THE FOREIGN CHILD AT A ST. LOUIS BRANCH
Present-day conditions in a branch library in a crowded district of a large city are pictured in the last paper to be included in this compilation, with special emphasis on the necessity of understanding the traditions and customs of foreign peoples in order to know how to appeal to them. It was read by Miss Josephine M. McPike before the meeting of the Missouri Library Association at Joplin, Missouri, in October, 1915.
Josephine Mary McPike was born in Alton, Illinois, and studied in Shurtleff College, Upper Alton, and in the University of Illinois. She became a member of the staff of the St. Louis Public Library in 1909. In February, 1917, she resigned from the position of First Assistant at the Crunden Branch to become the librarian of the Seven Corners Branch of the Minneapolis Public Library.
Crunden branch is the kind of place, the thought of which makes you glad to get up in the morning. It is an institution a state of mind. And as we workers there feel, so do the people in the neighborhood. We have heard over and over again the almost worn-out appellation "The people's university"; Crunden has a different place in the thoughts of its users. It is really the living-room of our neighborhood--the place where, the dishes having been washed and the apron hung up, we naturally retire to read and to muse.
True, it is a large family foregathered in this living-room of ours, much greater in number than the chairs for them to sit upon, but, as in all large families, there is much giving and taking. In the children's room, crowded to overflowing, the Jewish child sits next to the Irish, and the Italian and the Polish child read from the same book. Children of all ages; babes from two and a half years to boys of twenty who spend their days in the factory, and are still reading "Robinson Crusoe" and the "Merry adventures of Robin Hood." There too, sometimes comes the mother but lately arrived from the "Old Country," wearing her brightly colored native costume. Unable to read or to write, she feels more at home here with the children whom she understands, and beams proudly to see her little "Izzey" reading "Child life" or "Summers' reader."
Some social workers report that their greatest difficulty in dealing with the children of the tenement district is absolute lack of the play spirit. Our observations have been quite to the contrary; in all of the children there is a fresh and healthy play- fulness--indeed, we feel at times that it is much too healthy. Our constant attendance is needed to satisfy them all, insatiable little readers that they are.
But the question of discipline becomes a real problem only in dealing with the mass spirit of the gang. There is one more or less notorious gang in the neighborhood which is known as the "Forty Thieves." To gain admittance into this friendly crowd it is necessary for the applicant to prove to the full satisfaction of the leaders that he has stolen something. En masse they storm into the children's room, in a spirit of bravado. We gradually come to realize that at such a time as this the library smile--that much used and abused smile--touches some of the boys not at all, and the voice of authority and often the arm of strength are the only effective methods. We believe that we have found a most satisfactory way of meeting this situation. The children's librarian induces all of the older boys to come down stairs to a separate room and for a half hour tells them tales of adventure and chivalry, thus quieting the children's room and directing the energy of the boys into more peaceful channels. This story in the evening takes the place of the story hour for older children during the daytime, which on account of the scarcity of boys and girls of suitable age has been discontinued.
The younger children still have their fairy stories told them, and there, ever and anon, the frank spirit of the family manifests itself. That child who all through one story hour sat weaving back and forth muttering to herself, and when pressed for an explanation, remarked that she "was counting 'til you're done"--is a happy and independent contrast to the usually emotional type that embraces and bids its indescribably dirty and garlic tainted little brothers--"Kiss teacher for the nice story."
The young library assistant comes to Crunden branch graciously to teach--she stays humbly to learn. Full of new theories and with a desire to uplift--a really sincere desire--she finds in a short time much to uplift her own spirit. Since ours is a polygot neighborhood consisting mostly of Russians, Jews, Poles, and Italians, with a light sprinkling of Irish, it brings us into contact with such different temperaments that before we can attempt to satisfy them we must needs go to school to them. We know to some extent the life of our American child and with a little thought we can usually find the way best to appeal to him. But the peoples who have come from across the water have brought with them their traditions and their customs, and have each their own point of view; and it is with these traditions and customs that we must become familiar and sympathetic in order to understand the little strangers. There is the eager, often fearful Jewish child; the slower, stolid Pole; the impulsive Italian; each must be approached from a different angle and each with a different inducement. At first this task is rather appalling, but gradually it becomes so interesting that from trying to learn from the child in the library we listen to the mother in the home, and often to the father from the factory; and from these gleanings of their life in the home and their habits of thought we try to understand the nature of the strange child and grope about for what he most needs and how to make the greatest appeal to him.
In the last two or three years the children's librarian has herself gone after each book long overdue, and with each visit she has seized the opportunity not only to recover the book, but to become acquainted with the mother and to gain her often reluctant confidence. Most of the readers live in tenements, many of which open into one common yard. The appearance of the library assistant usually causes much commotion, and she is received often not only by the mother of the negligent child but also the mothers of several other children as well--and, the center of a friendly group, she holds conversation with them. By this time the library assistant is well known in the neighborhood, and unlike the collector and the curious social uplifter who are often treated with sullenness and defiance, she receives every consideration and assistance. Now at Yom Kipper, Rosh Hashana, Pasach and other holidays, we are invited to break matzos and eat rare native dishes with the families of the children. We find the home visit invaluable. The Jewish, the Italian, and even the Polish mother gains confidence in us, tells us all the family details--and feels finally that we are fit persons to whom she may entrust her children.
Probably our most attractive-looking child is the Italian, a swarthy-skinned little creature, with softly curved cheeks, liquid brown eyes and seraphic expression--that seraphic expression which is so convincing and withal so misleading. Child of the sun that he is, his greatest ambition in life is to lie undisturbed in the heat of the day and so be content. He has learned to take nothing seriously, the word "responsibility" has no meaning for him. Nor has the word "truth." With his vivid imagination he handles it with the lightest manner in the world, he adds, he expands, he takes away in the most sincere fashion, looking at you all the while with babyish innocence. He is bewildering! His large brown eyes are veritable symbols of truth; to doubt him fills you with shame. I say he is bewildering; never so much so as when, for no apparent reason, he changes his tactics, and with the same sweet confidence absolutely reverses his former statements. What can we do with him? There seems to be no appeal we can make. He swears by the Madonna! He raises his eyes to Heaven, and when he finally makes his near- true statement, he is filled with such confessional fervor that to reward him seems to be the only logical course left. He is certainly a child of nature, but of a nature so quixotic that we are non-plussed.
To many of our dark-skinned little friends "Home" originally was the little island across from the toe of Italy. These are, I fear, somewhat scorned by the ones whose homes nestled within the confines of the boot itself. We know how many refugees fled to that little spot in the water, and that dark indeed have been the careers of some of them. Whether the hunted feeling of their fathers of generations back still lurks in these young Sicilians, I do not know, but certainly their first impulse is one of defense. At the simplest question there appears suddenly, even in the smallest child, the defiant flash of the dark eyes and the sullen setting of the mouth. The question--what does your father do?--or, what is your mother's name?--arouses their ever-smoldering suspicion, and more than likely their quick rejoinder will be--"What's it to you?" When we explain impersonally that it is very much to us if they are to read our books, and that after all to reveal their mother's name will be no very damaging admission, the cloud blows over and there is no more trace of the little storm when they indifferently give us all the details we wish. So sudden are their changes and moods, so violent their little outbursts, that we must needs be on the qui vive in our dealings with them. But yet they are so lovable that we can never be vexed with them for long.
It cannot be far amiss to put into this paper a picturesque Sicilian woman who has grown old in years but is still a child in spirit. She loves a fairy story as much as she did sixty years ago, and listens with the same breathless credulity. One night about twilight as I sat on the front steps with her and several little Italian children, listening to her tales of the old home country, there came a silence in our little group. Suddenly Angel Licavoli asked, "Teacher, what is God like?" With a feeling that our friend of riper experience could give us more satisfaction, I repeated the question to her. Her sweet old face surrounded by the white curls was a study in simple faith as she assured us, "Maybe She is like the holy pictures."
When I approach the subject of the Russian Jew, I do it with a great humbleness and fear lest I do not do it justice. So much have they had to overcome, and such tenacity and perseverance have they shown in overcoming it! Straight from the Pales of Kief, Ketchinoff, and Odessa they come to settle in the nearest to a pale we have to offer. Great has been their poverty; a long-standing terror with them, and along with it in many cases, persecution, starvation, and social ostracism. Poverty in all but spirit and mind. The great leveler to them is education, and it is no uncommon thing for the Jewish father to sacrifice himself in order to better his son, to take upon himself that greatest of sacrifices, daily grind and deprivation. Not only this generation, but the one before and the one before that. They cannot keep up such a white-hot search for learning without sooner or later finding out what is wisdom--real wisdom. Stripped of all but bare necessities, they come to possess a sense of value that is remarkably true. We come into contact then with the offspring of such conditions, simple and direct in manner and having a passionate impersonal curiosity. Always asking, searching for the real things, eager for that which will render them impervious to their sordid surroundings, they have thrown aside all superfluous mannerisms and get easily to the heart of things. Accustomed to the greatest repression, and exclusion from all schools and institutions of the sort, the free access to so many books is an endless joy to them. They browse among the shelves lovingly, and instinctively read the best we have to offer. Tales from the ancient Hebrews, history, travel --these are the books they take. But what they read most gladly is biography. It is just as difficult to find a life of Lincoln on the shelves as it is to find an Altsheler--and of comparisons is that not the strongest? Heroes of all sorts attract the Jewish child, heroes in battles, statesmen and leaders in adventure, conquest, business. If a hero is also a martyr, their delight knows no bounds.
We know now that we need be surprised at nothing; extreme cases have come at Crunden to be the average, if I may be permitted to be paradoxical. We were interested but not surprised when Sophie Polopinsk, a little girl but a short time from Russia, wheeled up the truck, climbed with great difficulty upon it and promptly lost herself in a volume of Tolstoi's "Resurrection," a volume almost as large as the small person herself, and formidable with its Russian characters. In telling you of Sol Flotkin I may be giving you the history of a dozen or so small Russian Jews who have come to Crunden. At the age of ten, Sol had read all of Gorki, Tolstoi, Turgenev and Dostoievski in the original and then devoured Hugo and Dumas in the language of his adoption. The library with Sol became an obsession. He was there waiting for the doors to open in the morning, and at nine o'clock at night we would find him on the adult side, probably behind the radiator, lost to us, but almost feverishly alive in his world of imagination that some great man had made so real for him. It was to Crunden branch that the truant officer came when the school authorities reported him absent from his place. It was there, too, his father came, imploring, "Could we not refuse Sol entrance?" The Door man demanded, did we know that at twelve and one o'clock at night he was often compelled to go out and find the boy, only to discover him crouched under the street light with a copy of "War and peace" lovingly upon his young knees? And there are many others like Sol. Is it not inspiring to the librarian to work with children who must be coaxed, not to read good books, but to desist from reading them?
Among the Jewish people the word "radical" is in high favor --it is the open sesame to their sympathy. For the ordinary layman, radicalism, for some unexplained reason, is associated with the words Socialism, Anarchism, etc. The deep dyed conservative, to whom comes the picture of flaunting red at the mention of the word, would be surprised to learn in what simple cases it is often used. We have, for instance, an organization meeting once a week under the head of the "Radical Jewish School." When the secretary came to us for the first time we asked him what new theory they intended to work out. Their radical departure from custom consisted only in teaching to the children a working Yiddish in order that the Jewish mother might understand her amazingly American child, in order to lessen the tragedy of misunderstanding which looms large in a family of this sort. They are setting at defiance the old Jewish School which taught its children only a Hebrew taken from the Talmud, a more perfect but seldom used language. Not so terrifying that.
Children who are forced to forage for themselves from a very early age, as most of our youngsters are, develop while yet very young a sense of responsibility and a certain initiative seldom found in more tenderly nurtured children. It is the normal thing in the life of a girl in our neighborhood when she reaches the age of eight or nine years to have solely in her charge a younger brother or sister. When she jumps rope or plays jacks or tag she does it with as much joy as her sister of happier circumstances--but with a deftness foreign to the sheltered child she tucks away under her arm the baby, which after six weeks becomes almost a part of herself. Often we will fearfully exhort her to hold the baby's back, etc. Invariably the child will smile indulgently at us, as at a likeable but irresponsible person, and change the position of the infant not one whit. She is really the mother, she feels, with a mother's knowledge of what the baby needs; we are only nice library teachers. Their pride in the baby and their love for it sometimes even exceeds that of the mother who is forced to be so much away from the little ones. From five years of age the boys are expected to manage for themselves--to fight their own battles, literally--and to look out for themselves in general. Naturally they possess a self-reliance greater than other children of their age. We come into contact with this in the library in the child's more or less independent choice of books and his free criticism--often remarkably keen-- of the contents. Another place where the children show initiative is in the formation of clubs, which is a great diversion of theirs. Seldom does a week pass without a crowd of children coming to us petitioning for the use of one of the club rooms. Often these clubs are of short duration, but some of them have been in existence for years. Sometimes they are literary, sometimes purely social--but more often dramatic. In the dramatic club the children, starved for the brighter things of life--can pretend to their hearts' content, and their keen imagination can make it all vividly realistic for them. They choose their own plays, draw the parts, make their costumes and carry out their own conception of the different roles. Astonishingly well they do it too. Is it any wonder that with their drab unhappy lives in mind, fairies and beautiful princesses figure largely? It seems to me that a singularly pathetic touch is the fact that yearly the "Merry Making Girls Club" spends weeks and weeks of preparation for an entertainment given for the benefit of the Pure Milk and Ice Fund for the poor babies of St. Louis, they themselves being the most liable to become beneficiaries of the fund.
A very small thing is sufficient to fire their imagination. The most trivial incident will suggest to them the formation of a club --a gilt crown, an attractive name, etc. An amusing instance has lately come up in this connection. Several boys of about thirteen or fourteen asked the use of one of the club rooms for the "Three C's." Very reticent they were about the nature of this organization. Finally amid rather embarrassed giggles the truth came out--a picture show in the neighborhood had distributed buttons bearing the picture and name of the popular favorite, which buttons were sufficient reason to form the "Charlie Chaplin Club."
When we think of many foreigners of different nationality together, there comes to most of us from habit the idea first suggested by Mr. Zangwill of amalgamation. I think most of us at Crunden do not like to feel that our branch and others like it are melting pots; at any rate of a heat so fierce that it will melt away the national characteristics of each little stranger--so fierce that it will level all picturesqueness into deadly sameness. Rather, just of a glow so warm that it melts almost imperceptibly the racial hate and antagonism.