A funny thing happened when Susan McCabe bought a new book for her first-grade students at Tyng School. Page after page, face after face, "Role Models: Profiles of Successful African-American Professionals in Peoria, Illinois," is not exactly a first-choice selection for the kiddy reading corner.
A funny thing happened when Susan McCabe bought a new book for her first-grade students at Tyng School.
Unlike the lean, lushly illustrated books that usually grab children's attention, it was thick, 275 pages, with lots of words. The book had lots of pictures too, but they were just faces. Page after page, face after face, "Role Models: Profiles of Successful African-American Professionals in Peoria, Illinois," is not exactly a first-choice selection for the kiddy reading corner.
It would fit in the reference section under "Occupations: African-American, local" because of its survey of black people in a wide range of occupations, from business to health to law. It would be at home on bookshelves under the broad category of "African-American." Each entry includes a photo and a semi-biographical resume of one person in one particular job, as of 2008.
Compiled and edited by Rita Ali, director of diversity at Illinois Central College, "Role Models" might also work in the "Inspiration" section of the library or bookstore. Each entry includes career advice and a brief line or two about who or what influenced the subject most. But the book is not a first pick for the reading corner in a first-grade classroom.
Nevertheless, McCabe introduced a copy to her room last October because she thought it important for an all-black class (this year, but not always) to have books that show people who look like them.
"I expected them to pick it up once or twice, but they pick it up over and over again," McCabe says. "Oftentimes, it's their favorite book to choose."
She realized a book full of people they've seen before probably captivated her young students more than merely seeing people who looked like them. They recognized the differences in each face. They love to point out teachers they know, principals they see, others they may have seen.
"I have five copies in my room now, and they're getting rather tattered," McCabe said.
"Tattered" is good when it means young children enjoy a book. "Tattered" is not good when it describes the economy or the faces so enchanting to Susan McCabe's students who may not be enchanting enough to escape the cutbacks, freezes, layoffs and buyouts in a labor market where education, experience, self-discipline and commitment don't necessarily equal employment.
Their school, Tyng, is on the chopping block because their school district needs to slash budgets, which means laying off people they see in school everyday.
Unemployment rates have always been higher in their neighborhood. Now the whole town is spooked because its largest employer has laid off a small town's worth of workers, leaving certain plants resembling industrial ghost towns during late shifts. As the president said Tuesday night, "You don't need to hear another list of statistics to know our economy is in crisis."
Even with a president who looks like McCabe's students, the hidden question in an economy like this is what happens to the hard-won progress that makes a book like Ali's even possible?
Concerns about discrimination always increase during layoffs and cutbacks, says attorney Patricia Benassi. "Many of the people most vulnerable are older people and people with medical problems. The difficulty is, the more people laid off, the harder it is to prove that discrimination was the motivating factor."
A book like Ali's runs the risk of quickly outdated entries for all kinds of reasons. People move, get promoted, change jobs. The current climate only heightens the risk. But there may be a sliver of a silver lining for other students who look like McCabe's students.
A fair share of Caterpillar employees have retired since "Role Models" was published last year. A number of them, whether featured in the book or not, intend on putting their newfound spare time to use, volunteering with young students who look like McCabe's. Role models, indeed.
Pam Adams can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.