Coming Home

María Saldaña and her books

“Once you learn to read, you will be forever free.”

Frederick Douglass

¿Mamá, ya puedo ir a la biblioteca? 
(Mom, can I go to the library?)

Claro que sí, Mariá. Véte con cuidado por favor. 
(Of course, María. Just please be careful.)

She is in third grade. The year is 1980. Her parents, recent immigrants from Jalisco, México, came to the United States in the hopes of finding opportunities for work and a good education for their expanding family. They arrived with a toddler and one on the way, and would soon grow to five children in a span of a few years.

María finds solace in reading.

She has never felt deprived of love or attention, but what do they say about the middle child? The forgotten one? Maybe there is some truth to the idea of being lost in the middle. Perhaps it is what draws María into reading, into discovering and creating her own worlds. Her quiet, introspective nature often welcomes the company of books over people.

The musty scent of aged paper in the books at the Lennox Library brings an odd sense of comfort to María’s heart and soul. As sunlight creeps through the window panes on this Saturday morning, casting shadows across the floor from the aisles and aisles of books, María playfully navigates the maze of light and darkness until she reaches the children’s section. She’s scouting out her next read. What adventure will she go on today?

This passion for reading comes not only from her excursions to the library but also through her third-grade teacher’s influence and guidance. To help the kids get settled after recess or lunch each day, the teacher reads to them. One of María’s favorites? Where the Red Fern Grows, by Wilson Rawls.

While this classic work may not easily relate to María’s personal life, she allows herself to escape to the rural environs of the Ozarks with Billy Coleman. She understands the bond between Billy and his two hunting dogs, not dissimilar to her bond with her brothers and sisters. She connects with the perseverance he demonstrates in the hunt for the ghost coon. She cries for the pain and loss when Old Dan dies. 

This is the power of story.

Story has played an essential role in María’s life since early childhood. Her mother, whose formal education ceased after elementary school, was a born storyteller, primarily oral. María and her siblings would often sit and listen to old family tales, sing songs together and recite poems. 

Her father was equally supportive in the growth and development of his children. He loved garage sales, and in his jaunts to discover the latest bargain, he would seek out books. While he couldn’t read them himself, he found satisfaction in providing these tiny literary gems for the kids. Once, he uncovered an encyclopedia set, incomplete but worthy of purchase nonetheless. María perused these volumes page to page. It wasn’t just stories that caught her attention; she devoured everything, facts, data, ideas. 

María completed her elementary and middle school education in Lennox and went on to the local high school and into college. While majoring in Psychology at Loyola Marymount University, she worked full-time to help pay for her education. Scholarships and financial aid rounded out her financial support. She received an opportunity to work at a small daycare near campus, and in doing so, María found that she loved working with children and hoped to pursue a career in school psychology.

By 1992, María was working as a teacher’s aide at an elementary school in LAUSD. On April 12, that same year, the Los Angeles riots broke out across the city. Triggered by the officers’ acquittal in the Rodney King beating case, angry mobs began lighting fires in the streets, breaking into storefront windows, pulling people from their cars, and beating them. Lives were lost and property damaged. Chaos reigned in the City of Angels for the next three days.

Harkening back to her days in Lennox, María knew that for young children, school was a refuge, a safe place where one is valued and where one’s voice is heard. So she steadied herself, ready to support the kids when they returned to campus. 

Unfortunately, the school had different plans and prohibited employees from speaking to the students about all that was happening in the city. María was dumbfounded and in disagreement. 

What do we say when the children begin to ask questions? How can we not address issues that may directly affect them?

This event was a turning point for María. A school must be a place that values and uplifts children, far beyond where they go to learn to read and write. Her thoughts brought her back to Lennox. 

Lennox, a small unincorporated urban neighborhood in Los Angeles, is home to about 22,000 residents in its 1.1 square mile area. With two and a half times the population density of the greater Los Angeles area, this overcrowded neighborhood is roughly 93% Latino, with almost half of those residents foreign born. 1

Lennox has a higher poverty rate than all surrounding neighborhoods, 20% higher than next door neighbor Inglewood. Thirty-one percent higher than Hawthorne.2


María decided to return to her home school district. She applied for and received a teacher’s aide position, changed her major to education, and worked to complete her schooling.

“I remember thinking, I want (for my students) what I got as a kid. School for me was a safe haven,” María recalled. Not finding this possible at her previous school, she hoped to relive it in Lennox.

After working as a teacher’s aide for two years, María earned her way into a full-time teaching position at Lennox Middle School (LMS). This career opportunity was a homecoming, except the person that returned now brought her own expertise and experience to the next generation of children growing up in this small inner city.

She initially taught multiple subjects, from mathematics to social studies to English, at various grade levels. However, her passion for reading and sharing that passion never waned, and she gradually moved into teaching English as a single subject. 

María found herself in good company, working with an outstanding faculty, some of whom taught her when she went through this same school system as a young learner.  

One fellow English teacher had developed a long-standing and well-respected book club on campus. This teacher brought Shakespeare and other classic writings to children who might never have entertained such work independently. The LMS Student Book Club allowed interested students to explore literature beyond what they covered in English class and provided a venue for lively conversation and interaction about what they read.

When the time arrived for this teacher to consider retirement, María eagerly stepped into the role, as she knew it was an opportunity to work with students on a different and most engaging level. This was not a paid position, nor was there a stipend or any form of monetary compensation. The reward would be found in the thoughtful and thought-provoking moments spent with students around topics of shared interest.

While inheriting and taking stewardship of this legacy of a book club, María brought her own passion and interests into the process. She chose to focus on literature dealing with issues students might face in their communities or that have relevance to current events taking place across the country and the world. She made a conscious effort to select work with characters from diverse backgrounds, home life, family units, and identities. 

“We’ve read stories about penpals in Zimbabwe, a family that must leave their home when India and Pakistan split, a narrative about a transgender elementary school student, and stories of children from blended families. We recently read a book about a young Vietnamese American girl who must travel back to Vietnam with her grandma, and hates it, until she comes to realize the importance of family and of heritage.”

With recent events like the murder of George Floyd and other acts of brutality against people of color, the need for understanding, compassion, and empathy is crucial for the growth and development of these young hearts and minds. Topics surrounding social justice, diversity and inclusion, and gender identity should have a place at the table. María has found an avenue for these themes to come alive through the book club.

Another evolution in the book club under María’s leadership is a blending of grade levels. 

“This change (to mixed grade levels) promotes engaging discussion and stretches the younger ones to think through things a little more than they might otherwise,” María relates. “They learn how to have effective discourse with others. How to agree and disagree with others. How to support their ideas or opinions with evidence from the text. There is a sense of affirmation when maybe you have an idea that you might be too shy to share, but then someone else brings up the same idea.”

María gives students voice and choice.

“The book club allows students to express themselves and their opinions. Too often, in school, and in the regular classroom, students are looking to say what they think you want them to say. They respond in a way that they think it’s what I want to hear, rather than what they are really thinking. The book club doesn’t work this way. It’s totally driven by them.”

Recently, one student recommended the book The War That Saved My Life, a tale set during WWII as seen through the eyes of a young disabled girl eager to escape a life of abuse and neglect. The lively discourse that followed the reading encourages María to seek additional requests from her students in the future. Thus she and her students are partners in this program.

But the book club experience isn’t the same for everyone, which is part of its appeal.

“I have two 6th grade students who are so quiet and never say anything, but they keep coming back,” María says. “I know they are listening and enjoying the discussion. I can relate to that. I am glad that those quiet kids have a place to feel safe, be who they are, and speak up when they are ready.” 

Her passion for reading and sharing ideas goes beyond the book club and English classes. This past year, she and students collaborated with Milken Community School and the Los Angeles Holocaust Museum to create a digital zine student project called “From Silence to Action.” 

Website excerpt: The zine illustrates lessons of Holocaust history as well as art and citizen journalism to explore social relevancy and promote education, awareness, and action. Over the course of the project students connected with each other and with Holocaust survivors for meaningful dialogue.

María’s students chose their topics for the zine; the LGBTQ community, eating disorders, body image, women’s rights, and the Black Lives Matter movement. Each entry illustrates the unique style and essence of its contributor. We encourage you to visit the site and explore the incredible stories and artwork published within.

There is no school budget for the books the club members read. Thankfully, a donor brought on by the previous teacher has helped support the program up to now. And María and her colleagues contribute their personal funds to keep this club running. 

LumenSparQ will support María this year by purchasing books for the LMS Student Book Club in coordination with the existing donor aid. Our funds will provide María with the ability to procure more recent works with timely subject matter that might be available only in hardcover and to investigate other media such as graphic novels. 

We are excited to see what themes the LMS Student Book Club explores this year and our board has shown an interest in reading the same works along with the students. We will be sure to post these titles on our social media channels in the coming months.

This August, the Lennox School District selected María as Teacher of the Year. We could not recommend a more deserving recipient. Congratulations to María, her students, and the district for allowing her to thrive and inspire others through her good work.

To support the mission of future Lumenaries and SparQs, you can donate directly to our organization below.

Author: John Umekubo • Editor: Isabel Umekubo • Photo credits: John Umekubo

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