Sunday Reflections: I Could Not Stop for Death, on the emotional labor of teen librarianship
TRIGGER WARNING: THIS POST TALKS ABOUT SEXUAL ABUSE AND DOMESTIC VIOLENCE AND SUICIDE AND LOSS
Several Sundays ago, a teenage boy died in the house next door to me. I did not know him personally, but I experienced his death the way I have experienced far too much teenage death – through the eyes of the teens that knew and loved him.
The first time I experienced the death of a teenager as a teen librarian, I opened the door for my after school program as teen after teen trickled in. That day, everything about them was different. There were teen stained faces. Bodies wracked with barely hidden sobs. A more hushed atmosphere, a subdued existence that let me know that something was going wrong. I would soon learn that the night before one of my own died in a car accident. That was the day that everything changed for me as a teen librarian.
Though this was my first experience with the death of one of my teenagers, it would not be the last. Accidents. Illness. Suicide. Violence. I have sat with teens as they have mourned one of their own. Sometimes I have known the teen, sometimes I have not. Each time I sat and experienced first hand the brutal truths of this world. Each time was a new dagger piercing my heart.
When I entered into librarianship, no one spoke to me about death. No one made sure I was prepared to sit with a group of teens and mourn the loss of a friend, a peer. No one told me to prepare for the moment when I would learn that one of my own teens that I had spent years investing in personally would just one day not show up and I would hear from others of their passing. No one speaks of death until it is too late.
There’s a lot of emotional work in librarianship that no one prepares you for. I have talked to complete strangers who have just received a death sentence diagnosis. I have combed through public records only to tell someone that the person they are searching for – perhaps an old family member or long lost high school sweetheart – appears to have passed away. I have directed women with bruised faces to the nearest domestic violence shelter. I have tried to help homeless people try and find a hot meal and place to get out of a blizzard. Every librarian could tell you story after story after story of the pain they have seen and had to sit with.
I am exhausted. I am tired of listening to my teens talk about hunger or watching them try to fix broken glasses because they can’t afford new ones. I’m tired of my teens talk to me about the abuse they have received at home, the bullying they have experienced at school. Don’t get me wrong, when I say I’m tired I don’t mean I’m tired of them, my teens. No, that’s not what I’m tired of. I’m tired that my teens have a reason to have these conversations with me. I’m tired of it happening again and again and again.
We, the adults of this world, are failing our youth in so many ways. And they are dying, sometimes figuratively and far too often literally. We are failing our children. There are adults out there trying to pick up the pieces, trying to carry the load, trying to heal the damage, but it feels like we are far and few between. And some days, we are tired.
Our kids are hungry.
Our kids are hurting.
Our kids are scared.
Our kids are searching.
Our kids are angry.
Our kids are failing.
Our kids are trying.
Our kids are begging us to do better.
I’m tired of hearing about dead teenagers, so let’s answer their call. We have to do better, be better. That’s it, that’s all I have today: do what you can to make the world a better place because I’m tired of dead teenagers.
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About Karen Jensen, MLS
Karen Jensen has been a Teen Services Librarian for almost 30 years. She created TLT in 2011 and is the co-editor of The Whole Library Handbook: Teen Services with Heather Booth (ALA Editions, 2014).
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