It could be a children’s story, in a book like the ones in the new library, a story with a moral attached.
A group of four intrepid Jewish educators go to South Africa to deliver books to kids who could use them, only to learn at least as much from the children and their teachers in that faraway place as they possibly could teach.
A little hackneyed, no? Too heavy-handed? Too dogmatic?
So what about overlaying another, less obvious lesson — that when you bring gifts to children that unleash their imaginations, it’s a good idea to leave a little empty space, so they can fill it themselves, with their own stories.
That if you can’t fill all the space yourself — if you can’t possibly bring enough books to satisfy the needs of 1,600 students — you can start on that holy task?
That, as our tradition tells us in Pirkei Avot, it is not incumbent upon any one of us to complete the task, but it is necessary for each of us to begin it.
So let’s start this story now.
This summer, four women from the Solomon Schechter School of Bergen County in New Milford — its head of school, Ruth Gafni, its librarian, Beryl Bresgi, its director of special services, Leslie Teicher, and its director of marketing and communications, Leah Silberstein — shipped about 1,000 English-language books to the Langabuya School in Paarl, a small rural community near Cape Town; they also collected money to buy books in Xhosa, the local language. Schechter students not only helped raise funds, they also assembled solar flashlights that will allow their South African counterparts, who generally do not live in homes with electricity, to read after dark, and they wrote notes that were placed in the books before they were sealed in the container for their trip overseas.
Then the four women went to South Africa.
It had not been unfamiliar territory to all of them; Ms. Bresgi grew up in a small rural Jewish community not far from Paarl — her grandparents lived there — and it was through her familial and professional connections that the link to the school there was forged.
But none of them knew what to expect.
When they got there, Ms. Bresgi said, they were surprised by the expertise the school’s staff had. The school had a very small library, in a small back room, shelved with unused computers. But “they asked us for a catalogue, and I thought that I could do a very simple one. When we got there, they asked me why we hadn’t used Dewey.” (Although many large academic libraries have moved on to other classification systems, Dewey’s still the gold standard for smaller lending ones.)
When the books arrived and the visitors and two teachers who became the library’s coordinators figured out how to catalogue them, mothers came to do the work. “It was an opportunity to bring the community together,” Ms. Bresgi said. The mothers worked tirelessly; that’s not a feel-good platitude but a straightforward description of their work, the four women said. And their joy was both palpable and contagious.
The children loved the books, the library, and both reading for themselves and being read to.
“It was beautiful,” Ms. Teicher said. “The kids were finding their way into the library, even before it was ready, and then they waited, and then they asked to read a book, and then it multiplied. It was so beautiful, watching them read together.”
The children would sit close to each other, often holding on to each other, as they read or listened, she added. “We don’t do that. They were holding each other so closely.
“You felt the power of literature. You saw kids coming together, sharing the stories, sharing the experience.
“We weren’t teaching them to read,” she stressed. “They were kids who were intelligent and caring and part of the community.
“It didn’t ever feel like there was one kid alone, reading one book alone. It was always a shared experience,” she said.
Still, some children had powerful reactions; one character in one book spoke directly to one child. “There was a class that I’d read ‘The Last Stop on Market Street’ to,’ Ms. Teicher said. “A day later, a little boy came to me, and he was pulling on my shirt, and he kept saying ‘CJ. CJ.’ At first I didn’t know what he wanted.
“And then I realized that CJ is the main character in ‘The Last Stop on Market Street.’ He came for the book.
“He sat down and he read it. And it was so beautiful,” she said.
Ms. Gafni described the school, which houses kindergarten through eighth grade, as “mixed.
“You can see that some initiative has begun to put some color into it, and there is some new equipment; there also are broken windows that have not been fixed.” She described windows with “jagged edges.
“The neighborhood the kids come from has some houses, and some shacks. There is a great deal of poverty.” The school is public, but it is not free. Parents have to pay some fees to enroll their children, and so its students are among the community’s more privileged.
“We have such easy access to the written word; when you think about such a level of poverty, where drinking water is scarce, even water for the bathroom is scarce,” Ms. Gafni said. “The classrooms basically were bare. They just had chairs. Nothing else.
“It was like when you bring in books, it was like a wave of color came into the room. When we opened the door of the library, it was color and smiles and rejoicing.”
The children are literate in not one but two languages. “The kids can read in English and in Xhosa,” the language best known in this hemisphere for the unusual clicking noises its speakers make, Ms. Gafni said. “Xhosa is written in the Latin alphabet, but it looks different because the words are so long and they have so many consonants,” Ms. Teicher elaborated. “The kids’ reading is so skilled. They have strong decoding skills.”
“We pride ourselves on our kids reading Hebrew and English by the end of first grade,” Ms. Gafni said, talking about Schechter students; the comparison of her mainly quite-comfortable students with the far less lucky South African students was “very humbling.
“There are 40 to 50 students in each class, even the classes for very young students. And they can read in two languages too.
“It is about the power of teachers, and the power of human curiosity, and the need to learn and grasp new ideas, and how literacy is a great equalizer,” she said. “You can enjoy a book that is not from your culture, because everyone loves a good story.”
All four of the educators said that the community had been extraordinarily gracious to them. “There was a genuine appreciation that we had left our families and communities to spend that time with them,” Ms. Bresgi said.
Together, the visitors and the community came to the realization that a library is not just books, although certainly books are at its heart. But it can’t be imposed on a community. “We didn’t tell them what they needed,” Ms. Bresgi said. “They told us. It grew organically.
“When we left, it was not done by any means, but we left the community — the parents, the faculty, the children — involved in it. And it was the children who brought it to life.”
The library is far smaller than it should be, Ms. Bresgi said. “The standard for elementary schools is about six to eight books per child. We brought about 1,600 with us, and they had some already. It worked out to less than two per child.
“So that means that they were at the beginning stages,” Ms. Gafni continued. “We gave the power of the story.”
And they gave them room to grow, and the firm understanding that growth is possible.
Schechter sent all sorts of books, fiction and nonfiction. The children often gravitated to books about soccer, and also books about Nelson Mandela, that towering figure in recent South African history. They also liked to read the same book in English and in Xhosa, noting and savoring the differences between them. Of course, being normal kids, they often needed to be prodded to explore outside the genres in which they felt most comfortable. “It’s the same thing we have to do with our kids,” Ms. Teicher said.
Ms. Bresgi was particularly moved by the library. “They were able to get a container for the library, and they painted it beautifully, and furnished it with wooden shelves and beanbags. And they planted a beautiful little cactus garden outside, to make it look inviting.
“The children took such pride in it. There were rocks outside in the garden, and they kept the rocks clean. They swept the rocks. There was such a sense that this library was something special.
“And then we looked at the mothers who were working to catalogue it, and I had a moment when I realized that these mothers didn’t stop for anything. They didn’t ever stop for lunch. Not for anything. That was the strength of their commitment to making things better for their children.”
Ms. Gafni was particularly moved by the opening ceremony for the library, which happened, not coincidentally, on July 18, which was Mandela Day. “It would have been his 100th birthday,” she said, so it was even more propitious than it would have been any other year.
“There was white furniture outside for us to sit on, and an arch of balloons, so it would look festive, and a table underneath the balloons, and an array of fruit.
“The students came by, under the arch, class by class, all 1,600 of them, and there we were, handing out fruit to every kid, along with a bookmark with the name of our school on it, and the name and the age of the student who made it.
“And I saw the kids’ faces. I saw kids of different heights and weights and sizes. And I saw how thirsty they were for books.
“And also for fruit. It was oranges and pears and apples, and each one got a fruit.” The joy of the moment was reflected in their faces, Ms. Gafni said. “And then they sang, and we were just in tears as they sang.
“We come from a world where we have things, so many things,” she said. “What kid in our world would get excited about getting an orange and a bookmark? Our kids all are waiting for the Amazon boxes to arrive.
“When you think about the simplicity of it, and how very meaningful it was. A community was coming together to celebrate the building of a library.”
Ms. Teicher said that of all the moments of revelation and self-revelation and insight the trip provided, the one that stuck with her the most was “when we were talking to the mothers and the local community librarian. We had been talking about how maybe there weren’t enough books, and we would have empty shelves. And we heard the women talking about their policies about taking books home, and I had a moment when I realized that everyone is coming to terms with having this, and really making it their own. They didn’t have the place or the space to do that before.
“So then it wasn’t hard to leave with empty shelves, because that also was exciting. Because it wasn’t our space to fill.
“We realized that it didn’t feel like we had superimposed our beliefs of what a library should be on them. This was a starting point, a place where they could begin to build what they wanted.”
“This wasn’t us coming and giving them our wisdom,” Ms. Gafni said. “It was shared learning.”
So now the Schechter teachers are home, and here the school year has begun again. In South Africa, where the seasons are the mirror image of our own, the year is heading toward a close. The power of literature, the absolute magic of spoken and written and chanted and song words, will continue to influence students in both places. The libraries are full, but there still is empty space on the shelves.