The Rapper, the Journalist and the Glue I Found to Join Them – Wisdom Tree #1 Gotham

I’ve always found rappers an interesting phenomenon. It’s that classic rapper-story mixture of difficult childhood, brashness and bragging, sudden wealth and fame and a complete lack of preparedness to deal with it, plus a risk that the whole thing could be gone in less time than it takes to bust a rhyme. In your face and fragile at the same time. Ego the size of a planet, but it’s a fake planet and that thing you just called ego is hiding something.

But how to get into a rapper’s head? How to write a first-person piece from a rapper’s point of view? A teenage African-American rapper’s point of view …

Then it occurred to me that maybe it’s more interesting if we don’t get there, if we don’t get the access-all-areas pass. So, who could I put up close to the rapper who would give us an interesting look at him?

An Australian journalist. An Australian rock journalist around forty, twice the rapper’s age. He’s interviewed everyone. Not that he’s jaded, but he knows what he’s doing. He knows how to look for a story, and where to look.

So, it’s about the two of them, Na$ti Boi and Jeff Foster. It’s about that big writer question: what’s at stake for the two of them?

Where does it happen? Where am I going to find them? Somewhere a long way from home for Jeff, somewhere Na$ti wants to claim. Somewhere that makes a statement. New York makes part of that statement, and the Bloomingdales flagship store makes the rest. New York is Na$ti’s home, and Jeff has come to him and to the venue and at the time of Na$ti’s choosing. It’s not Jeff’s first trip to the city, so he’s not wide-eyed about it, but it’s still New York, and there’s a feeling every time you go there that you’ve arrived in a place confident in its belief that it’s the centre of everything. And the store is an icon. The young rapper temporarily in command of the Bloomingdales flagship is very different from Jeff meeting him at Bloomingdales in Skokie, Illinois.

The story starts at Bloomingdales, with an after-hours fully concierged shopping spree for the huge store’s only customer. Its working title was Cargoes, since the shopping spree would come unstuck over cargo pants and I decided both Na$ti and Jeff would be carrying some baggage.

So, what’s Jeff’s story? What’s the baggage? There’s more to him, more to this trip to New York. I recalled my last trip there, in 2013. I wrote a travel piece for the News Ltd Sunday papers in Australia, on the topic of New York with an under-five. My son, Patrick, was almost four and hugely into superheroes. And New York, Gotham City, is surely superhero central. He’d look out of the hotel room window or up from the streets at the rooftop water towers, and it was entirely plausible to him that Batman or Spider-Man might be there.

When I took his photo coming down the granite slide in Billy Johnson Park, of course he stuck his arms out, a superhero in flight.

I looked at that photo with my characters in mind and I thought, why does Jeff’s son or daughter need to be a superhero?

And I had it. I had my story.

So, Jeff has a family story, his partner Lindsey and daughter Ariel, across town at the Beacon Hotel, living a very different New York experience. Na$ti has a family story lurking beneath the surface. And, to bring them together, we have Na$ti’s manager and cousin, Smokey. Smokey’s wife has just gone into labour and Na$ti messes him around in a variety of ways that night, the long night of the interview.

Now, that’s a cast of characters – that’s the novella, these two stories circling each other, sparring with each other, coming together in, I hope, unexpected ways.

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Locum Earls and the Four-Hour Job

In 1992, towards the end of my short career in general practice, I found myself doing sessions in a clinic built mostly on tax evasion and medifraud. I was one of the new brooms brought in by new owners who played it totally straight, serviced patients instead of their hoarded Medicare cards and, soon enough, we realised viability was an issue.

As the practice limped along, I picked up one-off sessional work elsewhere through one of Brisbane’s bigger locum agencies, with the agency knowing I was up for a new permanent part-time job if the right opportunity arose. Soon enough, the ideal opportunity seemed to present itself. These were the days when general practice had recently been freed from the old rules that said a doctor or doctors always had to own the place, so entrepreneurs were trying their luck. The job was to be half-time – exactly what I wanted – in a brand new clinic on a main road on Brisbane’s inner southside. There were a couple of well-established practices right nearby – places with veteran GPs with good reputations – but in those days the entrepreneurs were deafened by the seductive ca-chunk of Medicare cards being processed and always felt we could grow the pie and bag our slice of it.

The new place, my workplace, was in a building that had been a real estate agency until a few weeks before, but it had been kitted out pretty well and seemed to have what I would need. The receptionist was ready to make appointments and set up files, had been trained to use the autoclave and was keen for me to dirty an instrument or two so that she could put it to use. The owner called around 8.32, two minutes into the job, and said, warmly, ‘Treat this as your own practice. We want this to be a long-term thing. We want people to feel you’re their GP.’

For the first two hours nothing happened. Down the road in both directions, at the established clinics, turnover was no doubt steady. The neighbourhood had already found its GPs. I sat at my desk editing the short story I had brought with exactly these circumstances in mind. I resisted the urge to make personal phone calls.

At 10.30, my first patient fronted up. I could hear mild excitement in the receptionist’s voice through the wall as she got the paperwork together. I opened my door, accepted the file optimistically numbered 000001 and asked him to come in.

He had heartburn, pure and simple. A mild case of it, typically at night. Nothing to find on examination. Job done in pretty quick time, no matter how thoroughly I did it. I gave him advice about weight loss, elevating the head of his bed and some over-the-counter antacids, and I advised him to return in a couple of weeks if he wasn’t noticing progress. He checked that I’d still be there and I assured him I would be. This was to be a long-term thing.

By the time I opened the door, I had legitimately had him with me just long enough to bill a standard consultation.

As I settled back into my editing, I wasn’t really paying attention when the receptionist made a phone call. I could hear her voice through the wall, but muffled. Then my phone buzzed. She said the owner was on the line and wanted to speak to me.

‘First patient, then,’ he said, as if I’d take the conversation from there.

I had no idea where it was supposed to go, so I just said, ‘Yes.’

‘But you didn’t make a follow-up appointment.’ That warm welcoming tone seemed to have gone missing.

‘No. It wasn’t indicated.’

‘But I thought you’d always do a follow-up appointment.’

‘Actually, you only do that if there’s a medical reason.’ This was the downside of working for the person who owned the building, rather than someone who knew the score. ‘If you did it routinely, it would be over-servicing, and the Medicare people would be onto that pretty quickly.’ Or not so quickly, if the fraud-based practice I was working for across town was any guide, but that was beside the point.

‘But what was wrong with him?’

At first, I thought I couldn’t have heard him properly. I got him to say it again. I asked him, quite sincerely, if this was doctor-to-doctor, and he actually had a medical degree I hadn’t been aware of. Red rag, meet bull.

‘But I’m the owner,’ he said, as if owner trumps all.

The call ended in the stand-off it was always going to. I explained confidentiality, he explained ownership. I told him the files were his property but not his business. He was outraged. He hung up on me.

Five minutes later, as I sat weighing up my options and wondering what quasi-medical hell I had got myself into, the phone rang outside. The receptionist put the call through to me. It was the agency, saying they’d just copped an earful from guess who about Locum Earls and his insubordination, lack of respect, etc, and that Locum Earls would be leaving at lunchtime and not coming back. My new name cranked the surreal feel of it up one more notch I didn’t need.

I set the agency manager straight. She got it, of course. Which immediately led to more outrage, but all on my side.

‘I’ll make him pay you for at least the whole day,’ she said. ‘Maybe the week. And I’ll be telling him why I’m not sending him anyone else. And then I’ll let the other agencies know.’

At precisely 12.30, with file 000002 still on the receptionist’s desk optimistically awaiting a name, I left and never went back.

I’ll never know how patient 000001 went with his reflux. But I do know that, if he returned a couple of months later, he would have found a real estate agency where a medical clinic had once, fleetingly, been.

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When Email Becomes Eek-mail

Okay, enough time has passed that I can now confess. Every so often, an email blunder occurs that is of such grand proportions that it goes viral and does several million laps of the planet before settling down. For each one of those, there must be thousands with less gas in the tank that leave the perpetrator flamingly red-cheeked in the privacy of their own workspace. I own one of those.

I am not the Ray White real estate executive who tried to test his new work email system by sending his wife an email entitled ‘Show Me Your Tits’, and who accidentally sent it to everyone else in his database as well (including at least one News Ltd journalist).

I am not the English school principal who, on receiving from a staff member a forwarded complaint from a woman whose house backed onto the school, replied ‘Tell her to get stuffed,’ not realising (a) the original sender had been copied in on the email sent to him and (b) he had hit ‘reply all’ instead of ‘reply’.

But here’s what I did. First, some background. There are times when I deal with a lot of incoming event requests. This is a good thing, even if it’s not always easy to keep on top of. Request numbers increase when I’m already out doing a lot of events (eg, on a book tour), and unfortunately that’s also when have less capacity to deal with them properly. So, I have a system. I pass them on to my agent, and we have a triage system for assessing them. To make it into my diary, as well as working with what’s already scheduled, an event has to make it through one (just one) of the following hoops:

1. Will I be at least reasonably well paid?
2. Will I sell a lot of books?
3. Will the event benefit a cause I support?
4. Will it be an adventure?

So, sometimes I earn some money (#1), sometimes I make a fool of myself as Mal Meninga’s partner in a celebrity canoe race (#4).

That checklist came to mind when I received an email from a private school asking me to speak (for no fee) at their father-and-daughter breakfast. I was mid-tour, on a street in Sydney. My choice was to flick the email to my agent then and there or let it languish, perhaps until well after the event. So, I flicked it, with the shorthand message my agent would expect in the circumstances. In an implied request to look through the detail of the original email from the school and weigh it up according to our criteria, I simply said:

Can you think of a reason why I would do this?
N

She would take that at face value. She would read in detail the email which I had only glanced at on my phone, and she would see if there was a compelling reason to say yes. Was there a charity benefiting? Was there room in my dairy? Etcetera.

But I botched the forward and my email instead became a reply to the original emailer:

Can you think of a reason why I would do this?
N

All it really lacked was an emoji of a raised middle finger.

But once it’s out, you can’t suck it back. Oh, yes, another email followed. A crawly, explanatory email with a salutation, loads of apologies, the full ‘N i c k’ in the sign-off. But I don’t even have to tell you that, not only did I not speak at the breakfast, I haven’t been back to that school.

I told my agent about it. She said at least it was better than the author who had meant to forward an event request to his agent but who hit reply instead and went with the message ‘I’d rather have another colonoscopy’.

Anyone else ready to confess?

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Beyond ConTact

I used to think contacting books – the application of a sticky sheet of protective plastic – was a punishment parents put themselves through, but now I realise it’s the school. It’s the system. And I’ve just faced it for the first time. I’ve just had my first wrestle with the giant sticky multi-limbed heartless beast that is contacting schoolbooks and, since it’s possible others didn’t make it out the other side, I’m reporting in.

We were told at the parent information night on Thursday that it’s to make sure labels on the front of the book stay stuck on properly. Heard that yourself, have you? Apparently that’s often how it starts, but don’t be fooled. If it’s the case, why not just stick them on properly in the first place? Why slap a label on in some dodgy way to start with, then require someone else to do something infinitely more complicated to keep it there? And then judge them for their handiwork? Because be in no doubt about it – there’s judging going on. In the classroom next to my son’s, the teacher has already sent some contacting back to parents to be re-done. Which, having just escaped the ContTact chamber, seems to me like sending an omelette back and asking for it to be returned as two eggs.

‘What is this contacting books?’ the parent next to me said, recently arrived from a distant land. ‘How do you? Is this reading she is talking about? Contacting books?’ In the movies when a platoon arrives on a planet inhabited by unseen but deadly aliens, there’s always one guy you know will be taken first. Phew. In our room, I wasn’t that guy.

So, I spent a day or so in denial of the gravity of my mission, and then I did what any first-time contacter would do. I turned to Facebook for help.

Fifty-six comments later, I determined I had to go in. The advice was mixed. Of course it was. ‘Rebel,’ some said. ‘Get those slip-on covers … Just don’t do it … Life is already too plasticky.’ (‘Yes, yes it is,’ I heard the nagging voice of doubt say in reply. ‘More plastic in the sea than fish soon, I read that …’)

Rebel? Well, sure, but I’d be pitching my son into the middle of my revolution, and he didn’t choose that. Make him the one hold-out in a class where every other child is parented by ConTact-adept suck-ups? It took me straight back those three years of Indonesian at school, when everyone else had bought exactly the right Indonesian-English dictionary in time, but I’d got to the shop just after the last one sold, to be told the next would come on a slow boat who knows when. I ended up with a brightly coloured Malaysian-English dictionary instead, since it was apparently ‘near enough’. Near enough? There’s no near enough. For three years I confused my untuks and my untoks and I still can’t eat satay without breaking out in a sweat.

So, I took the best practical advice given to me, attempted to compile a summary and went to cross-check it by googling other sources (as also advised). There I realised my first mistake. Years ago, I’d gone and got myself a Y chromosome. Every site on how to contact seems to have ‘mum’ somewhere in its URL. Contacting apparently isn’t a job for men at all! Perhaps, in some other bi-gendered parent teams, men stand by with nets and flamethrowers and stuff (warrior-like, semi-tough but useless) as the ladies boldly face the beast. But not at our place, apparently.

I settled for the illustrated contacting process at ‘mouthsofmums.com.au’. If these challenged mums were gamely pushing on and contacting books with their mouths, I should be brave enough to step up and try with two hands.

So, I’ve done it. I’m back, somewhat scarred by the experience, and here’s what I’ve learned:

• I’m an ace ConTact cutter, but a dud ConTact applier.

• It’s the application that’s the real skill. Therein lies to path to ConTact glory and/or unmitigated disaster.

• First ConTact is crucial. If the line of the book’s spine doesn’t land correctly, you’re already sunk. The book will end up like an ultra-sticky spitball, your child will probably be failed out of grade one, have to repeat, lose contact with his/her peers, be fire-setting and harming small animals by eight and, of course, be lost to a life of crime soon enough. Other than that, first ConTact isn’t crucial at all.

• Book covers are actually animate, sentient and wilful, and sometimes flap when they want to, bellyflopping onto that ConTact sheet with all the precision of a drunk with his eyes shut tripping over the edge of a swimming pool. Again, this is a trivial matter (see outcome above). No pressure.

• ConTact has its own limbs, and reaches out for the parts of the book cover you least want it to.

• ConTact is almost certainly an aerobe, seeking to trap as much oxygen as it can between itself and the book cover.

So, how did I fare? I’m guessing if you’re having to use your chin or your knee to hold something down, you’re doing it wrongly. Unless ConTact was designed to be applied using at least three limbs and no one on the interwebs told me.

I can’t say I did well, but the job is done. And it would have been even worse had it not been for Facebook guidance and the Mouth Mums. Yes, I used the ruler to smooth, as directed, but it turned out to be only a partial remedy for flaws on the scale of which I was capable. Only once did I contact the ruler to the book. Only twice did I clip off a tiny bit of book corner when trimming, but we won’t mention that again. They’re less likely to hurt people now, anyway. Untrimmed corners can be very pokey, right?

I have to admit that parts of some covers ended up like tactile maps of river deltas, but that’s just how it is. Put me down for a D in contacting, teacher, but there ain’t no re-do.

Ah, ConTact. We’ll only do this eleven more times and then it’ll be over between us.

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Facebook: Are We Turning It Into FOMObook?

Recently, it seemed as if half the people I knew were skiing in Japan, while I was close to home, in various parts of southeast Queensland. I had little to complain about – it was a mix of short beach holidays and staying at other people’s houses while our floors were re-surfaced, and every place had airconditioning, a pool, etc, etc. I had it good. But was everyone else having it better?

That’s what Facebook told me. Even without meaning to. Even when not one of the people involved meant to.

The lives of my peers were defined by awesome wintry vistas, mad grinning on chairlifts, more mad grinning apres ski. And my life appeared not to be.

Not so long ago on Facebook I saw a post by a writer I admire (talented writer, smart person), who said she’d just had Facebook envy when glancing over her partner’s shoulder at a screen. He was checking someone out on Facebook. The cover photo was autumn in Paris (leaves all bronze and copper, the Tour d’Eiffel beyond those roofs that could only be Paris), the profile pic maybe had the profilee on a different occasion rugged up and standing in snow about to throw a snowball, the pic at the top of the status updates was similarly envy-inducing. So, this writer responded appropriately, with envy. And then realised it was her own Facebook page. She had been envying herself, in the way she had, she realised, become accustomed to envying the Facebook lives of others.

Because perhaps that’s what we do when we post pics on Facebook, without ever have the intention of doing anything but sharing. We go to Paris once, we throw one snowball, and suddenly our life, to the casual observer, is all Belle Epoque and crazy snow frolics and grinning. Even when we spent way more time that year doing laundry than we did in Paris. Even though we got only one good snowfall wherever it was, and by lunchtime it was all slushy and unskiable and some of it suspiciously yellow. Or the snow was great but the jetlag hammered us and we spent way too much and, yes, it was maybe even the holiday of a lifetime, but even then the pics don’t tell the whole story. Because they never do.

This week it was back to school photos. Amazing cute kids with beaming smiles and, actually the start back at school in our house this year went really well, but did it go that well? Did it go Facebook well? Our really good start back at school risked looking less than amazing and, well pretty average, maybe a bit below it, in fact.

Which made me appreciate Rebecca Sparrow’s Facebook back-to-school pic all the more. It was a lovely photo of two happy parents and their happy daughter. Could have been in a magazine. And the caption read ‘Our annual first-day-of-school-on-the-front-steps photo with Ava. Good luck to all the kids heading to school today. Treat each other with kindness and you can’t go wrong.’ It could have added to anyone’s ‘Oh, crap, our start back at school was only 80% amazing’ nagging doubts. It could have added to the groans of any family whose start had been 90% awful, as some surely were.

But then Bec came back and added something herself: ‘EDIT: this photo looks serene. Let me assure you that in the background it was FIGHT CLUB with Fin and Quincy … it’s on like Donkey Kong between those two’. I thanked her for that addition and she said ‘There is NO SERENITY IN MY HOUSE AT ANYTIME. Facebook is deceiving. Somehow that photo makes it look calm. It’s total false advertising. I live in a zoo.’ I’ve been to her house. It’s a great zoo and she is a zookeeper par excellence, but it’s a few years off having a clear shot at serene.

So, how many of us have ever scrolled through our Facebook feed and, without ever feeling something as unseemly as jealousy, come away feeling our own lives are a bit less shiny for the experience? Subliminally believing, without stopping to dismantle it with logic, that other people are having close to maximum fun close to all the time, and in way more exotic places than we happen to be?

Even if a ski trip is 30% travel, 20% bad weather, 20% arguments, 20% over-priced meals that didn’t live up to expectations, 8% getting up the mountain and only 2% getting down it, is that how the photos play out? No. And nor should it be.

But some of us are going to have to take some effort to tell ourselves, on a semi-regular basis, that the truth that we see on Facebook is usually a partial one. If we can accept that, maybe we can also live with the occasional Japan ski trip someone else has that actually is as 100% amazing as the photos suggest (everyone grinned, all the time, even the plane trips were maximum fun).

And maybe our own lives are, like those of other lucky people (people in safe places, with enough money and food coming in and only a rare jolt of tragedy), straightforward most of the time, but offering us an occasional glimpse across the Paris rooftops or a few days on the slopes with the snow crunching under our boots. Things worth sharing, which is why we share them, but not the whole story.

Alternatively, I’m pitching a new mood disorder to the American Psychiatric Association for DSM-5.1 (the next update of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of mental Disorders), and it goes like this:

Facebook FOMO Dysphoric Disorder
Episodes of somewhat depressed mood following exposure to peers’ Facebook photos
Presence of two or more of the following:
– a nagging feeling, particularly following Facebook exposure, that the subject’s life might not involve as much ‘fun’ as the lives of others
– a persistent feeling of incomplete fulfillment, or that the subject is lacking the true satisfaction experienced by others
– recurring feelings that the subject should be in Paris more, or skiing
– episodic feelings that there is less family-wide grinning in the subject’s life than in the lives of others

Not that I’ve got that, of course, but I seem to have a pretty good idea of how it might work.

How about you? Ever been there? Or have you been having way too much fun in Hokkaido to think that way?

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On the Efficacy of Mess

It only took five years, but I recently worked out that my personal Facebook page didn’t have a cover photo. What could I put up there, I wondered, that might represent me fairly? Then I remembered this pic, taken at the end of a longish book tour:

shed in usual disarray

It’s not how my office looks all the time, but it is how it looked that day – no styling involved – and I have to admit that tidy’s not my thing. Tidy, in this room, happens about once every two years when the junk load gets too much for even me to bear, and I devote a solid day to (sort of) fixing it, digging down through strata of junk until I hit, say, the fully loaded 1993 Bart Simpson Pez dispenser (Pez all crystalline and fused together …) or the two $2 notes I’m holding for two friends in connection with a wager they made in 1986.

Okay, so there was one awkward time when our house was broken into and one of the police took a look in there and said, face all well-practised empathy emoji, ‘Yeah, I can see they really trashed the place.’ To which I had to say, ‘Actually, they didn’t get to this bit …’

I thought my new cover photo would pass unnoticed but, while one person asked if there had been any casualties, posting the pic also unearthed a tribe of writers just like me – some claiming to be even more messy – authors who have managed over the years to have published (collectively) hundreds of books, carve out careers and who, outside their shambolic writing environments, present as acceptably groomed and almost punctual people who manage to prepare for and deliver almost every event in their diaries.

So, how can this be, when my Dad can’t see an untidy workspace without coming over somewhat judgy? (Or maybe that’s just mine, every time he sees it …) He’s of the ‘tidy desk, tidy mind’ school, and he’s far from alone. My shed looks, to his kind, like an oversized dumpster into which I’ve dived, not like the sort of place from which anything worthwhile might emerge. And yet, thoughts happen there and come together and end up, through a series of sometimes surprisingly meticulous processes, as something as organised as a book.

His workplace remains neat, his pencils sharp and straight. I’m sure even his hard drive has barely a speck of clutter (he has occasionally used some awesome software he’s got to tidy mine, for which I’m grateful, and prepared to cop a previously negotiated amount of tutt-tutting). He cannot fathom how a work day might begin in a workplace like mine. But he is a management consultant and IT expert and I am a writer, and maybe it’s a simple as that. Perhaps we need to think in different ways.

Okay, I have to admit that some writers might actually be neat. I don’t understand those people, even though I like some of them a lot. There’s even a (closed) Facebook site where writers post pics of their workplaces. There are some kindred spirits of mine to be found there, as well as some who embrace tidiness and others who faked it for the few minutes they took the photo (those latter two groups are hard to tell apart, and I’m not sure either is to be entirely trusted …).

It turns out that there’s some evidence to support me using the information management model that I do. Ergonomist Mark Landsdale, now a professor at Leicester University, some years ago looked at the information management of ‘messy’ people. (See how I’m slapping quote marks around that now? Those people aren’t messy, it turns out – they have a system. I have a system.) I’m going to paraphrase him. Don’t be shocked if a hint of bias works its way in.

Filing, it turns out, is often arbitrary and forgettable. One piece of paper might have five different files into which it might appropriately go and, once it’s filed, most of us forget which one we chose. We come back for it later, can’t find it, rummaging begins, stress ensues.

But the other way, our way, my way, is the method Prof Landsdale has called the Volcano. In the middle of the volcano is a small clear area in which work occurs. Around it is a heaped arc of papers (lint, Pez dispensers …) which, in evolving, has developed a kind of order to it. Frequently needed items tend to be near the top and centre, infrequently needed items sink and drift to the peripheries. Documents are often near where they were last put down and often, through use, come to cluster with related documents. In its own way, it’s a kind of system and, unlike a filing cabinet, it’s chock-full of memory cues. It works! It works, Dad!

So, on the wall behind my desk, is a photocopy of a newspaper article talking about Prof Landsdale’s model. Of course, it’s completely obscured by plies of paper at the moment but, one day, I’ll clean deep enough to find it again and make my Dad read it.

‘Untidy desk, untidy mind?’ I’ll take both, thanks. Making a novel is not a tidy process. It branches everywhere. It’s a thicket you need to find your way through, but that’s exactly what it needs to be. If it’s not a thicket, it’s not a novel.

So, what works for you. Are you reading this in your neatly pressed Team Tidy T-shirt, or are you with me in the volcano?

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It’s Not About Shelving The Books and Keeping Kids Quiet

Some schools no longer have teacher-librarians and, the more I see of teacher-librarians, the less sense that makes to me. What’s next? No teachers? Kids turning up to the classroom each morning and inventing the day ahead? Maybe there’s a note on the door about what the curriculum has in mind, maybe there isn’t …

Each time I’m told that a school no longer has a teacher-librarian, I’m told that the school still has a library, as though the building does the job all by itself. I imagine, as usual, classroom teachers are expected to take up the slack and add the library to their already overcrowded list of duties. And kids are taught how to check books out, as if they’ve suddenly been up-skilled, and as if that’s what it is that teacher-librarians do (along with putting them back in the right place, and stopping things getting too noisy).

Some news for schools thinking of going librarian-free: having some books on shelves in the school’s second-biggest building – along with a chillout zone with half a dozen lunch-stained beanbags – does little for your students lives without a well-trained passionate human or two in there to wake the place up and get the most out of it.

Some advice to anyone running school budgets anywhere: CUT THE TEACHER-LIBRARIANS LAST. Cut other things and give the T/Ls more money. Cut other things and hire more of them. Sell as many lamingtons as you need to to keep them. Because I’ve seen what they do. I’ve seen it plenty of times, but let me name a couple of recent schools that brought the importance of teacher-librarians home to me: St Eugene College, Burpengary and Emmaus College, Jimboomba (two places almost an hour’s drive from Brisbane’s CBD, in opposite directions).

The librarians in these schools worked in different ways, but in each place there was a passion to create a reading culture, and a whole lot of imagination applied to ways of doing that. Why does that matter? Okay, so I like books, and I like the idea of promoting reading, but that’s about 5% of it. Promoting reading does far far more than that.

Promoting reading promotes literacy and prepares students for life. Promoting reading promotes questioning, exploring and thinking. Reading broadens a student’s view of the world, knowledge of it and understanding of it. Reading can dramatically increase a student’s options for the future. Reading can help erase disadvantage and create advantage. Reading can increase understanding and empathy. Time Magazine recently headed an article Reading Literature Makes Us Smarter and Nicer because there’s evidence it can and it does.

Teacher-librarians know that reading (deep reading, the reading of books, whether e or p) can change lives significantly for the better and that’s why, despite us almost always underpaying and overworking them, they keep coming back. And they do change lives. They see it and I’ve seen it.

I’ve seen the alternative too. I’m not saying every school without a dedicated teacher-librarian is automatically diminishing its students prospects, but I’ve been to schools with human-free libraries. One of the more demoralising comes readily to mind, with its half-empty shelves of books from the 60s and 70s (by which I mean not reprints of books from then, but actual books from then, with cinnamon-coloured pages and more dog ears than a puppy farm – books that, if offered as a donation at my local Lifeline bookstore, would be met with a ‘thanks, but no thanks’). The only decoration was a saggy inflatable solar system mobile hanging from the ceiling, planets out of order, Pluto at the margins, still holding on. I’ve spoken in that library with the shelves pushed back, to a cluster of blank-faced kids who had never had the chance to learn how to be an audience, who had never really connected with the idea that books had authors, who had mostly learned to be quiet but perhaps not to listen, who couldn’t think of a question to ask or answer a question asked of them, who didn’t seem to have have been given the tools to play a word game or solve a puzzle.

‘We don’t have a librarian, but they check their own books out,’ I’ve been told. Do they? Really? And what do they do with them then? No one’s morale is high in a room like that, and mine’s around boot-level when I leave, nonetheless determined to go back if the chance arises. Not that sporadic author visits can fix much at all. Put a dedicated teacher-librarian into that building though, and the prospects are very different.

Someone there every day, dedicated to books and reading and bringing skills, imagination, energy and passion, can stop books being a blank, an uninteresting mystery or a chore, and start turning them into access points to stories, entertainment, facts, ideas and a wider world. Not every day will be easy or see great progress and not every child will be won over, but any child who is has his or her life changed for the better. And that is a very very big achievement. We lose something every time we underestimate it.

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