Sunday Reflections: This is What Happened the Time I Didn’t Call the Police at the Library
Once upon a time, there was a teen librarian who was the sole teen librarian in a medium sized library. At this point in her career she had worked with teens for a little over ten years. That librarian is me. Hi.
One day, as she was sitting at her desk buying YA books or planning her next teen program, she got a call that a staff member had caught a group of teens doing graffiti on the outside of the library building. Although most of the teens had escaped, one unlucky teen now sat outside the library director’s office and he was asking me to come in and talk to him. Not the teen, the director.
The director wanted to know what I though he should do. He wanted to call the police and file a report. But I asked him to hit the pause button and did a little exploring.
For the sake of this story I feel that it is important to point out that this teen was not white but Latinx. And we lived in a town which had tremendous amount of ire and wrath pointed at the Latinx population because a young undocumented Latinx man had killed a police officer who was pursuing him. I mean, it was like 10 years prior to this incident but I’m here to tell you, the community was incredibly racist against the Latinx community and cited that incident as the source of justification for their racism.
First, it turned out that the graffiti in question was written in pencil on a brick building. This would actually be pretty easy to clean up.
Second, there was some question as to whether or not the young man who sat in the chair outside his office was the perpetrator or just a guy who chose crappy friends and didn’t run fast enough so he was the one getting caught.
Conversations happened and it was agreed that the young man in question would return the next day after school and that I would stand outside and make sure that he scrubbed all the graffiti off of the side of the building. Both of those things happened quite successfully. You would think that would be the end of this magical tale, but it is not. Though if it were, it would be a satisfying end in and of itself.
But you see, as the young man in question scrubbed the grafitti off of the side of the building, him and I talked. A lot. We talked about his life. We talked about mine, mostly about what happens in the library. And he learned that every Tuesday afternoon after school I had a sort of coffeehouse, for want of a better name, where teens came after school and hung out. We also played video games and it turns out that he really liked playing Guitar Hero and he was kind of good at it.
No, scratch that. He LOVED playing Guitar Hero. And he was GREAT at it. Like, he could seriously put the guitar behind his back and play it without looking and still kick everyone’s butt at Guitar Hero. I know this because he then spent the next 3 or 4 years coming to the library every Tuesday after school.
This kid turned out to be an amazing kid who just did a stupid thing, which a lot of kids do. But he started coming every Tuesday on the reg to my after school coffeehouse in which I never served coffee because I didn’t drink it and didn’t know how to make it. He became one of my greatest advocates and program marketers. Towards the end of the program as interest began to fizzle out, which always happens because all programs have a shelf life, he would walk into an empty room, want someone to play with, and then text all his friends and tell them to get to the library ASAP. And they did.
Here are some things you should know about this young man. Though he would become a program regular and he would become a great voice and advocate for the library, I happen to know for a fact that those 4 years in high school he never checked out and read a library book. Not for school. Most definitely not for pleasure reading. But he was there. He was enthusiastic. And both of our lives were changed by that relationship.
I eventually left that job and moved away. He would contact me as an adult to tell me that one of our regulars had died by suicide and we grieved together. For a very long time, we were friends on Facebook and I had the honor and privilege of learning more about the young man I had helped him become. He entered community college and finally read a book that excited him so much he contacted me to talk about it.
I could have told my director that day to go ahead and call the police. That would have been the easiest route for me. It would have been someone else’s responsibility. And I’m not going to lie, I have called the police on teens before and after that incident.
But that one time, I didn’t call the police. And that decision made all the difference for that young man and I. My teen program was more successful because I gained an ally among the teens in my library system. He gained the respect of an adult who valued him and a regular place to engage successfully in an activity that he loved.
Right now, our country is actively engaged in discussions about policing and policing in libraries. I share this story with you because I implore you to understand, calling the police is not always the right answer. That moment changed everything for everyone involved in this story and it would have gone very differently if the decision to call the police had been made.
Years later, I would read the YA book Uninvited by Sophie Jordan and gain an even better understanding of how over policing and incarceration can make crime worse. Uninvited is set in a future where the geneticist can pinpoint the DNA that may make you prone to violence. The main character has been training to be a professional cellist (violinist? maybe?) player and is about to be accepted into her dream school when she is flagged as having the gene. She is then put into what is basically jail for others who have been flagged, and some of them are in fact quite violent. So in an effort to survive, she has no choice but to become violent, in a self fulfilling prophecy. It is very much a cautionary tale that illustrates how incarceration can make potential or small time criminals into violent offenders. There are lots of great nonfiction titles on this topic and I invite you to use your Google skills and seek them out and read them.
Our Black and brown teens are policed in ways that are vastly different than our white teens. They are charged more, locked up more, and often given longer sentences. And yes, they are more likely to be killed by the police. If you work with teens, you need to know and understand this verifiable truth and it should inform how you choose to work with your teens and if, when and how to involve the police. One simply phone call can change a life forever.
I’m glad every day that I didn’t call the police on that young man. Both our lives were changed forever, in positive ways.
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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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