of the district that made it impossible to have the library open before school started.

So, I find myself in a central and very public position.  I technically work for the district now, so schools do not have to provide me with things like: the yearly staff shirt, a desk, an office chair, a computer, an office, or a key to said office.  I now have all of these things, but what had to happen in order for me to get them is a key example of why so many things do not happen in urban schools without a fight.

A vignette: The librarian’s office is situated in the library.  It technically belongs to one of the schools in the building, not the library or librarian, as there has been neither for so long.  The folks who designed the library planned on the circulation desk being my “office”.  The circulation desk was not scheduled to arrive until this week 9/21.  School started one month ago.  Therefore, there was nowhere for me to work unless I pulled a table into the open and unfinished library undergoing construction.  The tables all belong to schools, so I, as a district employee now, do not have to be provided with one.  Fortunately, I am friends with the person scheduled to be in the office space.  We talked, and it was an easy solution to scrounge two chairs and tables and set up our office.  The school scheduled to occupy the office did not want me to be in there, so there was no key provided to the office for me.  The custodian, with whom I have a great relationship, assisted by giving me a AA key–the key that opens all doors in the building.  There are still people trying to tell my office buddy that I don’t belong in her office and that she doesn’t belong in my library–though they are in the same space.  Since there are five schools in one building, and space is at a premium, the fight for physical space happens every year.  It is complete insanity.

These are the stories they do not want told.

Imagine if I had said, “Library not finished?  Okay.  I’m working from home.  Let me know when you all have your act together.”

As they say, the devil is in the details.  For me, the most important detail is making sure children are not forgotten in all the shuffling, re-shuffling, and adult chaos that bubbles up at the beginning of the year.

So, I got to it, and built the library a website so that students could begin to check out ebooks right away.  I am very much learning to be a librarian for children in grades 6-12 as I go.  I’ve never taught 6th grade.  I haven’t taught middle school since 2005.  I am not good at it.  I don’t know all the best middle grades titles to suggest!  Changing lanes will force you to realize your limitations.  Moving beyond the classroom will help you to see the ways you have played it safe for a long, long time.  Being a teacher-librarian who needs to be a lighthouse for everyone to find safe harbor, rather than just a select few, is challenging….

But, I had Angie Thomas, Jason Reynolds, Nic Stone, and Elizabeth Acevedo to help me.

I’ve done more than 30 classroom visits in the last two weeks.  For each one, the objective is clear–get children who haven’t had a library for as long as (for some of them) seven years–to at least consider giving reading a chance.  I am in the library to help students find their way to developing rich, varied, and full reading lives they can use as guiding lights through their time in the school system, and beyond.


When I saw the way students responded to the read-alouds, nudged one another and said, “Miss, do you have any more copies of that book in the library?”  I knew the library, though not physically open yet, was well on its way to achieving its goal.

During each visit, I take classes through the website, and ask them to tell me honestly whether they enjoy reading.  Predictably, the older the children are, and the longer they’ve gone without a library, the smaller the amount of hands raised stating that they do enjoy reading.  Most classrooms have just 20-30% of students answering in the affirmative.  After taking them through the website and showing them how to check out ebooks, I talk to them about Project LIT and the exciting events we have coming up this year.  I also read aloud from The Hate U Give, Long Way Down, Hope Nation, or The Poet X (they tell me which one they want to hear).  I’ve read from each of these books so many times, but it never gets old, because the response is the same every time.  Children love to be read to, and I love reading to them.  They especially love it when the books speak their language–tell the stories of their lives–which sometimes, in some ways, is my life too.  After the read-aloud, I ask for thumbs up, to the side, or down as an answer to the question, “Based on what I’ve read so far–would you keep reading?”–each time, over 90% of students give an emphatic thumbs up.

When I pitch Project LIT Montbello, I do a short book talk for each of the nine books we are offering this year.  As I type this, we have over 45 students signed up to join, which is a testament to the greatness of Project LIT and the books that have been selected this year.  I have raised money for 50 copies of each title.  I still have eleven more classrooms to visit this week.  The students don’t know it yet, but I’m going to find a way for every single person who wanted to join us to be able to.


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In order for the library to be successful, I have to work hard to gain these students’ trust.  They need to know that reading is fun, not just something adults try to get them to do to earn a score on a test–they’re too smart for games like that.  I need to remove labels like “non-reader” “not-proficient” or “low-level” from our vocabulary.  My most important job is to help students reclaim their reading lives and know that somewhere among the stacks, both physical, and virtual, there is a book waiting just for them.  I want them to know that reading poetry, manga, graphic novels, song lyrics, Instagram photo captions, all of it counts–that they are not “non-readers” just because they don’t like to read the things schools and adults tell them they need to.

Too many folks assume that because we pour love, resources, and money into literacy in early childhood, once children have a firm foundation, they no longer need support in developing or maintaining reading lives.  Let me assure you that is not true.  I am one of just five secondary education librarians in my district, and there are many districts that have none at all.  I am new to this.  I do not know details of what it will take to change conditions that result in the removal of secondary libraries from America’s schools, especially urban school districts (the first to have libraries removed).  But, I know that the accompanying work is to remove the shame and stigma too many children feel about their reading habits, that reading that reflects their tastes, lives, languages is not good enough–an unfair burden for them to carry, placed upon them by adults.

Libraries, and librarians are the lighthouse by which so many children find their way through the storm.  It benefits all of us when we value, preserve, and protect them.

At our first Project LIT Montbello meeting, we talked about what we were willing to bring to the group, and what we hoped to get out of participating this year.  One girl said simply, “More words.”

For me, that was everything….



Published by: Julia E. Torres

I am a mother, high school Language Arts teacher, activist, world traveler, and reader. Here you will find the story of a woman making her way in the world and making her mark, one word, and one classroom at a time.

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