I have taught children who have never owned a home. Or some who own several. Who have lived solely on the generosity of strangers. I have taught children who have watched their parents get arrested. Children who have watched family members drink until they passed out, shoot up, or take pills. I have taught children whose earliest memories were of a parent walking out on them. Children who have found God, or Allah, or nothing at all. I have taught children who believe that family matters above everything else and some who do not know what family means. I have taught children who from an early age knew they were not straight or the gender they were born with. Every year I teach a new child, whose story breaks my heart and makes me question humanity. We probably all have, whether we know it or not.
We wear so many hats as teachers, as parents. Sometimes we wear many at ones, our roles always fluid, striving to do the very best we can for every child that is in our care. We carry so many words with us that our students entrust us with. Snippets of their life stories as they try to realize who they want to be while they grow up in our classrooms. As they try to accept themselves and the person they see themselves becoming.
This is why one of the biggest responsibilities we have is to offer a safe environment for students to explore their identity, no matter the age of a child. To create an environment where students can relate to each other, even if their lives seem very different. To create an environment where every child can find out that they are good enough, that they are smart enough, that they are not broken. To create a community where all children are accepted, no matter their background, their race, their religion, or any other identifier that may shape their lives.
We can do this through the very books we place in our libraries. Through the very experiences we share as a reading community. Our classroom library spans age groups, it spans ability levels, and it spans topics that may not be suited for all but are certainly suited for some. Because the students I teach deserve to have a library that will allow them to explore topics that matter to them. Because the students I teach deserve to have a library that will allow them to feel found. Because they deserve to have a library that is not based on what I think they need, but rather on a myriad of books that may bring topics into their lives that they need to learn about. That they may already know about but no one else does.
We teach children whose lives we can never imagine. Who may go home to a life that looks nothing like the one we thought they had. We teach children who are curious by nature, whose curiosity may lead them down a path that is destructive unless we somehow find a way to warn them. We teach children who have so many questions about the bigger world but no idea how to answer them. Books help us reach these children. Books that may not work for all children, but may work for some. So when we censor the books we allow into our reading communities we are telling some of our students that the story they live every day is not suitable for the rest of the class. That the life they lead is not meant to be discussed by us. That the experiences they have had is so different/hard/awful/mature that we will not allow a fictional character to experience it along with them, to allow them to feel less alone, less scared, and less broken.
So while we , of course, should read the books in our libraries as there are books better suited for some age groups, we should do everything we can to make sure our library is for all of the children we teach. That our library becomes a way for students to discuss and explore things that they may not be exposed to yet, but that they should know about. That our libraries become opportunities for students to learn about other ideas, beliefs, or lives that may seem foreign from their own. Our job was never to censor, but always to educate. Make sure that your library is for all of the children you teach, and not just those whose story mirrors your own.
PS: Kate Messner, an author I greatly admire, was recently dis-invited from a school visit due to the topic of her newest book The Seventh Wish, a middle grade novel that deals with the effects of drug addiction on a younger sibling. This book should be in our libraries for all of those kids whose reality mirrors that of the main character. To read about what happened and to show your support, please go here.