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It’s one of these places you know from the movies. One of these places that people come to, simply because they’ve seen it on screen. Some just take a picture and leave. Others come time and time again. Working, fantasizing, creating memories, and building traditions on the foundation of the 127-year-old institution.
Bill Dale for instance would walk the High Line, every time. He would buy The New York Times, water, and a cookie and sneak them in. He never got caught. Not once in the many times he has visited New York. Or, maybe, he just never was confronted. Because, who really cares about this kind, 72-year-old man going after his tradition?
Others come here to work, blind to tourists and traditions, numb to the romance of the place. Numbed by a city that could be considered a movie set in itself.
In contrast to other tourist highlights of New York City, this one keeps its charm. The two lions guarding the building are as inviting as the huge white steps that lead up to the impressive entrance. The two fountains on either side of these stairs smooth the white noise of the city into the distance. Anyone, no matter how tall, needs to tilt their head to read the name of the building: New York Public Library.
We associate our childhood with library visits, school or college, and sometimes work. It’s a place we go to educate ourselves. Because we can, because we were shown how to.
What is it that draws people to this location particularly?
“It makes you think of the openness and freedom of our society. It embodies everything good about America.”
For the long weekend of Labor Day, the library is closed. So Bill didn’t get to sneak in his cookie today. The shade of the trees makes the forecourt feel more like a yard, blending the building in with the adjacent Bryant Park – not a bad spot to read and snack, either. He’s here to visit from Portland, Main. Why here? He believes that by now probably half of it is his anyhow: his daughter, who lives in New York, has turned donations in his name into birthday and Christmas presents for years now.
For Dominique Thompson, a 31-year-old Harlem resident from upstate New York “it’s just like a quiet place to work.” She, too, would usually go to work inside. Today she chose one of the marble benches close to the fountain, laptop on her lap. She could use a chair and table but seems perfectly happy to be just here. Since the pandemic, Dominique’s been working from home. Coming here gives her more space “where I’m not as distracted. And I like reading. So it’s always nice to go and do work. And then if I want to, I check out a book.”
The pandemic has changed most work environments. For better or for worse. Allowing to work remotely and at more flexible hours came as a blessing for some and a course for many. Especially schools – teachers, students, and parents – have been shaken by the events of the past two years. Dominique, who seems to enjoy the flexibility surrounding her job, ties the issues together:
“I think COVID showed a lot of people that there are no real social networks for people to fall back on. I feel like a lot of teachers felt like they were not valued during the pandemic and as it continues on.”
She’s not the only one who feels that way. Ricky, a 23-year-old who moved to New York for her job, came to sit out here and work for the first time in a while today. She cracks a smile when asked about the teacher shortage that the US is facing. It’s not a happy smile, more of an ironic smirk; knowing.
“A lot of teachers are quitting because of really bad conditions and pay. Schools aren’t really doing much to give them a reason to stay. Especially with the pandemic – it exasperated already existing issues.“
These issues that Ricky touches upon have in fact been developing in the years before the pandemic already. The social standing and perception, the stress. Teachers are asked to be more than educators. They step in doing the job of parents and siblings, therapists and counselors. Helping new generations to get ready for the outside world. Adult life. It’s an honorable task, one might think. Among the most important ones in society: Tuning new voices, new makers, and builders, to shape the future of a nation. But the pandemic has made this job harder than ever before; schools shutting down, relying on a hardly existing digital infrastructure, social inequalities crystalizing. And now trying to catch up with all that was missed in two years of lockdown-rollercoaster rides. On an educational as well as an interpersonal level.
“And then also, just understanding that they don’t have a living wage. Trying to support a family or oneself or even just cover student loans are all these compounding things that are important in people’s lives. Why would I be a teacher when I don’t feel respected by the education system?”
Dominique is not a teacher. Still, she cuts to an issue that most people figure to be the most obvious and most pressing one. “When the Yankees’ third baseman makes $20 million a year and my wife as a teacher made $55,000 a year, I think that is unfair.” Bill used to work as a lawyer. This made up for his wife’s wage while raising two children.
Dominique too believes that there are ways to mend these issues:
“We should definitely pay people a living wage. Have social networks in place so that people feel valued and taken care of when a pandemic or a health crisis happens. From what I’ve heard teachers are working like 12 hours a day. A lot of them use their own money to fund their classrooms, buying supplies. And so instead of divesting from education, putting more money into it.”
She’s pressing a sensitive point here – like Bill, she feels like money is distributed unevenly.
“All the money that we’re spending on war and weapons could go into education, could go into housing, could go into health care, and fund people.”
The US ranks actually high in a global comparison when it comes to education funding. Still, when it comes to the performance of students it falls behind other developed countries.
Teaching is by far not the only profession that is facing a shortage of skilled professionals. In 2021 more than 4 million people a month quit their jobs between the months of August and October. The proportion of available workers is as low as it was last in the 1970s, with just under 62 percent of the population. This is a major problem for companies and society alike. Getting the right people for the right jobs starts in schools. Education lays the foundation for a functioning society. Not just school, it’s a multitude of companies that can’t find people. Some of them you wouldn’t even dream of, like NASA.
While teachers seem to be underpaid and undervalued, the job of an astronaut feels to be the opposite. The wage begins at about twice a teacher’s, not to mention the societal standing. Just imagine the difference between someone saying “I’m an astronaut” in comparison to someone who says “I’m a teacher.” Still, NASA too faces a shortage of astronauts. One might argue that the requirements are too intense or it just feels like literally too much of a moonshot to pursue this career.
Shouldn’t basic school education lie the foundations and prepare for jobs, however crazy they may seem?
In some nations like the European Nordic states or China, teachers are among the most valued and looked up to professionals. Contrary the US seems to prioritize differently and heads seem to be turned elsewhere: up.
The biggest mission to the moon in fifty years was supposed to take off this past week. Supposed to – still hasn’t. Due to an engine issue, the launch of Artemis one was delayed, disappointing hundreds of thousands of people who camped out to witness this historical event. “We’re sort of trying to escape from the humdrum regular days or even the depressing regular days.” Bill still didn’t follow it – maybe because New York has enough to offer to draw his attention. And Ricky too thinks that people are most excited that “there’s a whole universe out there that we don’t really know anything about.” Still, there is a slight taste of bitterness. Especially at a place that has more roots in the past than branches in the future, it feels as if the excitement is relatively small. Dominique puts this bitter taste into words:
“It just amazes me how people keep trying to go somewhere else instead of thinking about what are the root causes and the issues that are happening here and let’s work to solve those. They’re like, let’s scrap Earth and let’s go to the moon. Let’s go to Mars.”
Are we really just running away?
“Let’s say, if this is possible, you’re going to these other places to colonize them with the same mentality. Do you think those things are not going to perpetrate on the moon and Mars?”
Where all this ties together? Maybe shoot for the moon, dream of Mars, for the same reason many come to New York City. To escape the humdrum, the good and bad, of our day-to-day lives. As Chris, 23, who came here for the first time today because “it’s just this famous place you know from the movies” sums it up: Space travel, too, is something we only know from the movies. So maybe if there were more movies about amazing teachers than crazy space travel, this most important job could become almost as cool as sneaking cookies into the New York Public Library.
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