Schoolchildren want city slogan to reflect reality


October 23, 1990|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Here is Stephanie Terry, first grade teacher at Duke Ellington Primary, 709 W. North Ave., racing down the hallway of maybe the only school in Baltimore located above a grocery store.

"That's why they call us The Friendly School in the Air," says Terry -- only the friendliness part is about to cease.

Pausing for a moment high above the scenic Baines Stop Shop and Save Supermarket, she is a picture of restrained anger. Terry's principal, Barbara Grier, is also angry. Worse, they have 277 students from pre-kindergarten through first grade who are angry, and they have decided, en masse, that it is time to declare a polite little public relations war on the mayor of Baltimore.

Somewhere inside City Hall, Kurt L. Schmoke may read these words and declare: "Me? What did I do?"

He became mayor, that's what. He became mayor, and he declared that this is The City That Reads, which is a lovely slogan having only occasional connection to reality. Slogans are just words. Reality is what occurs when the places of reading, called libraries, are shut down and kids such as those at Ellington Primary are left wordless.

Well, not entirely wordless. Lots of them have been writing letters to the mayor. And a few dozen of them are planning to take the bus to City Hall tomorrow afternoon, with their parents and teachers, to say a few words in person.

Among the words: What's all this baloney about closing our library?

It's the Reservoir Hill Library, and it's a two-block walk from the school, and it's got a little history that once gave the mayor some pretty good publicity.

It had to be closed about two years ago because of water damage. This was a blow to the Ellington Primary kids, who have taken seriously the mayor's emphasis on literacy.

"I had a class of avid readers and writers," Stephanie Terry is saying now. "When the library closed, I went to other libraries for books, and I'd bring in about 50 books to class every week."

That kind of effort is tough to pull off for long. So the kids mounted a campaign to reopen the Reservoir Hill branch, and the mayor liked what he heard. And, with a certain amount of fanfare, he held a luncheon to announce that Reservoir Hill would reopen.

Beautiful, no?

Well, no. Last June, with no fanfare at all, Reservoir Hill was closed again. Not for water damage, but for the more customary problem around here: tight money.

Ellington Primary people found this out at the most ironic time. See, they'd taken the City That Reads stuff so literally that they'd not only emphasized reading, but writing. The kids had all written their own books, and they were all gathered at the Reservoir Hill branch, last June 13, for a publishing party.

That's when they got the news: the library had two weeks left to live.

"We felt," Enoch Pratt Library Director Anna Curry said yesterday, "that the Pennsylvania Avenue branch would take care of the Ellington Primary children. It's not too far away. We knew there would be some inconvenience. But, frankly, it was hard to find alternatives with our budget constraints."

Barbara Grier, principal at Ellington Primary, understands what Curry is saying. She knows about budgets. But she also knows the difference between City Hall honestly supporting the mayor's alleged top priority -- the salvation of the city's young -- and merely paying it lip service.

"The Pennsylvania Avenue branch is six blocks away from here," Grier points out. "It's very difficult for our children, crossing the large streets, facing all that traffic. You just can't do it with entire classes of children who are four, five and six years old."

When school reopened this fall, another funny thing happened. A representative from the mayor's office showed up at Ellington Primary and handed out books to the kids. It was a nice gesture, a sort of starting point for each child to start an at-home library.

But that's all it was: a starting point. There was no Reservoir Hill branch library to go to, and the teachers at Ellington had to go back to bringing in books from other places.

That's when the letter writing began in earnest: Kids writing letters to the mayor, and parents writing letters to the mayor, and a whole mailbag of them being sent off last weekend as a warning salvo before tomorrow's visit to City Hall.

Here's one sample, from a little girl named Lekishia Smith:

"Dear Mayor Schmoke: I don't want that library closed. I want the library open because it has a lot of books I can read. I want the library open because me and my family go to the library every day.

"When I heard you were going to close that library down, I cried. My mother called the library. She cried too. Then I stopped crying."

Lekishia Smith has to understand something: the city of Baltimore cries, too. It looks at its bankbook and cries poverty. But the city has a mayor with his heart in the right place. He knows there is no renaissance without reading. He knows there is no future without citizens who can support themselves, who can fill sophisticated jobs, and he knows education is the key to all of that.

Closing libraries is an act of sneering at the future. It's an act of mocking the very slogan intended to be a city's symbol. When the kids from Ellington Primary show up tomorrow, maybe the mayor will meet with them and explain he was just kidding about all that City That Reads business.

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