Mónica Klien, a beloved member of the Cambridge Public Library’s English as a Second Language (ESL) family, passed away in January 2020. A professor of languages and Latin American literature who taught at Georgetown University, MIT, and Wellesley College, Mónica started teaching ESL at the Library in 2015 and described it as the most rewarding experience of her career. Mónica was born and raised in Peru and so, like her students, discovered English as a secondary language.
Mónica taught at the Library until weeks before her death and many of her friends and family honored her life with a gift to the Library Foundation. A bright light gone too soon, we are honored to remember Mónica by sharing this touching short essay she wrote about her life and her experience teaching at the Library.
Mónica Klien Samanez
I am standing in front of eighteen students in the basement of the library. This is not the glass palace of the main library, but one of the other branches in a grittier part of town. It is a bunker-style structure, surrounded by piles of snow left by the monster 2015 New England Winter. We are doing a vocabulary exercise where I show them a written word or phrase, and they have to describe it with words in English. I show them “MAKE UP”, and different people scream different things: What ladies put on to look pretty! When you kiss after a fight with your husband! To invent a story!
For more than twenty years, I have taught Latin American Literature and Culture and Spanish in beautiful universities and colleges with brick towers surrounded by green lawns and flowers. Places with implicit rules of conduct, where mostly –with few exceptions- the children of privilege attend. After 10 years of teaching at Georgetown University in Washington DC, restlessness started setting in. I often thought of other possibilities: growing my own vegetables in a farm (I had only planted tomatoes and parsley in pots); starting a shelter for old and abused horses (I was 12 the last time I was near a horse); making different kinds of empanadas with the hope of creating an empanada empire a la Georgetown Cupcakes (until one afternoon, while driving in Dupont Circle, I noticed a new shining place called House of Empanadas). I thought of many other possibilities, to which my husband would skeptically comment, “Ahhh, that really would be a successful enterprise!”
In 2009, I was diagnosed with cancer. I had chemo, and then resumed teaching. A couple of years later, life brought us to Cambridge, and I took the road well traveled simply, oh well, Robert Frost, because it was easier. I landed a job in a prestigious women’s college, where I received, for the first time in my teaching career, a negative evaluation from the students: not nurturing enough, too cold. A colleague suggested I take food to class. I was appalled by the demands of the spoiled few and the obsession with grades, appalled by a system of over-empowered students and professors eager to please no matter what, appalled by the constant departmental bickering which ultimately leads to bad choices and a demeaning of the whole process of transferring knowledge to a new generation. I taught a couple more semesters there, but I was basically done, finished, finito.
This decision more or less coincided with my health going south. And I don’t mean going south to the Rio Grande, but south to the South Pole. I did not teach in 2014. It was an extremely challenging year. I had a recurrence, a surgery and then landed in the emergency room twice. One of those times I had to stay in the hospital for nine days. At the end of the year, I visited my patient portal and scrolled down and down and down to the tens, the hundreds, of appointments for MRIs, CT scans, doctor of this, doctor of that. I wept when I saw that screen.
It is a mixed crowd today there in the library basement. We have a small United Nations: Chinese, Russians, Iranians, Mexicans, Nepalese, Ukrainians, Chileans, Syrians, French, Haitians. Nobody is younger than late twenties. I’m worried we are making too much noise because Maria’s office has a window to the classroom. Maria is the coordinator who gracefully and efficiently leads students and volunteers of multiple ESL classes in all the libraries of Cambridge.
The students are on fire, after we finish with the multiple meanings of “MAKE UP.” One woman screams: Teacher! Did you wear make up today?? I am a little taken aback but say, maybe a little. Another yells: Teacher! Do you have a husband?? Well… yes, yes, I do. Yet, another, Teacher! Do you like your husband?? Yes, I like him!! There is a lot of laughter. I feel alive, connected to these people who give thanks after every class without knowing I am a volunteer, who probe into my personal life in surprising ways. I feel connected to them by the purest form of transmission, without all the constraints that many American higher education institutions have fallen into. Yes, yes, I give these students a little. I wonder if they know how much they give me.
It's no secret: we love the Cambridge Public Library staff! From circulation to admin, facilities to youth services - the enthusiasm, warmth, and dedication of Library workers makes Cambridge an amazing place to live and be.
While we look forward to life returning to normal, we'd like to share a series of conversations with Library staff members virtually conducted by the Foundation. We hope that reading about their work brightens your day, and reminds you that no matter what goes on the world, the Cambridge Public Library continues to support our community.
What is your role at the Library?
I am the manager of Communications, Programs and Events at the Cambridge Public Library. With my team, I manage internal and external communications. That includes managing our social media platform, writing press releases, bulk marketing emails, updating our website, and coordinating with the city on messaging and communications when necessary. My Department is also responsible for planning and executing events and programs in support of strategic priorities – some suggested by community members. We have a range of programs at the Library, from author talks to art exhibitions and lecture series.
How do you decide what programs to put on at the Library?
We take suggestions from community members, the Library team, the Director – every six weeks we have a programming meeting where our committee reviews proposed events.
What is a typical day at work like for you? I imagine it’s quite different now than it was when the Library was open, of course!
That’s right! If I could talk a little about how it was in the building – the Library is a very fast-paced, dynamic environment with a lot going on. On top of managing programs and events, my team also manages use of Library spaces. Things can move very quickly at the Library, and there are many stakeholders involved – from the Library branches to the Mayor’s office. It’s a lot of fun! And I am honored to work at the Library, to have an opportunity to work in service to the community.
Things are different now with remote work and virtual programming. We have the infrastructure set up for remote work, using software like Microsoft Teams. It definitely requires more focus when you’re working from home! We have shifted our focus to virtual programs and rely more on social media to communicate with our patrons than previously. We have seen great attendance for our virtual programs. On July 2nd, the communal reading of Frederick Douglass’s “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July” and the US Declaration of Independence was attended by nearly 300 people. In May, we had Porsha Olayiwola, Boston’s poet laureate, present a virtual reading with about 190 people in attendance. The Library’s Virtual Family Story Times are always full, too!
Although our programs are popular, it is important to keep in mind the gap in access to technology, particularly in low income black and brown households. It is difficult to evaluate the success of any program when you know that a cross section of the community will not be able to participate because they do not have access to technology. This is a great challenge, and it’s important that we work to bridge this gap. We hope to engage our stakeholders to find solutions to this challenge in the future.
What are your favorite events that the Library has hosted?
It’s hard to choose – we have held some really good ones! The communal reading of the Frederick Douglass speech and the Declaration of Independence earlier this month was great – the Douglass reading thoroughly debunked the Declaration of Independence and I think it was important that we hosted the event when we did. And Porsha Olayiwola’s reading was really powerful. Last year we hosted a talk with Professor Ashutosh Varshney of Brown University, as part of our International Briefing series, on the BJP and the rise of Hindu Nationalism in India. The event was well attended and Dr. Varshney gave a great lecture on how minority communities in India are faring in the wake of the BJP’s rise to power. The talk also addressed human rights and highlighted the persecution of religious and ethnic minorities which we see happening in Myanmar and other places in the world.
We also hosted a professor named Jennifer Nash in early March. She conducted research among black doulas working for little or no pay in Chicago, and their importance in providing community healthcare and advocacy, within the context of black identity. That was another fantastic event.
Finally, another one that comes to mind was the talk by French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy, hosted in February. He is a controversial figure, but I think it is important that the Library host a range of viewpoints.
How did you end up working for the Library?
I started working at the City of Cambridge in 2009 as the Coordinator of Special Projects with Mayor Denise Simmons. In this role I liaised with different segments of the community including the clergy and minority communities. I worked for a time after this at other city departments – when Simmons was reelected to the City Council I served as her City Council aide, and when she was reelected as Mayor in 2016 I joined her office as the Deputy Chief of Staff. Here I worked on different policy measures including an effort to unilaterally raise the minimum wage in Cambridge. It was a great experience working in the Mayor’s Office, but after a while I wanted something different and was interested in transitioning to a different role in a city department. The mayor’s office had collaborated with the Library a number of times, and I was familiar with the Library’s operations and experienced in events. I applied for a position at the Library and was promoted after a year, and I have been working in this role ever since.
Is there anything else you would like to share?
Right now I am working on two separate task forces at the Library to address issues of race and injustice, which were formed following the recent George Floyd protests by Director McCauley. With Em St. Germain I am heading a task force to come up with library programming to address racism. I am also on another Task Force addressing racism more broadly. I think these task forces present a great vehicle and opportunity to address some of issues around access, equity and inclusion which are very important to Director McCauley and to our stakeholders, and I look forward to the type of sincere and in-depth conversation and self-evaluation you would expect from a public-facing institution.
Thank you, Muna!