Tutors receive certificates for hours of service.“Spring Learning Celebration Tonight!” reads a handmade sign in the Tompkins Square Library’s Center for Reading and Writing. Paper flowers decorate the folding tables, and green and yellow streamers festoon windows and bookshelves. The first student arrives two hours early, toting two huge aluminum trays of macaroni salad. “Can I leave this here for the celebration?” she says, depositing the heavy trays on a table.
Twice a year, each of the eight Centers for Reading and Writing hosts a Learning Celebration, a night for adult literacy students and volunteer tutors to come together, read and share writing, receive the newest issue of the student journal, New Leaves, along with certificates of achievement, and enjoy homemade food and company.
Students have been practicing for weeks to read at this celebration, and there is nervous excitement as the crowd grows.
An International Feast
In the back of the classroom are three folding tables covered in bright plastic tablecloths, and as the room fills with people, the tables slowly bend under the weight of an international feast: rice and beans, two types of guacamole, flautas, cakes, pies, pork stir-fry, Chinese noodles with shrimp, soda, pizza, two types of Jerk Chicken, sushi, and Jamaican-style escovitch, and deep-fried whole fish with pickled carrots and onions so spicy it brings tears to the eyes.
Students Read Their Stories
Taking the mic, a staff member does her best to quiet the room, but there is still excitement in the air when Pedro, the first reader, is introduced. At the end of his story, “Advocating for the Library,” he raises a fist in the air and proclaims, “Let’s protect our libraries!”
Lisa, a Chinese student, also shares her story, “Save or Spend A Dollar.” She begins, “Spending in China is handled differently than in America. For instance, the Chinese want to save $2 when they earn $1, but Americans want to spend $2 for every $1 they make.” The audience laughs in agreement.
Another student shares a favorite poem by Langston Hughes, “Cross.” She begins:
My old man’s a white old man
And my old mother’s black.
If ever I cursed my white old man
I take my curses back [...]
The next student to take the mic grins broadly. “I can tell this is a great party,” he says, “because there’s lots of food on the table!” He then shares his story about mishaps on a flight back from Puerto Rico.
After the readings the crowd lines up at the buffet, everyone complimenting each other on their cooking and reading.
After the Celebration
The week after the celebration, discussing the event with her class, one Chinese student tells what happened when she arrived back at her home. She had written a quiet, moving story about persisting in learning English despite her friends' discouragement.
"When they saw me, my son and daughter said, 'You didn’t read your story, right Mom? I know you didn’t read it.' They didn't think I would do it." When she tells them she did, they are surprised and proud. “They bought me a cake from Dean and DeLuca to celebrate." She smiles, "That was the first time I read something in front of people."