Friday, November 2, 2007

Through Another's Eyes at the Public Library

During my first few weeks of college, I had a very eye-opening experience. I came from a suburban town where everyone was white. I mean, EVERYONE. I remember my initial reaction to The Cosby Show as one of surprise: where did they find that many black people, all of whom wanted to be actors? By college, I was worldly enough to know that most towns had more black people than my own, and had made my very first black friend before school even started, during orientation. LeSean joined an organization called Women of Ethnicity and invited everyone from our orientation clique to come on the overnight trip to the university's retreat that they were hosting.

I was hesitant to go, but didn't really know why. I asked LeSean if she was sure it was OK that I went. She assured me I'd be totally welcome, it was a great group of people, and I'd totally fit in. She was right on all but the last count. I was totally welcome, and they were a great group of people, but I so did not fit in. They played Monopoly with totally different rules. They used slang I'd never head before. We played a campfire game where someone would hum a theme to a TV show and everyone had to guess what show it was, and I thought, well, we all watch the same stuff, I can totally do this one. Guess what, it turns out that white people even watch different TV shows! I started thinking about the one black girl in my graduating class of over 200, and wondered, was this what it was like for her all the time? Did she go to school and find that no one liked any of the same stuff she did, and that she had no real way to connect with anyone, despite everyone being friendly enough? I learned that weekend that there were more ways to live than the one I'd been raised with. I'd never questioned that basic assumption the same way most of us generally don't sit and wonder if there are other colors than the ones we're familiar with. It was one of the most valuable learning experiences I've ever had.

My visit to the nearby library branch last week reminded me a bit of that. The closest one is within walking distance, although I didn't walk there. There are bigger and better ones a few miles away, but I needed to return my books pronto, and I also wanted to see this one because it's known for its collection of books in Spanish. So I went, and it was like the reverse of a library that serves primarily English-speaking patrons. The Spanish sections, even twenty minutes from closing time, were packed with everyone you typically see at a library: moms with little kids, high school students doing papers, little old ladies and old men. It appeared to be well-stocked, however, and well-maintained. The English section was shoved in a too-hot corner. The shelves were half-empty. The "New Books" section featured books that had been out in paperback for years now. Things were misplaced left and right, and oh yeah, I was the only one over there. This is what it must be like to speak Spanish as a first language and try to go check out a book anywhere else in the region.

There's a huge debate in this country over the Spanish language. The common line is (everyone say it with me now) "If they're going to come to our country, they should learn to speak English!" Setting aside the undercurrent of racism that I feel is present in this debate (I used to live near a huge Bosnian population and I'm sure they didn't all speak English, but I never heard a word about it), this is just not practical. As a Craigslist friend pointed out, learning a whole language can take years, and in the meantime, you will need to rent an apartment, get your utilities switched on, buy groceries, get a job, etc. Even if you were fluent in English, I'd imagine you'd want to be able to be yourself once in a while, to just be able to chill out with a book in your own language, written by an author who's well-known to you, and that references things you're familiar with. I'd also imagine that's especially important to Spanish speakers whose children know only life in America.

So while I'm sure that there are people in my fair county who work themselves up into a lather at the thought of their tax dollars going to support a library with a Spanish collection, I think it's an important service. I'm glad it exists, and if the night I was there is fairly typical, it's certainly getting the traffic to justify its continued existence. I probably will even continue to go on occasion, although I'm hoping to spend more time at the Wal-Mart-sized Central Branch now that I'm so much closer to it. I'm also hoping to learn the nuances of parking down there -- I used to get a ticket every time I went! Still, as I learned again this week, it's good to go someplace you don't really belong every once in a while.

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