A Minute with Mike -
Library books go to waste in Lumi

This article submitted by Michael Jacobson on 12/20/00.

Students reading It's hard to top stories about cat stew, but on the heels of that unpleasant tale, I'd like to share the most disappointing thing I learned while returning to Papua New Guinea.

Yes, even more disappointing than my cat ending up in a coconut cream soup.

I walked into the library at Lumi High School and found, much to my chagrin, boxes of books lying unused. I had sent these copies of junior high classics - like Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys - and mailed them to PNG immediately after coming home to Minnesota.

Having supervised the school's library for a year, I knew these were the most popular books on its shelves. Providing reading material was one way I could help my former students learn without being their math teacher.

Our Paynesville school media centers were kind enough to donate cards (they are all computerized) that I typed for each book, so it was ready to be put on the shelves in Lumi right away.

But they hadn't been put on the shelves. The only person who read the books was the teacher in charge of the library.

I sent boxes of books to Lumi, but Olivia, Clare, and Tom only had the chance to read one of them before graduating.

Students who had helped me in the library told me that the books had been in the storeroom for a year and a half. Off limits. One of my workers had borrowed one without permission and got himself in hot water for doing so.

The library should serve an important purpose at LHS. As a remote jungle school, it has a number of disadvantages in teaching English compared to its rivals in PNG's cities.

First, transporting supplies was more complex and getting funds from the provincial government was harder. When food stores either couldn't be delivered or couldn't be bought for lack of funds, the school could close for weeks at a time. Students sent home to their villages might not speak English for weeks.

Second, my school had trouble attracting qualified teachers. When it got a teacher who was willing to live in Lumi, their ability to speak English was hardly a criteria. Some were fluent; many were not; a few didn't bother with class at all.

Third, English wasn't commonly spoken in Lumi. People either spoke pidgin English or their native tongue. (Around 800 native languages exist in PNG, which has roughly the same land mass and population as Minnesota. Students were supposed to speak English at school, but since the school was consistently understaffed this rule was rarely enforced.

The books that I labored to send across the seas got within 30 feet of their intended destination - the library shelves - and will never reach their intended recipients - my former students.

You see, I discovered the stash of books just a week before my last class left LHS forever. I had some students help me put these books on the shelves, and they pleaded to borrow them. They wanted to read them all. They wanted to steal them, but I wouldn't let them.

The saddest sound I heard in PNG were their cries at seeing the books I had sent. They stared at the covers and read the synopses on the back.

I meant for them to be delighted 18 months ago when they still had time to read all the adventures of Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys, thereby improving their English skills.

I didn't want to hear their moans when their time at the school was barely sufficient to read one book.

How easy should it have been to get the books on the shelves where they belong? How easy to let a student learn by reading? The kids would have fought each other to be first in line to read them. It would have taken very little effort to get them in their hands. In fact, effort was required to deprive them.

It was a wasted opportunity...all too common in resource-rich, but ill-managed Papua New Guinea.

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