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Rockford middle school students share their stories at 'Human Library'

Aaden Jones will never forget October 14th. It was the day he got called to the dinner table for an important family meeting. Like any kid, he instinctively thought he was in trouble.

“I had no clue what it was," Jones said. "I was sweating. But I was presented with a paper I did not know what was going on. But my dad told me, in a nutshell, that I'm going down to the courthouse and he's gonna be my new dad. I was so excited. I did not know what an adoption paper was or how it worked or what a dad was. I went down to the courthouse, got the paper signed and officially changed my last name to Jones. To this day, I celebrate October 14 with my dad as an extra holiday as my adoption day.”

Jones is an 8th-grade student at Flinn Middle School in Rockford. He was one of 35 middle schoolers who volunteered to be part of the Human Library; to share a story that in some way -- good or bad -- has defined their life.

Aubrey Barnett helped organize the event. She’s a language arts teacher at Flinn and says the Human Library is a reminder not to judge a book by its cover.

They invited community leaders including the mayor, state representatives and school district administrators to hear from the students.

“We really wanted this to be a chance for adults to listen to kids,” she said. “So much of what's out there in the world says numbers don't change people's minds. It's that human story that somehow leaves these people with a memory. So, we hope the people leaving tonight will remember these students, especially because they're civil servants and we want them to do what's best for our kids.”

The Flinn Middle School students sat in small semicircles around the gymnasium as guests moved from story to story. Barnett says some are traumatic, like talking about the death of a family member during the pandemic.

“And then we have really fun things like getting puppies or your sibling being born,” said the teacher. “So, it's a really wide range of human experience.”

She says guests are invited to listen, compassionately respond to the stories, while respecting the students’ boundaries -- and to thank them for sharing.

“It's not about just hearing people's stories," said Barnett. "But it's about changing your mind and coming to a new understanding through empathy,”

The Human Library started in Denmark back in 2000. Since then, they’ve been held at schools and local organizations around the world.

This is the second year they’ve done the project at Flinn. Barnett says student participation tripled this year. Her students have been writing and refining their narratives throughout the first quarter of the year.

Jamaree’a is another 8th-grade student at Flinn who volunteered.

“As we began to bite on our nails and chew on our lips, in our head, we knew we weren't ready," she said. "We all had on dark blue Flinn uniforms, black Nike shorts and spikes with no socks."

Her story is about Track & Field. Last year, her team sprinted their way to the state finals in the 4x100 relay.

“We started off so good until we got to our fourth leg. Our fourth leg fell, and we were in second-to-last place,” said Jamaree’a. “We were all yelling at her ‘Get up!’ ‘Get up!’”

They lost. At first, the team was mad, and looking to blame each other.

“Then we started walking to our team as they were jumping up and telling us how good we were, how we made it this far," she said, "and how it doesn't matter if we got first or even placed."

Her teammates had her back. They, like the library asks, responded with empathy and understanding.

It’s something she’s reflected on a lot over the past year. And all of the students will now have the chance to reflect on how they feel being part of the Human Library.

Many of them were nervous to share. Barnett says it’s difficult to prepare students because, while they can assure them it’s a judgment-free zone, you can’t script the interactions. They don’t know how people will react. But, now that it’s over, they can support the students and celebrate how affirming it can feel to share your story. And Barnett said -- if it’s anything like last year -- she expects it’ll create a buzz of excitement that drives even more students to want to be part of the Human Library next year.

Peter joins WNIJ as a graduate of North Central College. He is a native of Sandwich, Illinois.