Sheila May-Stein’s students at Pittsburgh Perry High School want stories on the shelves of their school library that deal with topics that affect their lives — drive-by-shootings, gangs, teen pregnancy and prison.
And May-Stein, the school librarian, is pushing hard to get her students those books. She just wants to see them reading, period.
"We should have books about that," she says. "You need to see yourself in literature or else why read it?"
She started at Perry in April after working and substituting at nine other Pittsburgh Public Schools during the past three years. But within just a matter of weeks, she had started a campaign — and a deep Amazon wish list — to get Perry a more diverse array of books for her new students.
Many have stepped up and donated various titles that deal with subjects ranging from life in foster homes to bisexuality. In total, more than 60 books were donated to the school within the first month.
Among the topical books on the list that the students asked for are The Burning: Massacre, Destruction, and the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921, by Tim Madigan; Monster: An Autobiography of an L.A. Gang Member, by Sanyika Shakur; The High Price I Had to Pay 2: Sentenced To 30 Years as a Non-Violent First Time Offender, by Michelle Miles; and For Colored Boys Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Still Not Enough: Coming of Age, Coming Out, and Coming Home, by Keith Boykin. But the list shows a range of topics and genres including Greek mythology, anime, sports, science fiction and superheroes.
Perry Principal Dennis Chakey says May-Stein has done more in a few weeks than any librarian he has seen in the five Pittsburgh Public Schools he has worked in.
"For far too long, in a lot of our schools, we haven’t had individuals who wanted to go above and beyond," he says. "So you can tell she’s not doing it just to pick up a paycheck. She’s here to change lives and make sure everyone’s got everything that they need."
Sophomore Jaymiere Lewis, 16, of the Hill District, was thrilled so many people donated after May-Stein publicized the book drive.
"It’s awesome because I can read more," he says, adding he reads 20 books on average in a month.
"[Reading] takes you to a different world," he says. "Leaves your imagination open to the possibilities."
Upon her arrival at Perry, May-Stein knew the only way to be successful at her 10th city-school gig since 2012 would be to find out exactly what her students wanted to read. Students who were in a cosmetology class that was relocated to the library were among the first to express their interests.
"They started telling me that they wanted to read books that had to deal with their life," May-Stein said.
Perry’s library was rather light on many of those subjects, but not anymore.
"[Getting the books] was like Christmas," she says. "So much excitement. I would show the kids and be like, ‘Look, it’s what you asked for — it’s here. People are buying stuff for us — can you believe this?’"
Her current job isn’t the only time she’s pulled off a small miracle in a city-school library.
In one of her first assignments as a district substitute in 2012, May-Stein was tasked with fixing up the library at Manchester PreK-8 on the North Side and didn’t think it would be too difficult of a project.
"[I] got the key to the library and go upstairs, the door creaks open," she says. "Spider webs. Green [paint] the color of sorority-girl puke. Yellow stuff from a leaking roof drizzling down, carpet that’s ripped up and has electrical tape across it. Empty. How do you fix that? I have no budget."
Naturally, May-Stein was infuriated with the conditions, which also included sweltering heat due to a lack of air conditioning. So, she did what many today do when looking to expose a problem: She posted a photo of a crooked, nearly-empty bookshelf in the substandard library to Facebook.
Her friends started sharing the photo, which was turned into a meme reading, "If a picture is worth a thousand words, let’s make this picture worth a thousand books."
As May-Stein and others promoted the meme on social media, she was busy consulting others and putting together an Amazon wish list of books for her students. She caught a break when local media outlets covered her efforts.
"We got a couple Amazon books in the beginning, then got a literal landslide," she says. "I was getting down to 30 books from a 300-book list."
Kezia Ellison, the founder of Educating Teens about HIV/AIDS, became interested after reading about May-Stein’s campaign in the news. She helped arrange for Sam’s Club to refurbish most of the library.
In just a couple of months, May-Stein had revitalized a library once covered in spider webs and lacking many resources. She thought she’d be able to stick around at Manchester, but many transfers later, she’s starting to replicate her successes at Perry.
Her core belief is that a librarian should be at the center of a school.
"If you don’t have the kind of personality where you can meet everybody and be really involved with the school, then you’re probably not going to be a super-great librarian," May-Stein says. "If you’re sitting behind the counter shushing people, you’re not doing your job."