Letting Loose in the Library

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by Nicholas Johnson, courtesy of Ptreader.com

Socially struggling students have historically sought solace in the silence and solitude of their high school libraries.  “It was definitely silent,” Chimacum (WA) High School Principal Whitney Meissner said of her high school's library during the mid-1980s.

“I would go there to do research or get homework done, but I would never go there to hang out with my friends.”

Thanks to para-educator Chris Alm, Chimacum High School's library isn't just comfortable and welcoming; it serves as a catalyst for social interaction, helping shy students break out of their shells and find new friends with shared interests.

“Anybody should be able to fit in here like a book fits into the Dewey Decimal system,” said Alm, who has worked in the high school library since 2007 and in libraries throughout the school district since 1996. “The students should be just like the books; they should fit in, regardless of their situation.”

Early on, Alm noticed students were sneaking food into the library.  “Students would sneak-eat in here,” she said. “I thought, ‘Why fight it?’ So I invited them to bring their lunch in. As long as they clean up their mess, they can eat in here.”

She then noticed that foreign exchange students were struggling to find friends to eat with during lunchtime in the school's cafeteria, so she invited them into the library and struck up conversations to help them learn English.  “We get the kids that would traditionally come looking for a safe space,” Alm said. “There's no judgment in here. It's a safe place to experiment socially to see where you belong.”

Alm said she respects each student's right to study in solitude, but quiet is not in her vocabulary.  “We're never quiet,” she said. “If someone is being told to be quiet, it’s usually me.”

A sign over a storage-room door in the library reads “Quiet please,” but Alm said she tells the students not to take it literally.  “It doesn't mean, ‘Be quiet, please,'” she said. “That's just the name of the room. It’s the ‘Quiet please’ room.”

Over the past five years or so, Alm has dubbed herself the library DJ.  “I play music – Motown Thursday, Blues Friday – and I take requests, too,” she said, recalling a student years ago who would share his favorite songs with her. “He would share a song with me, and I would share one with him. We would have a little song fest talking about our favorite bands from different time periods.”

The sight of so many students wearing headphones also motivated Alm to shake things up.  “The kids were walking around with earbuds all the time, and I would talk to them and they wouldn't hear me,” she said. “I felt kind of alone in here. I thought maybe we could share music and share this time together rather than being isolated from each other.”

Students can still retreat into their earbuds, but the library's vibe has admittedly become more social, she said, especially at lunchtime.  “Things really come alive at lunchtime,” she said.

With students crowding around tables in an open, central area of the room, it can be hard to tell where one group ends and another begins. Senior Shane Fields said he prefers the warm, welcoming atmosphere of the library to the atmosphere of the cafeteria.

“It’s colder out there, and more people are watching you,” Fields said. “It’s very comfortable in here.”  Alm said she makes a point of walking around the room during lunch to visit with students while also keeping an eye on them.

“I'll touch base with each group,” said Alm, who knows each student by name since she distributes their textbooks and allows them to stash their gym bags in the library.  “She interacts with all of us,” said sophomore Hannah Jensen.

Junior Chloe Patterson said the library feels less divided than the cafeteria, where students sit around large, circular tables.  “The cafeteria has more specific groups people sit in, and in here, we sit with different people every day,” Patterson said. “We switch tables all the time,” junior Juliet Vallat added.

Meissner said the library is clearly a place where students want to be, in large part because of the atmosphere Alm has created.  “It's packed every single day,” she said. “One of the reasons it's like that is Chris Alm’s big, generous, giving heart. She has an ability to reach out and nurture and, in a way, mother the kids who come through those doors. When kids are grouped up around a round table in the commons, it can feel like the groups are all established. There is a feeling that you don't belong here. It doesn't feel home-y like the library does. In the library, everyone feels welcome.”

Alm said the library's welcoming atmosphere can help students find friends with common interests, whether through books, music or a simple conversation.

“In the library, you already have something in common with others because you can talk about books and music, now,” she said. “For some students who come in, it's like an experiment to develop the skills where they can travel to a greater level of interaction. The small interactions they have here and the confidence they gain here help them go someplace else, like math club or another social activity. So this can be a jumping-off point for greater social activity.”

High school can be a lonely place when you're new and haven't found your friends, said Meissner. The answer, she said, is to create more opportunities for fun.

“I don't know who decided back in the day that libraries needed to be places of quiet solitude, but I absolutely love the fun that goes on in our library these days,” she said. “Knowing we have a place where students want to be and can have some fun, it warms my heart.”

Adults – whether parents, teachers or coaches – play a critical role in fostering positive social experiences, and students will remember them for it, Meissner said.  “I don't remember my librarian’s name,” she said. “I am pretty sure these kids in high school now will remember Chris Alm’s name for the rest of their lives.”