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A Librarian's Struggle to Read

October 31, 2013

“I didn’t have an easy time in high school, so I was able to get my grades up at BMCC and transfer to a four-year college,” says Patricia Kettles, now manager at the Port Richmond Library on Staten Island, where she grew up.  

“Plus I found the students at BMCC were there because they wanted to be there— maybe they didn't have an easy time, but they were serious.”

As was she.

“I couldn't go to college, straight out of high school, because I couldn’t get access to my stepfather’s tax returns,” she says. “I couldn’t fill out the FAFSA forms. So I had to wait till I could claim myself as an independent, to start college.”

In the meantime, she says, “I went to Europe. I had been working two jobs and saving, at a law firm during the day and then waitressing at a pizza place at South Street Seaport.”

Working and traveling, she says, helped prepare her for college.

“I loved participating in lectures,” she says. “I enjoyed learning. Where I come from is very homogenous; everyone is the same, but BMCC has everyone, and I liked that about it.”

Two classes in particular, stand out for her: Anthropology and Music and World Culture.

“I still remember something my professor [Shanti Raval] said, and that was, ‘Music is not universal. Music does not mean the same to everyone’—and that the only thing that’s cross-cultural about music is that there’s violence to children in lullabies.”

Sadly, violence is an issue she knows first-hand.

“My father was killed crossing the street, coming home from a parent/teacher conference—a drunk driver,” she says. “At the time the guy only got six months suspended license, no jail time.”

The emotional weight she was carrying, took a toll on her performance at school—she was forced to repeat first grade, and was woefully behind in reading, she says, by fourth grade.

A goal to survive

“I went through counseling when I was little, and worked on my reading every day at the kitchen table while my mom cooked, till I could read on my own,” she says. “By junior high, I was an ARISTA student,” a member of the national honor society of public schools.

She next attended the Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts near Lincoln Center in Manhattan, then Tottenville High School on Staten Island.

“My goal was to survive,” she says. “I was very abused by my stepfather.”

In the painful years that followed, she left home and struck out on her own, working as a receptionist and other entry-level jobs. Eventually, she found her way to BMCC—and hit the challenge of CUNY’s entrance exams.

Ironically, she says, “I passed the reading, but failed the writing and math and had to take remedial classes.

Then there was the matter of tuition—which was low, compared to other colleges—but still a hurdle.

“I made $17,000 a year when I was at BMCC, but I didn’t qualify for financial aid,” Kettles says.

Once again, though, she persevered, and when she felt more confident, academically, she transferred to the College of Staten Island/CUNY—and hit another roadblock.

“I cannot pass that CEP [CUNY Proficiency Exam],” she says. “I freak out. I have to get my adult disability papers so I can have more time on the test, but it’s expensive, and they tell me I’ll need at least three sessions with a counselor.”

Future plans

Despite the hurdles, Kettles has big plans for herself.

“I’m going to finish my bachelor’s degree, positively,” she says. “That’s a goal I’ve set for myself. I’m thinking about doing Empire State College, and the library provides some tuition reimbursement.”

The Port Richmond Library, built a century ago, provides a place where adults raise their literacy level.

“I tell them, ‘You can do it, at one time I couldn’t read, either’,” Kettles says, adding that it also includes a basement theatre provided by the Work Projects Administration.

Kettles, who herself “performed on the stage at age 11,” is proud of the colorful stage and spacious audience area filled with tables where students complete crafts, homework and other projects.

“We’re an Enrichment Zone,” she explains, part of the New York Library program proving free afterschool help to students in grades one through eight.

“We have tutoring, and provide the kids with laptops. It’s the first time the library has had this kind of project.”

Something to celebrate

While she plans to return to school, and even wants to be a parent someday, she admits she wants to “stay right here,” at the library, in terms of her career.

“If I go higher up, I won’t be working with the public and I love that,” she says. “I love my community. I like it when we have our big celebrations the best—the kids get so excited. We have huge summer and Halloween parties, and they don’t normally get that.”

Looking back, she appreciates having started college at BMCC.

“I think community colleges are a wonderful opportunity for students,” she says. “You never know what people’s circumstances are before coming to college, and it gives them a chance to prosper. I could never have started in a four-year college. It’s important for our country, to have option for people.”

Even her sister—now an oncology nurse—attended BMCC. She had already earned a bachelor’s degree in history, but decided to change her career direction.

“I told her to go to BMCC,” says Kettles. “It gave us both opportunities.”

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  • Anxiety and troubles at home thwarted Patricia Kettle's ability to read
  • At BMCC, she got back on her feet, academically
  • Now manages the Port Richmond Library in Staten Island

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