Bridging teen gap at Elkridge library

Howard Neighbors

April 28, 2006|By JANET GILBERT

For a 25-year-old graduate of the University of Maryland, with a degree in Spanish and linguistics, Elkridge library's teen specialist Amanda Gardner sure seems to know a lot about parenting, teens and life in general.

Gardner started a Girls' Club that meets twice a month at the library, providing a relaxed atmosphere in which teens can develop supportive relationships with each other; replacing the competitive ones that are pervasive in their social circles.

"I can remember being their age and feeling alienated from the world," said Gardner, "and I can appreciate how healthy and helpful it is to have an adult you can go to, to vent."

Before there was a Girls' Club - and a Teen Club, too, at the Elkridge branch - there was a problem.

Karen Marks, assistant branch manager, has been working at the library for five years. "Our foot traffic here has exploded," she said. Marks explained how, with increasing development along U.S. 1 and a high percentage of latchkey children, the library filled the void as a safe gathering place.

"A lot of people would say, `This isn't what libraries are for.' Well, it's what libraries are becoming," Gardner said. "This is their community center."

"My first summer here," said Marks, "it was like there was a huge wall of kids coming in." A library is not as supervised as a school environment, though, and fights began breaking out, along with what Marks describes as a lot of "unstructured movement with little discipline."

"We were basically enforcers," said Marks. "And that's not a good way to interact with teens."

Enter Gardner in July.

"We're a small branch," said Marks, "and we don't have a lot of staff. But we wanted Amanda to work closely with the teens." At the time, the library's atmosphere had developed distinct "us" and "them" overtones.

"I see myself as a bridge between the kids and the staff," said Gardner. "Once you disengage from the power struggle, things work out."

The first task was to "welcome them [teens] back to the library," said Gardner. Some kids were fearful because they had accumulated library fines or lost their cards. Gardner's attitude was, "Let's start afresh!" Gardner began approaching the kids as they hung around the computers, talking to them and asking what they would like to do at the library.

Next, she asked for help, recruiting teens to cut out decorations for the library's children's programs. She asked their opinions on creating their space in the library, subtly acknowledging that they were welcome and wanted. Soon, boys were helping to move furniture, and girls were offering advice on arranging it. Then, there was the issue of the scraggly, overgrown potted tree, which Gardner referred to as the "Tree of Adolescence," because it was so "awkward and gangly, sticking out everywhere."

"Well, I thought it was funny to call it that," Gardner said.

A group of teens trimmed the tree.

Next, Gardner opened the library's meeting room as an informal gathering place, where teens could listen to music and do homework or work on small projects. Now she was ready to start the Teen Club and the Girls' Club on a regular basis.

"I saw that the kids were willing to get up and leave the computer area," Gardner said.

Gardner observes that there is "so much pressure to be cool today." In her Girls' Club program, which meets twice a month on Friday afternoons, girls can let their guard down.

"They don't have to censor themselves," Gardner said.

"We talk a lot," said Rachel Orona, a sixth-grader at Elkridge Landing Middle School.

"You can trust everybody," said Heather Schafer, a seventh-grader. "You can talk about something - well, something just girls want to talk about."

"It's like a sleepover - only it's not at night!" added Rachel.

Gardner lets the kids decide what they would like to do. There is usually a cooking project and a crafts project. Girls can draw or sit around the table together and have a snack and conversation.

"When I'm at school, I'm pressured to do stuff. I don't feel like that here," Rachel said.

Heather tells about how Gardner helped her research a science project. Gardner talks about how the students come to her now, requesting advice on projects and personal issues.

"I try not to be a counselor, but more of a mediator," said Gardner. "I want them to take responsibility for themselves and work out their issues between themselves."

Gardner sees a new maturity in the students since she started spending time with them. She talks about how pleased she was when she saw one girl standing up for a younger girl. Gardner has noticed academic improvement - one teen she had worked with previously on a last-minute project came up to her and said, "Even though this is due on Friday, I'm starting it today."

"I treasure this experience," Gardner said.

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