During the two years Paula Langsam worked at the Dorothy I. Height/Benning Neighborhood Library in Northeast Washington, her desk was the first thing you saw when you entered the children’s section. The library, on Benning Road just east of where it crosses the Anacostia Freeway, reopened six years ago after a complete renovation. Langsam’s desk faced an enclosed circular reading room with curved wooden shelves and blue carpet. On a spring morning last year, it was overflowing with papers and books, and sticking up from the piles was a water bottle emblazoned with the phrase “Give me props.”
On this spring morning,Langsam’s chair was empty. Her official title is children’s librarian, but that barely describes the range of her duties. She sometimes steps away to help a homeless person find health care, hand out free lunches or serve as a teacher’s aide for a free science camp at the library. That day, she was a couple of miles away at H.D. Woodson High School, talking to teenage mothers about teaching their kids pre-literacy skills.
It was the fourth of five classes during the school year. The students get free child care at the school if they participate. Usually, there were eight students, but only three had shown up. They sat in seat-desks, looking down at their handouts.
A few minutes later, a fourth student sporting black glasses and a white shirt arrived and parked her stuff in a chair. Then she disappeared for a few minutes and returned with food. As Langsam and Michelle McIntyre, a librarian at the Capitol View Neighborhood Library, talked, she ate or fiddled with her phone.
Langsam told the students to ask their kids questions after they finish reading them a book. “Ask them what their favorite character is and what else might happen to that character,” she said. “If it’s ‘Little Red Riding Hood,’ where is she going? ... You’re taking the story, pulling it apart and having her make one up in her brain right there.”
Langsam, 36, had about 20 years on her students and tried to sound conversational, not preachy. This was her second time teaching the class. After using the prepared script last time — including a discussion of a child’s neurological development — she and McIntyre made changes, such as helping the students make maracas out of household items. The moms could then use them to carry a beat and break words into syllables so reading is less passive for the kids.
At the end of class, each student picked a book for her child. Alexis Avery, an outgoing, dimple-cheeked senior dressed in all black, chose “Tomie’s Little Mother Goose” by Iona Opie for her 22-month-old daughter, Serenity. “She’s already in her terrible twos,” she said with a smile. “I should have changed her name.”
This was Avery’s second year in the program. “I’m sure if my parents had started at her age, I would have loved reading,” she said. “My parents never did that for me, so I wanted to change for her.”
Another regular, soft-spoken Jonnetta Dingle, said she reads to her 8-month-old son, Raheem, and, at the suggestion of the librarians, sings to him during bath time.
The librarians mentioned the last class in a few weeks. The student who was late asked if the librarians could bring food. “I didn’t eat this morning. Or last night,” she explained.
The librarians didn’t answer, and the mom didn’t commit to going. But Avery and Dingle did, which was enough for Langsam.
“Two out of eight,” she said. “I’ll take that.”
The workshop for teen moms is a twist on traditional literacy classes offered at public libraries. It’s also part of a larger recasting of the D.C. Public Library’s mission to be more than what happens within its walls and to adapt to a world in which people are accustomed to having information flow to them, wherever they are — while still serving the needs of the District, with its extremes of wealth and poverty. Nationwide, there’s been debate over whether the role of libraries has expanded too much. But Langsam, who now works at the Chevy Chase branch, said she likes the nontraditional aspects of her job. “There is no typical day,” she said. “If you like routine, it would be a hard job.”
A few months after the teen mom class, on a sweltering July morning, Langsam was back at the Benning library. She wore a long dress covered with small white, black and red triangles, and a lanyard with keys and ID card around her neck. In the reading room, eight kindergarten-age kids sat perched on blue-carpeted ledges and in nooks, either chatting or lost in their books.
After Langsam helped a 6-year-old with dark hair pulled back into cute puffs find books, a middle-aged man approached her, his breath heavy with alcohol. “I try to say ‘hello’ to her every day, and she throws her nose up in the air,” he said, adding that Langsam seemed happy to talk to me. Langsam laughed nervously. For some reason, her training in “verbal judo” — de-escalation techniques the system’s 344 librarians learn to neutralize potentially troublesome situations — wasn’t kicking in. When he didn’t move, I said, “It’s just not because I’m more charming than you?”
He swayed silently for a moment.
“All right, I’ll give you that,” he said, then shuffled away.
Langsam shrugged and got on with her work. Not all patrons are as harmless. Some have made threats and on rare occasions have become violent. The chief of the library’s police force, Larry Volz, said his officers are armed and can arrest law breakers, but “the librarians handle the lion’s share of any issues.”
Langsam said she has never felt unsafe, thanks partly to the 475 surveillance cameras spread throughout the system’s 26 branches. Patrons can also be banned for up to five years. (No one is permanently barred.) In the back office at Benning, there’s a wall with a dozen mug shots of the banned, lined up like most-wanted fliers at the post office.
At 1 p.m., the glass-fronted conference room on the first floor of the Benning library became a makeshift cafeteria. Langsam rolled up a cart loaded with boxed meals provided by the D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation. Eight children were waiting to choose a chocolate nonfat milk or low-fat milk along with cardboard containers containing a chicken- and vegetable-topped pasta salad and apple slices. The lunches are available for kids under 18 Mondays through Saturdays. Langsam had to get a food service license to hand out food.
Six-year-old Kobe and 5-year-old brother Kareem, both wearing eye-catching neon yellow flip-flops, their hair in neat cornrows, were two of the first diners. Their mother, Kathy Ann Coombs, was with them. They are regulars at Benning, though this was the first time the boys had taken advantage of the lunch program. Coombs said her sons are big fans of Mo Willems’s Pigeon series and Spider-Man books.
Once lunch was done, Langsam stowed the cart and walked to the adjacent conference room for a summertime science camp. She was there as a teacher’s aide. A quartet of students sat around a table, requisite safety goggles in place. String, wheels and weights were spread in front of them. For the next hour, she helped them create a fixed pulley system.
After the kids left, Langsam returned to the conference room to prepare for the next day. There was going to be a “maker camp,” where children would be building musical instruments using toilet paper rolls and balloons. Just before 6 o’clock, the end of her shift, she checked in with a colleague, who was taking over the children’s area. She stopped at her desk, neatened it and refilled her water bottle. Then she scanned her calendar to see what else was going on the next day.
Nevin Martell is a writer in Washington. To comment on this story, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit washingtonpost.com/magazine.
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