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Teen Librarian Toolbox
Inside Teen Librarian Toolbox

Sunday Reflections: It’s Hard to Get Out of a Town Like This

tltbutton5On the wall sits a small collection of test prep books. The ACT. The SAT. Nursing exams. Teaching exams. It occurred to me the other day that we should also pull out the financial aid and how to write your college application essay books and just call the section College Prep.

This shelf of books sit across from the Teen MakerSpace. So I turn my head and look through the window and today there is a group of teens working on whatever it is they are working on and I realize how many of my teens aren’t even thinking about college. College is not in the cards for them. So I look at my Assistant Director and I say to her, “it’s hard to get out of a town like this.”

And it is.

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My senior year of high school I did not fill out one single college application. Not one. Because I knew that college wasn’t really in the cards for me. Nobody talked to me about college. We didn’t really have the money for it, though we were by no means poor. It’s just that college was truly expensive and unobtainable. I took the ACT once on a day in which I woke up with a fever and none of it mattered anyway because I wasn’t going to college, so I did what I could and turned it in and walked away and never looked back.

I was by not, however, a bad student. In fact, I ended up graduating in the top 10 percent of my class and got a free two years at the local community college. That is the only reason I ever started college. I then moved, moved again to attend college, started working at the local library to help pay for college, and then went to graduate school to be a YA librarian. I will finish paying off my college loans the year that The Teen high school herself. There were a lot of lean years in between a lot of that, and some good friends who helped me out, and a metric ton of college loans.

But even though college seemed out of reach for me, it seems even more so for many of the teens that I serve. There’s a huge difference between my life as a teenager and many of the teens that I currently serve, and those difference make all of the difference in the world.

I wasn’t hungry.

I wasn’t worried about whether or not a parent was going to go back to jail or start using again.

I lived in a big town with plenty of jobs and I worked.

We could afford to buy me a crappy car that I could drive the 20 minutes out of town each day to attend a class at a community college.

We could buy the text books I needed to take the class.

Even though my parents didn’t really talk to me about college, they asked me about my grades and demanded that I do well.

I could go to the doctor or a dentist when I got sick and didn’t have to suffer with a throbbing, rotting tooth or a long term low grade fever that should probably get checked out.

I had a lot of things in my favor that these teens don’t have. They can’t even imagine having.

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The irony is that the town in which I work is the home to two private colleges. One of them is, in fact, the undergraduate school that I attended. But their tuition is astronomical and out of reach for most of my teens and most of the members of our community. And transportation is still an issue. And their families are still unstable. And climbing your way out of poverty is near impossible because you need money to do it. There are reasons we talk about the cycles of poverty.

And it’s not just college. It’s hard to move to a new town where jobs are if you don’t have transportation or the money for an apartment or a car to get you out of town. We’re a small, rural town and the closest cities with jobs are 45 minutes in any direction. All it takes is one breakdown in the middle of winter on a country highway to make you lose your job, if you’re lucky enough to get one. It takes money to make money.

Small rural towns aren’t bad, they have a lot of charm. There’s something to be said about running into your favorite aunt in the public library and having known your neighbors for generations. But small dying rural towns have a layer of dust and despair that covers those charms. The paint on the houses is peeling and the porches are crumbling to the ground, but no one can afford to fix that because they can barely afford food. Food insecurity is rampant in towns like mine.

Yesterday I read that the Minnesota house passed a bill that would lower the minimum wage, and I have heard a lot of talk about other places wanting to do the same. But in a town with nothing but medical or service industry jobs – think Walmart and Dollar General – minimum wage is the only thing that is keeping most of these families just barely surviving. We say that you need a college education to get a “good job” and don’t recognize the many barriers there are, really, to attending college. Even in a town with two of them. A minimum wage job won’t help you pay for college, especially if they lower the minimum wage.

So I walk back down to my Teen MakerSpace and talk to my kids. We talk about tv shows and popular culture. We talk about making. We talk about being moved to a different foster home or whether or not they are going to leave tonight to go to the local community dinner. We talk about their families and what it’s like to be poor. But we don’t talk about growing up and moving out of town. It’s hard to get out of a town like this.

Sunday Reflections: Thinking About Mental Health, a #MHYALit Post by Ally Watkins

May is Mental Health Awareness Month. For today’s Sunday Reflections my friend and frequent #MHYALit (Mental Health in YA Lit) contributor Ally Watkins shares a thoughtful piece about her own personal experiences. You can read all of the #MHYALit posts here, or click on the tag #MHYALit.

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I had my first panic attack when I was in the fifth grade. I was sitting at my desk in my classroom doing a worksheet, and everything was fine. Until suddenly, everything wasn’t fine. The lights were too much, the work was too much, the people were too much, and then I was sobbing. It was terrifying and humiliating. None of the adults present had any idea what was happening to me, other than thinking I was maybe getting sick. I don’t remember if my parents were even told about the incident. I wouldn’t fully understand what had happened for nearly 15 years.

May is Mental Health Awareness Month. Here’s something to be aware of: if you work with children and teens, you are going to come into contact with kids that have mental illnesses.  According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 1 in 5 teens live with a mental health condition, with half of those developing it by age 14. The CDC reports that among children aged 3-17, 3% suffer from anxiety and 2.1% suffer from depression. (Both sites have more information and reading available.)

Serving Teens in Libraries Infographic

If you teach a class or do a class visit, multiple kids in those desks are dealing with these issues. If you have a large program, several of your attendees are living with mental illness. These kids may have had panic attacks like I did, or they may be despondent, or they may be overwhelmed and falling behind in school because of their health. They may not have any idea what’s happening to them.

Kids’ brains aren’t fully developed. They’re not making fully-informed rational decisions on the best of days, in the best of circumstances. And consider this: kids with mental health problems are constantly inundated by messages from their own brain that don’t line up with reality. A teenager with depression may believe that no one cares about them or that life isn’t worth living, even though that is patently untrue. A tween with anxiety may be in a constant state of panic, even if the stimuli in their environment don’t merit that visceral response. These things are hard enough to manage as an adult with a biologically more well-developed sense of reason and some years of experience under your belt. But take a minute to imagine how terrifying the world must seem to a child or a teenager whose perception is skewed by illness. Especially if that illness is undiagnosed.

Work In Progress – Adolescent Brains Are A Work In Progress

Inside The Teenage Brain | FRONTLINE

I wrote a post in the fall called How To Help which highlights a few practical ways that we can provide for kids dealing with mental illness. We’re not doctors. We can’t diagnose or treat, and we shouldn’t try to. But as librarians and/or as educators, we need to be aware of what’s happening in our kids’ lives and be sensitive to that. We can work to fight stigma and we can help spread the idea that mental illness, like any other illness, isn’t anything to be ashamed of. We need to work to create safe, inclusive environments for all of the children and teens that we serve.

I don’t know what I needed that day in the 5th grade. But what I do know is that it can never hurt to have more adults understanding what the kids in their schools and libraries are dealing with. Educate yourself.

 

Sunday Reflections: When There is No Village

What if I wrote a Sunday Reflections, but on a Wednesday? What if I couldn’t wait until Sunday to share my heart with you? Today is that day.

Canvas4Summer is coming. It doesn’t quite have the ring to it as Winter is Coming, but it’s true. And with the winding down of the school year comes all the end of year pageantry that schools can muster. End of year concerts, field days, field trips, awards ceremonies and more.

And somewhere in your community is a child who doesn’t have a special adult that can come and support them. Their single mom or dad can’t get off work to go watch them receive that math student of the year certificate. They have no grandparent to take in for Grandparents Day. There is no aunt or uncle or older sibling. They will walk across that stage to receive an award and there will be no one there to take a picture, clap, and beam with pride. On this day, this child or teen will be reminded of how alone they are in the universe.

Recently someone tweeted about how no matter what, your family will always have your back. But this is patently untrue for millions of kids all over this world. Some families are toxic, abusive. Some are broken. Some are isolated. Some are alienated. Some are just barely surviving. Some are struggling with sickness or grief. There are tons of reasons, but the the results are the same – many kids don’t have a village. Some kids don’t even have a person.

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In 2011 my family moved from the state of Ohio to Texas in order to have a job so we could afford to feed our kids. Food and shelter is important, but our kids continue to struggle with the lack of emotional bonds that many families take for granted. As I write this I am praying every day that my husband will be able to find a job in one of two other states where we do have family so that my kids can finally learn what it’s like to go to grandma’s house or to have that aunt who will take them to a movie on a Saturday night. My family is beautiful and blessed, but we are also isolated and alone. And my phone is not the exception, I see it all around us.

The truth is, it doesn’t have to be a blood relative. Any adult who can honestly love and mentor a kid will do.

Our kids are desperate for it. And when I say our kids, I don’t mean mine, I mean our nations. Because as a parent I finally understand what it means when we say it takes a village, though I fear that we are losing our villages. Everybody works too much to barely survive, social media has taken out of our in real life communities and we bond with strangers who can’t help us out in a pinch with childcare, and our kids don’t have anyone to sit on an uncomfortable school bleacher while they win an award or blow a whistle on a hot, dusty field day.

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But we, the adults of this world, can change that. We can make the conscious decision to be mentors. To be “aunts” and “uncles” or “grandmas” and “grandpas” to kids that we are in no way related by blood. But make no mistake, it has to be a long term commitment. Changing your mind somewhere along the lines can often be more damaging than having never said yes. Abandonment, betrayal, and just plain being let down can have far more lasting impacts than feeling alone.

The village is dying. Each person is looking out for themselves. We’re debating whether or not sick children deserve health insurance (they do), whether poor children deserve free lunches (again, they do), or whether we want to pay to support education (we should), in part because we are losing ability to care for someone other than ourselves and those we relate to by birth. We are for me and mine, but the neighbor across the street has to fend for themselves. We are moving away from being communities and the impact is devastating.

There are communal benefits to raising our neighbors out of poverty and supporting education, to name just a few of the issues on the table. Strong, healthy communities are supportive, nurturing, and work together to meet common goals. There is safety, advancement, and an overall wellness in healthy communities. Poverty and disenfranchisement can be linked to decreased health (which increases health care costs for all), increased crime, and things like decreased property values.

But it’s more than that, children who grow up with a lot of stress, poverty and trauma – their brains are literally remapped. There are long term consequences for the individual and society when our communities fall apart. Lonely, unhappy, unsupported, and hungry children aren’t just inhumane, they are bad for society.

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I work in public libraries with teenagers and I have the distinct honor of being a mentor to many teens. But I also have made the conscious effort to try and be a part of and build community outside of my job. And I would like to ask you to do the same. “Adopt” a kid in your church or neighborhood. Choose to be that adult mentor that a kid or teen can ask to come and blow that whistle on field day or clap as they walk across the stage to win an award. Sometimes it’s because their parents literally can’t as they work to try and put food on the table, other times it’s because, in all honesty, kids need more than one or two adults in their lives who value them. We don’t all have networks of healthy, connected extended families that meet together on Sunday nights for family dinner to help nurture a child’s soul. Geography, toxicity, death – these are just a few of the reasons. But the reason doesn’t really matter, what matters is the love. People need love and nurture and support. They need a village. Choose to be a village.

Sunday Reflections: Doing the Heavy Lifting at the Library, Working with a Hurting Public to Find Healing

sundayreflections1I am sitting at the Reference desk when a patron walks up and asks me for help. She was displaced after Hurricane Katrina and needs some information. She knows she was adopted and now has a name and some basic information about who her biological mother was. Can you help me track her down she asks, she doesn’t know what happened to her after the hurricane.

I spend some time digging around and for some reason my search leads me to the Social Security Death Index. It is here that a find that a woman with that name and around the age presented passed away in the last few years. I look up this woman, tell her I’m sorry, and tears come to her eyes. That’s okay she says, thank you for telling her, she would rather know than not.

It’s another day and another Reference desk, but a woman is standing before asking for a book on how to deal with a difficult spouse. There is a newly forming bruise above her eye. I find her the information she is looking for, but I also quietly pass her information about how to contact the local domestic violence shelter. I don’t know if she ever uses it, but I did what I could in that moment to let her know that there are local options available to help her.

It’s another day and I answer the phone at the Reference desk. A woman has just come from the doctor’s office and received a diagnosis, but the doctor didn’t give her enough information. She has more questions and needs more information. What, she asks, is the average life expectancy with this disease. I look it up and see the words on the page . . . 6 months. It’s okay she tells me, I know it’s bad, just read it to me over the phone. So I do. I read her the entire passage over the phone as she asks and remind her that we are not doctors and that she should talk more to hers. I feel like I have just told this woman that she has 6 months left to live and she thanks me, because I did my job, I did what she asked me to do.

Yesterday my friend and mentor was sharing with me a story about a patron who had recently come in and asked what to do now that his spouse had passed away. The found a checklist with the AARP that would help this man navigate the legal loopholes that he would now have to jump through as he tried to manage his grief and get his personal affairs in order.

“There was a lot of heavy lifting today,” she told me.

That’s what she calls it, doing the heavy lifting. Sometimes, we do a lot of heavy lifting at the public library. Parents trying to navigate divorce and fight for custody. People trying to find jobs. People trying to navigate complex medical diagnosis. People trying to navigate loss. The heavy lifting is hard, emotional work. Sometimes you help a patron and then you step into the office and cry.

There is a lot of joy and celebration working with teens in the public library. But there is a lot of sadness as well. We are often the only lifeline community members have as they try to find aid and just barely survive whatever tragedy life has just handed them.

I have sat with teens who have lost parents, watched their houses burned down, or just learned that their best friend died Saturday night in a car accident. There’s a lot of heavy lifting, a lot of emotional work, in dealing with people. We don’t often talk a lot about the heavy lifting in librarianship. You’re job description may say that you have to be able to push a cart full of heavy books or lift a box, but they often forget to ask you about this other type of heavy lifting. What will you do when you learn that the teen who comes in every day after school was sent away to live with a relative because their single parent now sits in jail?

As my mentor told me this story of the grieving widow and reminded me about the heavy lifting, I thought about the current attacks on library funding. Since I work at a library in Ohio, we are receiving attacks at both the state and federal level as both the Ohio PLF and the Federal IMLS are currently under threats of cut or total annihilation. But the public library is one of the few places where people can go to get started in getting help. We may not be the final agency that helps them, but we are often the place they come to find out who that agency is because they have no idea where to begin searching. That’s what librarians do, connect people with information and resources.

It’s not just that the library is a place that provides you free wifi or a DVD, we work every day with community members who need help getting help but don’t even know where to begin looking. There may be a grant to help them start their own business, a shelter to help them get back on their feet, or a specialist to help them navigate a complex medical diagnosis, but they often don’t even know where or how to begin looking for that information. That’s what we do in the library, connect people to the information and resources they need.

Today I was driving in the car with a new friend who asked me, what exactly do librarians do. And it’s these stories I always want to tell. We help people. Sometimes that help is helping them find help. But to that widow that is grieving, that help is a precious gift. That is the heavy lifting.

Sunday Reflections: Empty Bellies, Starving Hearts – What happens when teens see compassion die

sundayreflections1A teen looks up from a project she is working on and realizes that she has been working too long, she has missed it. She comes to our Teen MakerSpace every day after school and stays until closing. But she leaves every night around 6:00 PM to go to the local dinner. You see poverty is so high in our town that a different church hosts a community dinner every week night – and she realizes that she has just missed it.

I have some candy in my office so I give it to her. I’ve also given teens the remains of my pizza, cookies, and whatever else I can scrounge up in from my office. Today I’m coming up empty. Later today I will, in fact, go use my bank card to try and buy something and it will be declined. It turns out I only have $5.00 in my bank account until payday. Thankfully, payday is tomorrow.

This teen, however, has no payday. She is a teenager, but just barely.

Another barely a teen teen delivers newspapers to help make sure her family eats. The library staff bought her a hat and gloves as we watched her deliver newspapers in the falling snow and in subzero temperatures. We remind her to wear her coat. If she gets done with her route early enough, she’ll stop into the Teen MakerSpace to make something, stashing her newspaper pouch under a table while she pretends for a moment that the weight of the world doesn’t rest on her shoulder and she’s just hanging out and making stuff.

Recently a young teen boy expressed his rage about poverty. Not that he lives in poverty, that is common place around here. But he knows what people think of him for being poor, he reads the news. And as I asked him to be compassionate about a girl at school who was a cutter, he startled me as he began to rage against the idea of compassion. “Why,” he asked as he stood and began pointing, “should he show compassion to others when the world showed him no compassion.”

This moment was startling to me. Not because I thought the world showed him compassion, I know that we don’t, but because this teen not only knew it and it was effecting the way he thought about having compassion for others. It was here that the ripple effect was clearly made known to me. His rage was palpable and clear, because no one was showing him compassion he did not feel the need to show compassion to others.

It is Easter morning and I have just brought my children home from church. We made dinner and sat around the table. We searched for eggs full of chocolate. We played games. Thankfully, my check when in on Friday. I was able to go out on Saturday and get a little bit of candy and a decent dinner for my kids. We live paycheck to paycheck and struggle to make ends meet, but I know that the lives of my biological kids – the ones I gave birth to – are different then the lives of my library teens.

During this past election there was a lot of talk about rural poverty and how it influenced the election. I drove every day past Trump signs in yards of falling down houses where I knew teens that would later go to the community dinner lived. Free lunch, financial aid, healthcare, these are just a few of the things that effect their daily lives that many people just voted against.

Tomorrow the library will open and we will once again see our teens. Teens coming in for books and movies. Teens coming in to user the Wifi or Internet because they don’t have access at home. Teens who come daily into our Teen MakerSpace for a safe space where they can learn, grown, and be social with their peers. Teens who parents come to the library to apply for jobs or file their taxes or to check their kid’s school grades. If the president defunds the IMLS as he has proposed in his upcoming budget, these families struggling to survive will be hurt once again.

As I write this post my youngest is pouring a box of Nerds into her mouth and watching Project Mc2 on a Netflix account that someone else generously pays for. Her belly is full, her mind is engaged, her heart is full of love.

But I know that for many kids across our country, their Easter looks nothing like this. Nothing. Those are my teens. Their bellies are growling, their hearts are screaming out for love, and we are failing them. Every time we speak in anger or judgment against those living in poverty, we are twisting the knife in their heart deeper and deeper. If we plunge it too far, they may never recover.

Because I am a Christian, I pray. And I pray this Easter is that we will prove that young man wrong and rediscover our compassion for the poor. And maybe, just maybe, we will start a chain reaction of compassion that will change his heart, and all of our futures.

Sunday Reflections: A Sea of Black Belts and the Myth of the Lazy Teen

Teenagers, they’re all so lazy and entitled, amirite?

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Having worked with teenagers for a over 22 years now, I know that there are certain truths that the general public holds self evident. The most popular among them is the idea that teenagers are lazy, entitled brats who are a menace to society. I thought about this perception of teens a lot this weekend as I sat in a sea of teenage black belts soaked in blood, sweat and, sometimes, tears.

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I spent my weekend at an International Tae Kwan Do Tournament in Dallas, Texas. There were 48 schools that gathered together to spend the weekend competing, among those competing were a mega ton of teens. I saw hundreds of teenage black belt walking around this weekend and having witnessed my own teenager get her black belt, I can tell you that a lot of hard work and dedication goes into the process. These kids spent more time and energy in this process than many of us will spend on any one single thing in our life time. It took my daughter a little over 3 years of 3 times a week classes, practice at home, and one of the most brutal tests you will ever witness. I don’t mean brutal in terms of getting beat up by other people, although that did happen, but I mean brutal in terms of the lengths of the test and the amount of physical and mental energy it demands of its test takers.

Many of the teens competed in a demo team competition late Friday night. Like my daughter, these teens committed hours and hours of time practicing to learn their routines and get their timing and precision just right. They practiced on Friday nights. They practiced on Saturday mornings. They practiced on Sunday afternoons. This is on top of the many hours of classes they attend regularly during the week. Every time I took my daughter to practice I marveled at this team’s dedication and hard work.

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The Bestie went with us this week to support The Teen. She spent her Friday night cheering on her friend. We got home late at night only to wake up just a few hours later to get up, drive back and do it all over again. She sat patiently for hours waiting for her best friend to participate in a 15-minute competition. She enthusiastically cheered her on. She is loving, kind, supportive and everything I would want in a friend. And in this moment, she was selfless.

The Bestie herself recently spent her own hours dedicated to making the cheerleading squad for the upcoming year (we’re so proud!). She took tumbling classes to perfect her flips and jumps. She worked tirelessly to maintain the grades she needed to be eligible. And then she spent evenings learning the routines she needed to know for tryouts. She’ll spend part of her summer going to camps and getting prepared for the next year. Cheerleaders are another group who are harmfully stereotyped, when the truth is they put a lot of hard work and dedication into their craft.

Many teens will spend time this summer in marching band camp, two-a-day football practices, church camp, science camp, volunteering, or working summer jobs.

Don’t get me wrong, some days I look over at my teen and she is laying like an invertebrate slug on the couch and I think if she tries to move she will have to ooze like a liquid blob across the floor. But this is actually a normal part of adolescent development. The teenage years are rivaled only by the baby and toddler years in the amount of physical change and growth that takes place. We give toddlers tons of leeway for behavior and sleep, but teenagers often don’t get the same consideration even though we know biologically that the same types of demands are being made on their brains and bodies.

Do teenagers sleep a lot? Yes, they often do. And science tells us that they need to. The amount of energy being expended behind the scenes to help their bodies and brains grow is monumental. A two-year old can throw a full blown tantrum in the candy aisle of the grocery store and we all make knowing eye contact with the parents because we’ve been there and understand. But heaven forbid a teenager walk into the library with a sullen expression and a clipped verbal interaction after a regimented eight-hour day of school.

Teens and sleep: Why you need it and how to get enough – NCBI

Want to know another secret? Even though I love my job, my co-workers, and my community, I’m sometimes cranky after an eight-hour day at work. I just want a moment after meeting the demands of everyone else around me to decompress. Because I am an adult, I often get to do just that. I get to manage my time and interactions outside of work. Teenagers often don’t. In fact, I can think of no other time in my life then my teenage years when there were so many outside demands put on my time, attention and attitudes. Young kids are given a lot of freedom to explore the world and play, we try to be empathetic to their needs, but less so with teenagers. School, extracurricular activities, jobs, chores, church and more – the demands and expectations that society puts on teenagers can be overwhelming.

As a librarian who works with teens, I have fought against the stereotypes we hold for teenagers my entire career. I have seen toddlers throw fits and adults berate staff over 10 cent fines, and no one has ever said let’s shut down the youth or adult services department. But have a bad interaction with a group of teens and staff are lamenting that we have to have teen services at all. Why do we want them coming into the library, we ask, when there behavior is so awful.

Teens are just like any other group of people. Some of them are truly awful. I, the teen services librarian and advocate, will secretly loathe a couple of the teens that use my space every once in a while. For one reason or another, we just won’t connect or I genuinely hate their attitude and approach to life. I will work hard to make sure that none of them ever know this, but if we’re going to be honest, it happens.

But I also think that we as a society do a really bad job of seeing all the positive things that teens are doing, how hard they work, and the demands that we put on this group of people who have so little say in what we ask of them. Every day there are teens solving problems, helping others, supporting people they love, and pursuing their personal dreams. There are teens getting up early to go to practices, staying late for more practices, and sacrificing weekend mornings that could be spent sleeping in or playing video games to do things that they have a passion for. We just keep overlooking it.

It’s an old marketing saying that a negative experience will be communicated by your customer to 7 other people. We don’t pass on the positive, because our expectation is to have a positive costumer service experience. But a negative customer experience, we’ll pass that on to everyone. It’s the same thing with teens. We, society, tend to focus on the negative and forget to tell each other about the positives.

This is me sharing with you a positive and reminding us all that we need to stop being negative about teens. They’re working harder than we and the media often give them credit for. As I looked out this weekend and saw a sea of teenage black belts, I am reminded once again that the way that we talk about teens just isn’t correct.

Also, maybe we need more YA with teens who do martial arts. Pretty please.

Sunday Reflections: Who Gets to Decide What it Means to be “Real”?

sundayreflections1Real American

Real America

Real Christian

Real Patriot

Real Man

Real Woman

There is a lot of talking lately about being real.

Real America, many people argue, lies in the heart of the poor, rural Midwest communities with silos and farms. As if the big cities no longer matter. Coastal elites, they claim, don’t represent REAL America.

Real Christians vote Republican.

Real women have curves.

Real men don’t cry.

Real patriots don’t question their country or its leaders.

But who gets to define what it means to be real?

I have lived in both California and the rural Midwest. The view outside my window was different, but the issues were the same. Both locations are full of people trying to navigate life, trying to pay their bills and trying to figure out who they are and who they want to be.

I have been both a conservative and a progressive Christian – and even a nonChristian. But whether conservative or progressive, the people are wrestling with the same issues: What does it mean to be a follower of Christ in this day and age? There are different approaches to the questions and very different answers, but at the heart of it people are wrestling with the same questions.

I have no idea what it means to be a man, but I know that my husband was the realest and the rawest when I broke down crying after his father passed away. Emotions are real. Humanity is real.

I have been both anorexic and overweight, and in both situations I was a real woman.

My biggest freedom came to me when I decided that other people didn’t get to own the terms and make the definitions for me.

I am a mom who works. I love working and I travel and leave my daughters for several days in a row in order to do this job that I love. I love my daughters but I don’t always love the details of parenting. But I am a real mother. I’m even a good mother, though not a perfect one. I don’t judge mothers who choose to stay at home and they don’t get to judge me for making different choices. Those of us who raise children, whether they be children born to us or children that have come to us in other ways, are mothers.

Men who cry, men who make art, men who play video games, men who play sports, men in business, men who stay home and raise their children. They are all real men.

Women who decide not to have children. Women whose bodies won’t let them have children. Women who work. Women who don’t work. Women who are thin. Women who have curves. Women who wear make-up. Women who don’t. Women who play sports. Women who love fashion. They are all real women.

Americans who question their government. Americans who take a knee during the national anthem to make a statement. Americans who stand and place their hand over their hand. They are all real Americans.

The truth is, there is no one right way to be a thing. And we don’t get to define it for each other.

For me, being an active American citizen means putting country over party, and being a good Christian means putting people over both.

For me, that’s what loving my neighbor means.

Working with teens, I have often been privileged to see the moment when my teens stand up straight and say in their hearts, “you don’t get to define me anymore.”

You don’t get to define me anymore.

I may not think like you or act like you, but I am real. A real American. A real Christian. A real woman. A real mother.

No one gets to own the definition of what it means to be real. I define myself.

Sunday Reflections: There is No Such Thing as a Free Lunch?

The tickets were a different color. That’s what I remember about being on the free and reduced lunch program after my parents got divorced and we tried to make it as a single income family. The tickets were a different color so every kid knew that you were poor. There was great shame that came with handing that ticket to the lunch lady. But that shame didn’t overwrite my hunger, so I handed it to her and I ate.

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This past week, Betsy DeVos made the comment that there is no such thing as a free lunch. And that is technically true. Lunches, even lunches that come free to children in our nation’s schools, cost someone money. I, personally, don’t mind paying taxes to help make sure that children don’t go hungry.

Here’s the thing about children. They are our most vulnerable population. They are developing and forming and every thing that happens to and around them affects them. Hunger. Poverty. It affects them. And because it affects them, it affects all of us.

I am a Christian and since this is a Sunday, let me turn now to the Bible. Once there was a man named Jesus who stood before a large crowd and he was going to deliver what we would call today a sermon. He was teaching them. But he looked out among them and saw that they were hungry and he understood they would not be able to listen and learn while their bellies rumbled with hunger pains, so he fed them. This is the Sermon on the Mount. The feeding of the multitude. The story of when a man named Jesus took some loaves and fishes and fed thousands of hungry people so that he could teach them.

We can argue about the best ways to feed starving children. But there are hungry kids sitting in our public schools – current statistics indicate 1 in 5 of every kid – and they already have a lunch time and a lunch program, so free and reduced lunches make sense. It’s a distribution program in place that works.

There has been a lot of talk since the election about rural poverty. No one, they claim, cares about poor rural people and that is why we are here. Ironically, cutting school lunch programs would dramatically hurt those living in rural poverty. I know, because I work in an area with high amounts of rural poverty. In fact, I recently did a long series of Tweets about what is was like working with these teens. I share that story with you here because it seems relevant to this conversation we keep having.

It’s true, there is no such thing as a free lunch. Someone, somewhere is paying for that lunch. But I’m not in the business of punishing children, affecting their health and development, and compromising our future for some negative ideology that overlooks the very real causes of poverty and puts more money into the hands of rich people while children sit hungry in the classroom and can’t focus on learning because their teacher’s voice isn’t louder than the growling in their bellies. I’d rather my taxes go to feed hungry children then pay for our billionaire president’s many vacations or to increase our capacity to kill the world a thousand times over by developing more nuclear weapons. Investing in children is an investment in America.

This is what it's like working with teens living in rural poverty in a small Midwestern town//


This is what it's like working with teens living in rural poverty in a small Midwestern town



  1. If you would like, please gather round for a look at teenage life in poor(er) rural America. Multiple tweets to follow.


  2. Just five minutes ago, I sat in a busy, active Teen Makerspace with 24 teens. In a moment, they are all gone. Just like that. Why?


  3. They all left to go to the local hot meal. This happens every week night like clockwork. They're here, then there are gone. Poverty & hunger


  4. are so rampant in this rural town that local churches/organizations have a steady, weekly rotation of hot meals for the public. My teens


  5. know the schedule by heart. The staff does as well, because it is the most frequent question we get asked after where's the bathroom.


  6. They come here after school and stay until closing. Sometimes parents come check on them in between going from one part-time job to the next


  7. Many of them are in foster care. They share stories of abuse, sexual violence, drug use and more. They are bored, restless, scared.


  8. Our schools are failing because there is no $ and no one will vote for a levy because they can't afford higher taxes.


  9. One girl wore broken glasses for months because she can only get new ones 1 day a year when the local place has a free clinic.


  10. Some of my teens have teeth rotting out because they can't afford to go to a dentist. No one makes fun of them because they all know and


  11. and understand here what it's like to live in poverty. They know what it's like to be hungry. To have your electricity or water turned off.


  12. They talk openly about it all because it's all they know and they have no shame. They don't have space for your shame. They are surviving.


  13. There are a few pockets of more middle class in this town, but overall we have a high amount of poverty, poor health, instability, low ed.


  14. These parents are trying hard in a system designed for them to fail. There are no jobs locally, not good paying ones. And you need cars &


  15. childcare to get out of town for the better paying jobs. Or for cultural experiences. Or for anything that isn't mass marketed & cheap.


  16. It's a never ending cycle. One illness, one car break down, and they fall back down the ladder. And it keeps repeating, because the system


  17. that's designed to hold them down is very good at it.


  18. These are children. Teenagers yes, but children. When they turn 15 many of them will get jobs. They will try & go to school, but they need


  19. the $ more immediately then they need the education. They need to eat. Electricity. Running water. Education is a luxury here for those who


  20. can afford to stay in instead of dropping out and working.


  21. So remember when you are talking about poverty, you are talking about real people. Most of them the hardest working people you'll ever meet.


  22. And remember that these kids love like this because of us. Because of our laws, our systems, our decisions. But we can also work to change.


  23. Things they need:
    To be valued, respected, cared for
    Parents w/jobs that have livable wages & benefits so they can be more present in the


  24. Life of their children
    Quality public education
    Health care
    Nutritious food
    Cultural opportunities like field trips to museums & plays


  25. Side note: so many schools no longer have field trips, which is the only way many kids go to museums, plays, etc. Another huge loss for all.


  26. Some of these teens are born and raised here & have never been out of this small town because how could they get there? They can't.


  27. In a half hour they will all walk back to the library in the freezing rain and stay until close. Then they'll go to wherever it is they are


  28. sleeping tonight. For some, it will be home. For others, it won't. In the mean time, I'm honored to sit in this space w/them & listen, teach


 

Sunday Reflections: Muslim Voices

Some of my favorite people on the planet.

Some of my favorite people on the planet.

If you know me at all, you know I am quite fond of my library minions. And when I say “my library minions,” I mean the teens and young adults I have gotten to know over the past many years working in high school and public libraries in central Minnesota. I’ve since moved and am not currently in a library, but I formed lifelong bonds with those minions. We talk and text. They come visit me. I’ve written college recommendations for them, and scholarship letters, and been a job reference. We’ve had endless lunches and dinners and coffee dates. They turn to me for advice. I am honored that many of them consider me a mentor. I love these kids. Fiercely. 

 

 

The flag of Somalia.

The flag of Somalia.

A large portion of my beloved minions are Muslims from Somalia. Minnesota’s Somali population is the largest in the United States. The area I lived in for the past decade, St. Cloud, has a HUGE Somali population. My young friends are amazing. They’re college students, tutors, grad students, volunteers, activists, med school students, writers, artists, and history-makers. They want to be doctors, lawyers, judges, authors, teachers, and therapists. As you might guess, when the travel ban was issued, I started furiously texting with some of my friends. A few of them sent me their thoughts, which I share with you here today.

 

 

From Sahra:

I feel like Trump has yet to comprehend that immigrants are an asset to society. In fact, they have always been. From early settlement in the thirteen colonies, to the era of industrialization, we have learned that it was foreigners who built the U.S.A from the ground up.

This country was established by people who escaped religious persecution in Europe and here we are denying immigrants access to a new life simply due to their religion.

We keep hearing “It’s not a Muslim ban, it’s not a Muslim ban,” but what do you call it when the only thing the 7 countries have in common is that (an astonishing majority) believe that “There is no God but Allah, and Mohamed (Peace and blessings be upon him) is his messenger”?

Fun fact: The immigrants I have had the pleasure to meet are so eager to start working as soon as they step foot in this country. I mean surely if they are working they are also paying taxes, and if they are paying taxes surely the government is benefiting.

But hey, what do I know?

Aside from that, I’m flabbergasted that a man with so little values, so little support, and so little common sense has become the president of the United States of America. At this point, we are lucky if we make it out alive by the time he gets impeached.

 

From Saido:

Do you know what it is like living in fear? Looking at everything from a different perspective. Analyzing every movement a person makes and thinking, what do they mean? Are they bullying me? I live like that every single day. I live in fear that someone might jump out of nowhere and attack me for no reason. It’s sad we live in a society where people are afraid to be themselves, and if they decided to become themselves, they become the target of a hate crime.

When I first heard about the ban, I thought it was a joke. Then I saw it on the news—people who were actually being held in the airport because they come from a country that the president thinks is a threat to this nation. I am a person who is from one of the countries the president now bans from entering the United States. I feel sad because I am an individual who has lived in this country for twelve years and I have not seen or heard about the threat my people are causing to this nation. It took me awhile to process this because,I have never heard of crimes that these countries that were put a ban have committed. On the other hand, I am glad to see people who are standing up for the rights of the refugees and also for the rights of those who are mistreated. I am a proud American citizen and I am thankful for the opportunity this country has given me.

 

From Khadija:

As citizens of the United States of America we enjoy a rare privilege. One that is not available to many people around the world. This is a privilege that I am acutely aware of at all times as a citizen with the freedom to express her thoughts and fight for what I think is right in the form of peaceful protests without fear of repercussions or violence. I want people who are oppressed to have the opportunity for a better life regardless of what religion they follow. It is my responsibility not just as a US citizen, but as a citizen of Earth to fight for peace and a world without violence and ignorance. Our best shot at unity is to advocate for peace.

Sunday Reflections: Dear World, Here’s What We Want You to Know about Teen Girls

The other day, in attempt to express contempt for President Trump’s Twitter use, Judd Apatow disparaged him by comparing him to a 14-year-old girl who tweets. This is not the first time that I have seen a tweet like this. The idea of being “like a girl”, especially a teenage girl, is a tried and true way of putting down others, especially men. For many, being like a girl is the worse insult they can think of. Teenage girls are so reviled that we effortlessly use them as insults and then we wonder why they are growing up feeling unempowered and rejected by the world around them.

So in response to not just Judd Apatow but to a culture that wants to continue to use teen girls as an insult and a put down, I tweeted about the various teen girls that I know, love, raise and spend time with in my life. You can read those tweets in a Storify here. But I want to tell you specifically what two 14-year-old girls spent last week doing.

forneybooks

For some time, The Teen, a close personal friend and I have been talking about starting an initative to try and get books into the hands of needy children and teens in our local community. One in five children go to bed hungry each night and if you can’t buy food, you are most certainly not buying books. And as a librarian I know and preach the value of libraries exactly for this reason, but I also know that there is something special about owning a few books and having your own personal library that is open all the time and you get to call yours. So these past few weeks we worked really hard to start making it happen in our local community.

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We knew that getting books wouldn’t necessarily be a problem – many people have already donated – but we kept getting stuck on the how do we distribute the books portion. Then, our local food pantry announced that it was starting a backpack food program. If you’re community doesn’t do this I highly recommend looking into it. Each child who needs one gets a backpack full of food and snacks to take home on Friday afternoon so that they have some food to eat over the weekend. For many children, breakfast and lunch at school may be the only meal they get each week, and weekends are hard. The food backpack program helps bridge the gap over the weekend.

Making bookmarks

Making bookmarks

So we called the local food pantry, who will be putting the backpacks together each week, and asked if we could also put a book in each backpack. They said yes! So now we have begun collecting book donations (or the money to go buy books as some people prefer we buy the books). We also are making bookmarks and READ buttons to put with each book. Our goal is to put a book in each backpack a couple of times a month so that by the end of the school year these kids will have a handful of books to call their own and they can keep reading when they no longer have access to their school library.

Making buttons

Making buttons

So Friday night, out of all the things these two teenage girls could have been doing, they set up and assembly line to make buttons and bookmarks, placed them in books, and organized books by ages to be placed next week in backpacks. To date we have about 131 books.

b4fk5 b4fk1

We made signs and put collection boxes up around the neighborhood. And we brainstormed other ways we could get books into the hands of kids. For example, our community has a monthly farmer’s market and we talked about purchasing a cart that we can set up with a “here kids take a book” sign. The girls are excited about the prospect of spending their Saturday’s out in the community handing out books to kids.

These are just two teenage girls, there are tons more like them all over doing equally amazing things. So maybe we can stop using them as insults and instead start respecting, nurturing and empowering them. And hey, maybe once in a while tell them they’re awesome. Because they are.