“I know that a virtual graduation is less than ideal, and the state of the world beyond Lea Elementary School may have us all on edge and in fear of what the future may bring.”
At the end of a tempestuous final semester, the graduating eighth grade class of Henry Charles Lea Elementary School were counseled by their commencement speaker: Ancil George, Penn Libraries’ retired Community Outreach Librarian, who has served as Lea’s librarian for the last six years.
“You, my graduates, are resilient,” George assured the virtual gathering of Lea students. “Your life experiences, your family and cultural heritage, and your education have made you very resilient.”
An immigrant himself, George reminded Lea’s Class of 2020 that “no matter how you or your people arrived in this country, you, along with our nation’s original inhabitants, belong here. The diversity that you and your family bring to our country makes the United States a much better place.”
We spoke with George about his own transition to the United States, his life as a librarian, and his connection to Lea Elementary.
George was born in Trinidad and Tobago in 1948. His mother, a nurse by training, was recruited in the ‘60s by the U.S. government to work at a hospital in New York City. George came to visit her on vacation five days before his twenty-first birthday — November 5, 1969. “By November 20, she had me working at the Liberty Mutual Insurance Company in Brooklyn,” George laughs.
Fate maneuvered quickly. Unbeknownst to him, several of George’s friends arranged for him to meet Ambrose Davis, a recruiting officer at Penn. George boarded a train with them, supposedly heading to dinner in another neighborhood. “I thought Philadelphia was a borough, actually,” says George. “The Bronx, Queens, Philadelphia — sure, it’s all in New York.”
Davis was so impressed with George’s transcript that he paid for George’s application fee and helped secure him an interview for a job on campus. Two weeks later, George received a letter from the Libraries offering him a position as a stack attendant on the same day that he received a letter of admission from the University.
When he went to resign from his short-lived job at Liberty Mutual, his supervisor explained what it meant that Penn was an “Ivy League” school. “I went home and told my mother, ‘Mom, I’m going to be flunking out of Penn and coming back to New York pretty quickly,’” George recalls. “She told me, ‘It doesn’t matter, as long as you do your best. If you do your best and fail, that’s fine.’”
George successfully earned his Bachelor’s in Sociology and — under the mentorship of then-Associate Director of Libraries Joan Gotwals — went on to earn his Master’s in Library and Information Science from Drexel while working full-time at the Penn Libraries. He finished his MLIS and continued his career at Penn.
Fast forward four decades. In 2014, George began to consider retirement. He announced his intention to then-Director of Libraries H. Carton Rogers, to which Rogers replied, “Not on my watch.”
At that time, the School District of Philadelphia had undergone drastic budget cuts and, as a consequence, had reduced its city-wide staff of 220 librarians down to half a dozen. Rogers offered to create a position whereby George could work in a nearby public school — namely, Henry Charles Lea Elementary — to revitalize and run its library.
“Carton had no idea that working at Lea was what I had planned to do in retirement anyway,” says George. “Of course, I accepted. I knew that starting a Community Outreach program through Penn would allow us to accomplish much more at Lea than I could have ever done myself.” He designed the program to incorporate student workers — many of them first-generation students from low-income households — and a diversity of Penn Libraries staff.
George emphasizes that the Penn Libraries’ Community Outreach serves not only the Philadelphia community, but the Penn community as well. “The elementary students can look at the Penn student workers and see possibilities, and the Penn student workers get to make a difference in communities that resemble the ones in which they grew up.”
The program began with Lea and has, to date, expanded to include over twenty schools throughout the School District of Philadelphia. Although George officially retired last year, he still works closely with current Community Engagement Librarian Gina Pambianchi — albeit as a volunteer — as the program continues to grow and evolve.
George’s years of service to Lea Elementary will soon be officially commemorated: the library that Ancil George worked to revitalize is to be named in his honor.
George attributes his long and fortuitous career to “the kindness of people.” “I have just been given so much,” he says. “My work at Lea, for example, has probably changed my life even more than the lives of the students.”
Below is the full text of George’s commencement speech, delivered virtually on June 12, 2020.
Graduating eighth graders of the Henry Charles Lea Elementary School:
Congratulations on this milestone! As scholars, your academic achievements allow you to call yourselves graduates. But your achievements go way beyond the diploma.
As a student at Lea Elementary School, you interacted with teachers, families, and other students who speak 14 different languages and come from 22 different countries. This rich diversity of languages, cultures, religion, and — of course — food, enriches your education and should make all of you proud.
Much like my single mother a long time ago, many Lea families have made the difficult decision to leave their friends and family members behind in their birth countries so that they could create a better life for you here in the United States. This is a sacrifice that you should not take for granted, but should also help you understand the amount of love that has been bestowed on you.
Remember that no matter how you or your people arrived in this country, you, along with our nation’s original inhabitants, belong here. The diversity that you and your family bring to our country makes the United States a much better place.
And right now, in the midst of a devastating pandemic and in the face of tragic racial injustice, our country needs to be a better place — a much better place. The education that you received here at Lea is a foundation you can build on in high school and beyond to continue learning and making our country, and our world, a better place.
Keep in mind that one of the things that no one can take away from you is a good education. Hold onto it and grow it. And hold onto each other as you leave Lea. Support each other in difficult times, and celebrate each other as you continue your journeys.
Today’s celebration is by no means ordinary. Thanks to the hard work of your principal, teachers, and families, you have been able to make difficult and dramatic changes that have allowed you to continue your education at home.
I know that a virtual graduation is less than ideal, and the state of the world beyond Lea Elementary School may have us all on edge and in fear of what the future may bring. But you, my graduates, are resilient. Your life experiences, your family and cultural heritage, and your education have made you very resilient.
Completing the first academic chapter of your book is a milestone I am delighted to share with you and your families. I am so excited for you to write your next chapter. A blank page can be daunting, but you have what it takes to write an autobiography that we can all be proud of. So start writing!