Vancouver firefighter Carol Messenger shocked students at Gladstone secondary Monday morning after asking them to guess how many of the city’s 840 firefighters are women.
The students suggested three to four hundred.
The answer: 18, which is a dramatic improvement from eight women serving with fire and rescue services in 2011. That sparked discussion on why the proportion of female firefighters is so low.
Messenger was one of the “living books” who spoke to Gladstone students at a “human library” event organized for National School Library Day, Oct. 22. The nearly 20 other “books” included a martial law survivor, a blind person, a Jewish woman, an Italian woman, a funeral director and embalmer and a person with tattoos.
More than 200 “readers,” or students, each heard from and spoke informally with three different books.
The event was organized by Pat Parungao, a teacher librarian and department head for resource services at the Kensington-Cedar Cottage school. She held the first human library at Gladstone two years ago after she learned about a similar initiative in Denmark. Parungao saw a chance to quash stereotypes and broaden understanding by exposing teens to people they may see but not necessarily talk with.
“Even when you talk to somebody as a casual conversation, your experience as a [Vietnamese] boat person doesn’t necessarily come up in your communication when you’re just meeting someone for the first time, for example,” Parungao said.
She saw students respond Monday morning to the story of a refugee from Vietnam who lost seven of her 13 family members and became a orphan at age seven when pirates attacked their boat.
Margaret Moo, a Chinese multicultural worker to 13 schools, said the predominantly Canadian-born students assigned to her session on lifelong learning of an immigrant arrived with glazed expressions. But they awoke after she shared her story of picking up her three-year-old, who’d worn a pristine uniform to preschool in Hong Kong, from daycare in Vancouver to discover her child clad in mud.
Students in a session with James Chamberlain, billed as “a gay man,” perked up when they heard him utter a derogatory word for black people. Chamberlain, an elementary school teacher who formerly taught in Surrey and fought to the Supreme Court of Canada to get books about same-sex parents on the elementary school reading list, was explaining the use of the word gay and how to tell when it’s used in a derogatory way. He also explained controversial movements by some marginalized groups to reclaim negative labels.
They also paid closer attention when a Baha’i refugee from Iran told them about being shot at, hiding in the mountains and going hungry.
Gladstone’s previous human library included a speaker that had been bullied. His story spurred a student to share his experience of being tormented and the speaker became a mentor to the student, Parungao said.