On Thursday morning, librarian Nikki Krysak and English teacher Molly Shepley spoke in Chapel about an event they had worked to bring to campus: The Human Library. First proposed by Nikki, this initiative fit very well with the work Molly and Dean of International Students Florian Rexhepi had been doing to foster dialogue among the diverse members of our community. As Nikki explained it, "The Human Library is a living, breathing library where humans are the books and the stories are their lives. Readers are invited to browse the catalog and check out a human book for a 15-minute one-on-one conversation, during which they can learn and ask questions. The event builds community by providing an opportunity for the reader to challenge prejudices and learn about individuals who have had different life experiences from their own."
Nearly 100 people visited the Human Library Thursday afternoon to read the 18 human books, and within 30 minutes readers had to be put on a wait list. Both Readers and Books reflected throughout the event that the powerful and genuine conversations they were having would most likely never have happened under conventional circumstances. The Books were a microcosm of our diverse community, differing in gender, age, nationality, religion, and interests. Students from Japan and Korea met with a Book with a Jewish heritage and deepened their understanding of the Holocaust. A French teacher Cathy Miles-Grant had conversations with three Books. As she reported it,
Once I had made my selection they directed me to the spot in which my first "book" awaited me. And then the real treat began. I had three wonderful conversations:
- the first with an individual whose father warned her not to let anyone know she was Jewish when she set off on a school trip to France;
- the second with an individual whose love of hunting is infused with the joy of apprenticing alongside her father, and her concerns about the dismissive attitude of some towards the tradition of hunting and the culture within which it is embedded in Vermont;
- the third with a NEK native who spoke about his experiences growing up gay and navigating the worlds of peers, school, family, work; for this conversation, we were joined by a student from China that I know well, who engaged thoughtfully with the "book" and reflected on attitudes towards gays and lesbians in her country.
Similar conversations were happening all around the library, and the place was abuzz. I was struck by the cross sections of the SJA community participating: students, teachers, local students, international students... As I was leaving I found myself sharing reflections with various others (students and faculty) who were similarly enthused and stretched by their various exchanges.
Others learned about their teachers' and/or classmates' stories of growing up or finding their passions, and the Books themselves were able to finally tell their stories in a way that people could understand. Some now want to tell their stories in Chapel. Many of the participants were late for dinner because they were engrossed in conversations and did not want to end their conversations; many went over the 15-minute time limit. The event clearly lived up to its marketing pitch—Don't Judge a Book by Its Cover: Challenging Prejudices and Stereotypes through Dialogue.
This sense of celebrating diversity and fostering understanding of each other was evident on Wednesday as well. Despite the snowstorm, dozens of students showed up to participate in a memorial for the victims of gun violence held in Fuller Hall and dozens more stood outside Colby Hall calling for actions to increase school safety. Hundreds of other students met in advisory groups, discussing the issues around gun violence and school safety and/or discussing other issues like college plans or course selections. The power of those 17 minutes was, in part, that each student made a choice as to how to use their voice, and during the days leading up to and following the event, all sides of the issues were explored and listened to. We made sure that above all we cared for each other as full, rich human beings throughout the dialogue.
In following up on the Student Walkout Day, I shared some excerpts from a letter from a retired teacher who encouraged students to walk up to those sitting alone, invite them into their network of friends, and even befriend them, creating relationships that could save lives. The letter read in part,
You are the answer. Your greeting, your smile, your gentle human touch is the only thing that can change the world of a desperate classmate who may be contemplating something as horrendous as a school shooting. Look past yourself and look past your phone and look into the eyes of a student who no one else sees. Meet the gaze of a fellow human being desperate to make contact with anyone, even just one person. You... Your new friendship can relieve the heartache of one person and in doing so, possibly prevent the unjustifiable heartache of hundreds of lives in the future. I know you. I trust you. You are the answer.
The letter also addressed teachers:
And teachers, my fellow guardians of our youth, I know you too. I know the desire of wanting to make a difference in a young person's life. I know the thrill of stepping in front of a classroom of students, but simultaneously intimidated by the trust bestowed upon you. I also know the crushing, sometimes unbearable responsibility that your shoulders are asked to carry. But that's why you got into teaching, because you have big shoulders. And a big heart. You're overworked (I would add underpaid, but you didn't get into teaching for the pay, so it needn't be said), underappreciated and exhausted. May I add one more item to that list? You're also a miracle waiting to happen in the life of your worst students... The next time (and there's always a next time) they are ready to wreak havoc in your classroom, I challenge you to pull them aside and ask them if they are ok, if there is something bothering them, and is there anything you can do to help. Your genuine concern for them may be just the miracle they are looking for. The miracle we're all looking for. I know you. I trust you. You are the answer.
The takeaway from this week of snow-day schedules and diverse dialogue is that, indeed, we are each the answer to stopping violence and making our communities safe. By building relationships, by valuing our shared human dignity, by using our voices to tell our stories and express our views, by listening with our hearts as well as our ears to fully understand issues and points of view, we can find answers to the problems that continue to plague us. Until we do that, from the highest levels of government to the front lines of education, we won't make much progress.