Stories for young children abound on the shelves of the Southern Pines Primary media center, but a very long and remarkable chapter in the story of the library itself has come to a close.
For 16 years, Diann Fortune and Mary Jane Leck have read stories aloud to rapt audiences, thrown celebrations each time Dr. Seuss’ birthday rolls around, and trawled the interests of the toughest customers to find just the right book.
On paper, Fortune was the qualified teacher in charge of what went on in the school library. But that’s only the way things worked out when it came to their joint decision to retire in November.
“We’ve both been talking about it awhile, and last year Mary Jane said: ‘I’m going to stay as long as you stay,’” Fortune recalled. “Then, after some particular classes, she started asking when we were going to retire.”
Fortune came to Southern Pines Primary as the media coordinator in 2002. Leck was originally hired as Southern Pines Primary’s part-time media assistant in 1987, back when it was still a K-5 school — and had the luxury of such abundant staffing. It wasn’t long before Leck received an award for a project focused on fourth- and fifth-grade literacy.
Though her job went away with the older students a few years later, Leck didn’t skip a beat in showing up at school every morning. As a volunteer, she’s been such an institution that when Principal Tonya Wagner first started work she assumed Leck was still a paid staff member. In 2016, she was selected among nominees from all 23 schools as Moore County Schools’ Volunteer of the Year.
In between, Leck has “raised” the four librarians who have come and gone. That includes Fortune, who described Leck as a steadfast source of light every day.
“She makes me smile, she cheers me up, she keeps me going, she says ‘Diann, that’s enough, stop. She has a sweet way of going about it, but what I’ve learned over the last 16 years is that you do not argue with Mary Jane. She will win, but it’s always to our benefit,” Fortune said.
“She has turned so many kids onto reading. She finds just the right book for them, she knows every book in this entire collection. She has changed their lives forever.”
Leck’s last official duty was seeing students onto their homebound buses on Thursday. After that, she asked the teachers and staff gathered in the media center to wish her and Fortune well to keep sending students home with an “I love you.”
“It might be the only ‘I love you,’ as Mrs. Blanchie Carter told me years ago, they get until the next day when they come back to get on the bus again,” she said.
“That’s very important to these children … hopefully they’ll go to college one day and they’ll see that the world is like every one of you told them it would be: if you make the right choices, you can have great things.”
Fortune, too, will miss her colleagues almost as much as the students.
“They are next door to angels,” she said. “I’ve seen them perform miracles every day with some of our more memorable children.”
Fortune grew up in Moore County the daughter of a teacher and remembers learning to read as something of a struggle. But looking back, she figures she was born to be a librarian.
“Once I got turned onto reading and books, that’s all I wanted to do,” she said. “When I got home, I didn’t play school; I played librarian. All of my books had masking tape spine labels on them, andI had my own little card file there at home.”
Fortune spent the first 10 years of her career teaching at the now-closed Academy Heights Elementary before moving into the media coordinator’s job at Sandhills Farm Life — where she attended elementary through eighth grade herself.
At first, she was surprised by the scope of her new job. When the schools fully integrated computers into classrooms, she was called on frequently to help teachers figure out how best to use them.
“From the outside looking in, it’s reading books to children and shelving books,” she said. “That is so not it.”
A lot of the extra — from “reading adventures” that have students in the library at 7 a.m. sharp exchanging books to the time she put up a world map in the front hallway and posted to it cards from service members stationed around the globe — has been the product of Fortune’s limitless ingenuity.
“She has a very creative mind; it’s amazing what she comes up with,” Leck said. “She can look at a box and see a thousand things to do with it.”
On occasion, Fortune has wished that she could keep the same group of students all day rather than handing them back to their classroom teachers at the end of their session. With some students it takes a bit of badgering to figure out what book will pique their interest, but success makes it all worthwhile.
“When you’re reading a story to them and they’re sitting there with their eyes big and they’re completely engrossed, it warms your heart,” she said. “When they ask questions, ‘what does that word mean?’ then you know you’ve got them and they’ll take something back.”
These days, many students might spend as much time holding a tablet or smartphone as they do a storybook. While information can be found online, reading with children opens another world of connection and understanding.
“Children and they are hungry to talk about books and share what they enjoy and what they find interesting. You can’t do that with an iPad,” said Fortune.
“It’s sitting down one-on-one with a child, reading and discussing books that builds the relationship. That’s when parents can teach their family values, that’s when we can talk about situations and choices. It’s a learning experience for them in many different ways. It’s how we teach humanity.”