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Telling the Truth: Getting to Know Kathryn Harris

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This is a sponsored series with Wells Fargo.  I was invited to reflect on, and share, my Untold story. This is part one of a two-part post.

Kathryn Harris deals in untold stories but her job is in making sure they see the light of day. The stories are with her every day. Literally. Kathryn is a librarian.


I don’t think I’ve ever mentioned before that I wanted to become a librarian. I have an immense amount of respect for them or how they’ve shaped my life, but the truth is that they have. My first library card was a stolen one from my mother at the Chicago Public Library. She used to hand me her card to use and check out children’s books, but it didn’t have my name on it so it didn’t feel like mine.


Chicago Public Library, courtesy of Serge Melki

When I finally secured one for myself we had moved to a small, diverse suburb south of Chicago and it wasn’t as impressive or foreboding as the architectural beauty of the columns and old school feel of the Chicago Public Library. That didn’t matter. In fact, the card was more important to me than the building.

The building, however, must be explained. Instead of the classic look of our old library, it was in an abandoned house at the end of a long street across from the country club where we used to go for dinner as a family to Taco Night or sometimes for brunch on the weekends. Someone must have donated it to the village (as our suburb was known) and it housed all the Nancy Drew and Trixie Beldon I would ever want to read.

During the summer of my 5th grade school year, I was in charge of putting my younger sister in the red wagon along with my books to be returned (or albums that I borrowed like Annie or Really Rosie) and haul her up the hill to the library.

I, personally, didn’t just fall in love with books or the worlds they opened for me. I fell in love with the librarian. She knew everything and everybody who entered the front door which looked similar to the one on our house.

Beverly Simpson's Untold Story

As I spent time finding an untold story on my own, I was inspired by Beverly's story because, as you'll see if you watch this video and then read on about Kathryn Harris, these women share some commonalities. When Beverly says, "I've been proud and I let no one take that from me" I think of Kathryn.

It was a no-brainer, then, for me to find my own favorite librarians in every town I’ve lived in since that time. Kathryn was an easy find. I’ve known her, or, rather, her reputation, for the last 20 years. These days, she works at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library, a research library connected to the museum, in Springfield, Illinois.


Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library & Museum, courtesy of Winonave

Each year our school visits the presidential library to do research for the history fair our students enter. Thehead research librarian works with our students and I watched her move swiftly and deftly between the tables to ask students what they needed. She’s the kind of person who, when you meet her, you know she’s got stories. Kathryn knows her books, she knows history, and she knows what fuses need to be lit.

In Your Untold Story, What Did You Want to Become?

When she allowed me to interview her to learn what makes her tick, she dropped a little bomb on me right away when it comes to her own story. I asked, “Did you always want to be a librarian?” and she said that no, she wanted to become a teacher.

Why didn’t you then?

I could not become a teacher because I did not posses the moral character.

What? That’s ridiculous! You’re the most refined, honorable person and people can see that as soon as they meet you. Who would say that and why?

Kathryn told me that she applied for her first job and the principal really liked her and wanted to hire her to teach French to high school students. But, because she had a year-and-a-half old daughter but no husband, she wasn’t hired for the job.

Why did you divulge that you were a single mother?

Because my mother told me to always tell the truth.

Unfortunately, her story spiraled from there. She lost her beloved mother and decided to return home to help care for younger siblings. One of her sorority sisters suggested she apply to the University of Illinois to earn a master’s degree in Library Science just before her mother’s passing and suddenly Kathryn was faced with a decision: attend school or stay at home. She passed on it and called them to say so.

Her story took a turn again when the department director contacted her to say that her credentials were impeccable and that they wanted her to attend school. When she told her story to them they counter-offered: take one semester off and when you come next semester we will hold a job for you, your scholarship, and we’ll find a way to help you with childcare for your daughter.

Stories have a way of taking a turn but Kathryn’s storytelling has a certain fidelity to it: she tells the truth. It’s her story and she owns it and only by being a reliable narrator does she find a certain amount of strength in how she lives.

When I went in to interview her I hadn’t expected finding such a common theme of single motherhood with her but when she shared her story with me I became aware of how powerful truth-telling and storytelling really are. They go hand-in-hand and she got to re-write her own and not be subjected to one that labeled her a woman of “poor moral character”.

In fact, she decided to become another character later in life: Harriet Tubman.


Please take a read and watch the other “Wells Fargo Presents – The Untold Stories Collection” in the series to read more about the #MyUntold Stories!

What about you? What stories have been left untold by you or your family members? Have you ever asked a stranger to tell you about their life and were surprised by it? You need to go talk to your local librarian. I'll bet they have amazing untold stories.

Disclosure: This is a sponsored post written by me on behalf of Wells Fargo Bank.


By Serge Melki from Indianapolis, USA (Chicago public libraryUploaded by russavia) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

By User talk:Winonave [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons


It's Back Again! The H&R Block Budget Challenge

Every year with our 8th grade students we participate in something local that helps our students understand financial literacy. That's why I was willing to participate in the H&R Block Budget Challenge back in September. As someone who suffered through finances (needlessly, I might add! This is simply a learned skill.) for the bulk of my 20s, I consciously work towards getting this in our schools because financial literacy is extremely important. 

So, teacher friends (and family since some of my family members are teachers), tell me if the following would make any sense to students.

The reason I ask about whether or not your students can read this is because I know mine can't. Every year, the same thing happens when we work on financial literacy.

The students act as if we're speaking a foreign language to them.

We work on a lot of important things as educators. Sure, we have to teach students how to pick out the main idea in a piece of text but before that? We had to work on building up to those skills.

First, they needed to know how to read it and pronounce all the words. Prior to that, they needed to understand how letters go together and what they sound like. Naturally, that all begins with teaching them the alphabet. Simple, right? I mean, it's not rocket science.

Except, learning to read is actually quite complicated and scientific. So, when I think about all the work that went into the foundational layers of getting to a place where students grasp the main idea it sort of scares me to apply that theory to finances. Collecting pennies and using piggy banks are truly things from my own upbringing, as well as my own children, that were foundational in helping to understand money. 

"Let's collect as many quarters as we can and put them in this jar for when we go to the Laundromat."

I said this so often to my children when they were smaller that they repeated it back to me if they stopped on the street or found a quarter in someone's couch. 

"If you want to get a more expensive piece of clothing, you'll have to save up."

This was something I said mostly to my eldest child because she is quite the fashion conscious. If she wanted a sweater that cost more than the allotted amount I had determined, she made the decision to do without until she had enough saved up to buy the one she wanted.

All of these conversations with my kids helped build the foundation of learning to understand money. Perhaps it's no coincidence, then, that she grew up and married a financial advisor, huh?


Part of those discussions ended up helping us discuss finances fluently. We'd been practicing all this time and making money decisions with thought and care. (By the way? In hindsight? I'm so glad I did this.)

That's why I enjoy working with and promoting the H&R Block Budget Challenge. It validates, for me, the value of doing this purposefully with students. I want to help spread the goal, as an educator, to teach true life financial skills to students. In my role as administrator I work to encourage our teachers to find the time to help make this necessary skill available to all students. I'm not talking Trust Fund Babies and really entitled people who probably already get this. I'm talking low-income students for whom this can make a world of difference. If you know anything about me, you know that I have a heart for them like no other. 

Here's the best part:

Teachers can enroll students in the program and there are classroom grants and students scholarships available.

Here's the skinny on the H&R Block Budget Challenge:

Participants encounter real-world personal budgeting situations, problem-solving, and decision-making through an online simulation and accompanying lessons that meet national standards. With sessions October through April, teachers have six opportunities to participate. It's for students 14 years or older, enrolled in grade 9 through 12 full-time. It is FREE for teachers to sign up for and there are scholarships and grants to be won.

What are the grants and scholarships?

The top classrooms and teachers who budget the best will hand out awards (grants and scholarships) of $3 million. There is also a $100,000 GRAND PRIZE SCHOLARSHIP.

  • 60 opportunities for classroom grants up to $5K
  • 132 opportunities for student scholarships of $20K
  • Grand prize scholarship of $100K
  • Student incentive during game play

What are the dates?

Sign up is happening now and the next session kicks off January 16th.  


Money smarts + classroom grants + student scholarships = 1 challenge worth taking on. Get started today.

*This is a sponsored post for H&R Block. I am happy to give my opinion about programs for students but especially for teens. As always, opinions are my own.


A Day at the Library in Ferguson, Missouri

Not long ago, my good friend Rana asked if she could do anything to help the Ferguson Municipal Public Library and I had followed the buzz around the social media campaign to get them books and resources while they remained opened during protests. Their library is one of the first things I began to monitor closely as students were showing up and volunteers were helping the people seeking a safe haven. Rana offered to immediately send 25 copies of one of the titles that Little Pickle Press publishes titled What Does it Mean to Be Safe? that she wrote and that Sandra Salsbury illustrated. 

If I were completely honest I would have to mention that the fact that there's an adorable brown boy on the cover of the book makes me happy so I was thrilled that she was donating them.


Between Rana's offer and 2 days ago, I realized that taking the books there personally was going to be my preferred method. She could have mailed them but I like that they came to my home first. As I waited for the books to arrive I read in the LA Times that the library in Ferguson had received over $350,000 in donations



Since I'm an avid Reddit reader, I learned that the library director, Scott Bonner, would be doing an AMA (Ask Me Anything) and I followed it religiously. Everything I was reading started to thaw my blackened, frozen heart so by the time I read that author John Green would be donating books (and was, subsequently, embarrassed for not doing so privately) I shared a screenshot of that on my Facebook page.

 By this time, I reached out to Scott Bonner myself by calling the library and asking if I could help in any way. A lovely library worker answered my questions (apparently, Scott has been super busy and wasn't available) and said that the donations they've been receiving from all over the world were a bit overwhelming but also quite wonderful.  


Naturally, I asked her, "What would be most helpful to the library at this time?"

"VOLUNTEERS," she said enthusiastically. "We have a lot of boxes of books that need organizing."

"Great," I told her. "I live in Springfield and can be there all day this Saturday."


I took to social media again and asked if any friends would like to join me. Part of me figured that some of my local friends might want to hop in the car with me (and they did!) and that some friends in the St. Louis area would also drop by for the day (and they did!). Honestly, though, I didn't expect my friend Jasmine to drive up from Arkansas.

That's not even the thing that floored me the most.


It was seeing a packed library on a Saturday and getting to witness it come alive.

Or maybe it was opening boxes of books with accompanying letters of support, many of which used #BlackLivesMatter somewhere in their writing.

Or maybe it was getting the see the actual books people sent.

Or maybe it was the Congressman's office who sent a note encouraging the library workers.

Or maybe it was the plethora of authors who sent their own books with letters

Or maybe it was the multicultural titles and deliberate agency people took when choosing books to donate.

Or maybe it was reading the incredibly heartfelt letters people wrote. Sometimes they signed them and sometimes they chose to remain anonymous.

Or maybe it was opening a box from a famous author (whose name I found covered up elsewhere on the box from previous use).

Or maybe it was opening the actual box of John Green titles he sent and waving the card around frantically to my friend DeShanee and screaming, "THESE ARE THE BOOKS HE SAID HE WAS SENDING."


 Sure, there was excitement throughout the day but it was mostly a roller coaster of emotions. There were patrons in the library that each of us connected with or smiled at or people who asked who this crew was taking over the children's section with box after box. 

Scott told us that the most helpful thing we could do is organize several dozen boxes of donations so our crew split into teams to tackle this. Some worked in the children's section sorting books by children's, YA, and adult. After that, they alphabetized them so that when we boxed them back up we could label them thus making it easier for the library staff to get them into the hands of community members.


It was deeply inspiring to see so many social justice titles donated. Some of the letters denoted that, but one in particular stood out for me from a mixed race librarian who wrote that growing up in the 1970s she found herself seeking books with characters who looked like her.

Now, that I can totally relate to.


We learned that being library volunteers meant that we were all sweaty by the end of the day because there was some serious physical work involved.


Luckily, my own school librarian, Trisha, came with me and helped with titles if some of us didn't know if they were YA or adult.


Many of my friends were meeting one another for the first time and coming together for volunteer work will make lifelong friends of many of them. 


I take full credit for knowing some really incredible people and just connecting them.


This is my friend Elizabeth and her daughter. They helped with the children's books.


Most of the pictures of books we took were because so many of them are titles that are going on our own reading lists.


I didn't expect that connecting with some of the Ferguson residents visiting the library would be such a joyful thing, but it was. One of the things I mentioned to my friend Jasmine was that I had a sense that I wasn't always meeting their eyes.


Jasmine is a therapist by trade and she nailed it right away when I mentioned this to her. 

"It's connection, Kelly. It's looking people in the eye knowing they are healing and maybe it's some guilt or not wanting to connect because that can be painful."

Right in the gut. She got me.


Scott made sure we filled out volunteer forms so he could have some record and data of our being there and he insisted we take a photo together at the end. Everyone who saw this photo commented on Jaelithe's son on the far right who couldn't stop reading to take a picture.

He worked the entire time and was, like us, anxious to pick up a book to read and not simply organize. 

Dude. We all get that.


There's a lot of healing that is already happening in Ferguson and we got to witness just a little bit of that on Saturday. I'm not sure what it is I want to say about that because it's just the beginning and, being there made me realize how much physical and emotional effort it will take.


We did a small thing. I didn't give too much thought to making the trip to Ferguson because I've been watching so many people so much work around protests and education and this thing seemed like it fit. At least for the moment. This statue outside of the library seemed painfully apt of a child watching the world in a book, but I was also reminded of how much the world is watching.

If you're in the area and would like to volunteer, I'm sure Scott and the rest of the staff would appreciate it. We already told him we would return.


Did I offer peace today? Did I bring a smile to someone's face? Did I say words of healing? Did I let go of my anger and resentment? Did I forgive? Did I love? These are the real questions. I must trust that the little bit of love that I sow now will bear many fruits, here in this world and the life to come.
Henri Nouwen

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