Can’t Shush This

Can’t Shush This
by: Rozanna Baranets, SPMS Librarian


When I first started working at my middle school, I met with an educator friend of mine who knew the place well. She was the principal at one of our elementary schools and was curious about my new position as Library Assistant. “What is with the parakeets in your library? Who on earth thought screechy birds were a good idea?” I confessed I didn’t know. But a few days into my job, they made all the sense in the world.

Most Gen X-ers like me grew up being shushed in their school libraries. But at some point between my graduating high school and returning to the world of academia many years later, it seems schools decided libraries should be a little more welcoming. My new librarian boss was fully onboard with this new approach. She would sail around the room at recess (called “brunch” at our school) and lunch, chatting up the students in her regular teacher-volume voice, picking up Jenga pieces that had come crashing down earlier or chess pieces that had flown off the table during a particularly rowdy match, floating from group to group like a feather caught in a breeze, complimenting cosplayers on their outfits and telling the quiet kids they needed to speak up, she couldn’t hear their questions.

I adored this new kind of library. After my boss retired and I became the Library Technician tasked with running the place alone, I thought of one big thing I would add to our rebelliously loud library during breaks – music.

It started with my learning that the speaker we had purchased for guest poets to use during our highbrow poetry slams was also bluetooth compatible. Using Spotify, I figured I could play a little music and add some ambience. Why not? It’s not like anyone was trying to get work done there anyway. At first I tried classical music, but soon learned that the range of volume levels in most pieces was too extreme for the room. At the quiet parts I would turn it up high, only to blow those closest to the speaker out of their Crocs when the timpani and brass sections joined. I played jazz for a few days, but it made the library feel too much like a late night singles bar – a joke that only I was able to enjoy given the average age of my students.

Then came my first request. “Hey, can you play some Bad Bunny?” a new student asked. After a quick scan of the lyrics and deeming them school cool, I played it, he loved it, he thanked me and left. Word got out that I was taking requests and the next day a group of drama kids asked if I’d play Disney’s “We Don’t Talk About Bruno.” Smug with the satisfaction that no librarian could possibly be cooler than me, I walked away to help a student and turned back to see the Bruno crew doing a full reenactment of the movie scene in the center of the library. They came back every lunch break, increasingly amping up their sing-along volume until a small rebel faction of 7th grade boys started holding up homemade signs over their heads with “NO BRUNO!” and the international negation symbol drawn in angry red over it. I asked the drama bunch if we could maybe limit performances to just every Thursday.

What started as a way to add some background atmosphere to an already lively and active library turned into a way to attract, connect with and make a home for kids in ways I would have never imagined. Once when a beloved teacher’s aide passed away suddenly, one of her students asked if I’d play a favorite anime song of his that he and his aide would listen to together to help him focus. He sat and quietly listened with his eyes closed, and I found myself crying as I watched him mourn. One girl who I had never heard speak or ever sit with anyone in the two years I’d known her asked if the song I was playing was Marilyn Monroe’s “I Want To Be Loved By You,” and when I confirmed that it was, she grinned and started mouthing the words to herself as she played with the Magnatiles. My Russian 8th grade friend, whom I had impressed once by saying I lived in Siberia for a year, would come in every day and read books about animals all by himself. When he came in one day, I blasted a favorite song of mine that I had discovered in Russia and he jumped up and searched for me, laughing out loud that his grandma had loved that song. Ouch for me, but OK, at least I made his day.

My “Library Jams” playlist has expanded over the years to over 22 hours worth of music. There are probably around 10 languages represented (all with school appropriate lyrics? Um, probably!) and is so varied in styles and tastes that someone scrolling through the lineup would wonder what kind of mad scientist concocted this recipe. It’s become an expected feature of the library itself. Once when I wasn’t able to get to the bluetooth speaker in time to turn it on before some of the kids started to trickle in during brunch, I was met with, “What happened? Are you closed? Where is the music? This is freaking me out!” This playlist has started so many conversations with and between my students that it’s impossible to imagine the place now without it.

And since this is school and all, what’s wrong with a little musical education while we’re at it?…is what I told myself when I started adding all my own favorite music to the playlist. I’d be there on standby ready to share and explain and wax philosophical about the merits of each style of music, but I am constantly in awe of what these kids already know. Why on earth is that 11 year old belting out Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5”? Her mom loves that song. How did that kid know every word to The Beatles “Twist And Shout”? It’s her “favorite Ferris Buhler song.” (OK, I did get to educate her on the origins of that one, and she was grateful.) And the two boys dancing to Elvis Crespo’s “Suavemente” know it because they danced it at their uncle’s wedding. I would never have had a chance to know these things about these kids if the music hadn’t been playing. And who doesn’t want to know some fun facts about their clientele?

And in case you are worried about the poor kids who are actually trying to get some work done or *gasp* read quietly in the school library, don’t you fret. Before our school’s one-kid-one-chromebook adoption during Covid, the library had an attached room that used to be the school’s one and only computer lab, complete with 36 state of the (1997) art desktops with pop out CD rom holders and whirring fans to cool off the blazing internal components. Let’s hear it for Covid, because once everyone had a laptop in their hands, we were able to convert that room into the Quiet Room where students can find dimmed lights, beanbags, lava lamps, overhead projector images of soothing landscapes and yep, soft music.

Most libraries might not have the luxury of an additional room for nothing but quiet, but I still think music can be enjoyed and even create a welcoming vibe. When an 8th grade English class came recently to do a research project using our books and databases, I asked the teacher if I could play some jazz in the background. His answer was an emphatic, “Yes!” The students picked up their heads for the first few seconds after I turned it on to see what was happening, then went back to work. I dare say it even caused them to focus a little more intently. Classical music is actually good for the quiet library as well, but I’d avoid anything labeled “easy listening.” It’s corny, it’s bad, and you’ll feel like you’re in a dentist’s office. For old people.

In the two years I’ve been DJ-ing the library, there are a handful of songs that, for whatever reason, evoke the most reaction. Singalongs, chuckles, snorts, and spontaneous dance-offs are some of the most common. But I guarantee you most of them are not what you would imagine middle schoolers would rock out to! Here’s the list:

      • You Spin Me Round (Like a Record) – Dead or Alive
      • Never Gonna Give You Up – Rick Astley
      • Rasputin – Boney M.
      • Havana – Camila Cabello
      • Bohemian Rhapsody – Queen
      • We Don’t Talk About Bruno – Carolina Gaitan
      • Woo Hoo – The 5, 6, 7, 8’s
      • Fantasy – Mariah Carey
      • Istanbul (Not Constantinople) – The Trevor Horn Orchestra
      • Anything K-Pop

(This article is set to be published in the School Library Journal. From their website: The School Library Journal is the premiere publication for librarians and information specialists who work with children and teens. A source of quality journalism and reviews for 70 years, SLJ produces award-winning features and news coverage on: literacy, best practices, technology, education policy and other issues of interest to the school library and greater educator community.)