I was conducting a site visit in Watts, there to confirm a school's eligibility for a grant from my organization. I observed a meeting of the after-school book club. The topic that afternoon was poetry, and the Library Aide told her students: "There is money in poetry."
Of the nearly 1,000 students at this school, three are white. Ten students were present for the book club meeting on this Tuesday afternoon.
The children sat rapt as the Library Aide related the story of a girl who, once upon a time in the fifth grade, entered a district poetry contest and won One Thousand Dollars (to this, the students responded with incredulous "Ooooohhhhhs!") and a computer, which was practically unheard of at the time, "it being the early 90s." The tale continued, following a convoluted path, eventually ending at Howard University, which the girl received a scholarship to attend, more or less, because of a poem she wrote in the fifth grade.
My job often takes me into parts of Los Angeles I had never seen previously, but when I cruise through Watts in my purple bookmobile, it is the neighborhood that feels the most otherworldly. The streets in this part of town are narrow, patrolled by the occasional pack of dogs, sans collars. Once, I had to stop my car short to let a chicken cross in front of it. Nearly every yard is fenced, the metal spikes piercing the smog, painted in bright, garish colors, and from these, clothes sometimes hang like defeated flags. I am embarrassed for myself because I want to feel like this is my city, my Los Angeles too, but it remains foreign.
On this particular day in Watts, I am wearing a vintage navy blue polka-dotted dress, something that's probably hung in my closet for too many years and has never gone out of rotation, a Meghan Classic -- a dress once described by an ex-boyfriend as the thing I'm always wearing when he pictures me in his mind. In addition to the dress, I wear (increasingly age inappropriate) white knee socks and brown oxfords. I must appear to these children as a caricature of a white girl, a character from one of the books in this library whose life is so unlike their own -- Anne of Green Gables or Pippi Longstocking.
The Library Aide promises her students a field trip to Hollywood, to the El Capitan Theatre (less than a mile away from my apartment), to watch The Tale of Despereaux. To earn the field trip, they must first read the book.
"We don't have any copies in the library," she tells them, "so you'll have to go to the public library, or ask your parents to buy you a copy."
How far is the public library from their homes, I wonder. From the school? How safe is the walk? How many copies of the book does it have? How many parents are able to buy their kids this book? How many of them will, realistically?
That night, in addition to the new library books this school will receive from my organization on the coming Saturday, I order 15 paperback copies of The Tale of Despereaux -- not as library books, but as gifts, for keeps, to members of this club.