September 29, 2017

Grade school librarian to Melania: Get unbent and do something to help underserved children


Oh hell no.

Healthcare, as the Trump administration knows, is complicated. International affairs, we must concede, can have a lot of moving parts. But sending fun books to schoolchildren? That’s supposed to be easy.

Well, easy died on a gold-plated escalator two summers ago. Now and for the foreseeable future, we live in a simmering cauldron of oh-come-on — a sentiment that could be heard this week echoing righteously through an open letter to Melania Trump.

On September 1st, Trump sent a bundle of ten Dr. Seuss books to Cambridgeport Elementary School outside Boston, along with a letter that reminded kids, “Your education is the path to pursuing your happiness.” The gift was part of a White House program recognizing schools that have “achieved high standards of excellence” for National Read A Book Day, apparently a thing.

But Liz Phipps Soeiro, School Library Journal’s “2017 Hero of Family Outreach” and Cambridgeport Elementary’s librarian, wasn’t having it. She sent the books back, along with a detailed letter to Trump, which she also published at the Horn Book Magazine’s “Family Reading” blog. The letter begins:

Dear Mrs. Trump,

Thank you for the ten Dr. Seuss titles that you sent my school library in recognition of this year’s National Read a Book Day. (Sent second-day air, no less! That must have been expensive.) I’m proud that you recognized my school as something special. It truly is. Our beautiful and diverse student body is made up of children from all over the world; from different socioeconomic statuses; with a spectrum of gender expressions and identities; with a range of abilities; and of varied racial, ethnic, and religious backgrounds.

Soeiro, who does not appear to be a monster, goes on to explain what makes students in Cambridgeport very fortunate—“robust social programming, a responsive city government, free all-day kindergarten… well-paid teachers (relatively speaking — many of us can’t afford to live in the city in which we teach)…. access to a school library with over nine thousand volumes and a librarian with a graduate degree in library science”—while noting that educators there “still struggle to close the achievement gap, retain teachers of color, and dismantle… systemic white supremacy.” And then she gets to the heart of those “high standards of excellence” Trump wanted to recognize: “But hell, we test well! And in the end, it appears that data—and not children—are what matters.”

Soeiro compares her students to underserved kids in big cities like Detroit and Philly, who need help far more urgently, and aren’t getting it. “Why not go out of your way to gift books to underfunded and underprivileged communities that continue to be marginalized and maligned by policies put in place by Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos?” she asks, before concluding with an entreaty that Trump meet with Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden, some reflections on Dr. Seuss’s racist underpinnings, and a suggested list of ten books Trump might want to send schools instead.

Trump spokesperson Stephanie Grisham responded in a statement, “Turning the gesture of sending young school children books into something divisive is unfortunate, but the First Lady remains committed to her efforts on behalf of children everywhere.”

Of course, what’s really divisive is a Department of Education run by a patrician stooge, who over the past few months has used her office—with much help from the Trump machine—to embolden campus rapists, set huckster education profiteers salivating, and earn stark disapproval from most of the country. Trump evidently wanted a depoliticized photo op, all gap-toothed little grins and wide eyes. But public education is always political—intensely so—and, in this case, she messed with the wrong librarian.

Definitely read the full letter.

Kids, be like Liz! And remember:

Ian Dreiblatt is the former Director of Digital Media at Melville House.