Rachel Gurwitz has the perfect job. She’s around books all day, every day at the Howard Early Childhood Center Library. That’s her job, but it is also her love.
Gurwitz, 53, was born in Tuscaloosa, Ala. Her family moved to San Antonio when she was in the eighth grade. It’s been her home ever since. She graduated from Churchill High School in 1982 and received a degree in marketing from UT Austin four years later. In 1988, she earned an MBA from Trinity University. Teaching was always her goal. “I told my parents when I was just a kid that I wanted to teach, I wanted to be around books.” She laughs about it now, but admits, “My folks were not thrilled.”
How not thrilled were they? “At age 5 my dad took me to the pediatrician because he thought something was wrong with me. He told the doctor that I read all the time, and he was worried I was sick. Dad wanted me to play outside more. But books were always so important to me,” she explains. Fortunately, the pediatrician told her dad not to worry. He assured him that little Rachel was OK.
Before she took over the library at Howard, Gurwitz spent time in the corporate world, first in the HR department at Saks Fifth Avenue in San Antonio and then as manager of the Tie Rack at River center Mall.
She and Jonathon Gurwitz were married in 1989. They’d been high school sweethearts and dated for nine years before their wedding. “I loved managing the Tie Rack,” she says, but when their first child, Allie, was born, she stopped working and became a full-time stay-at-home mom.
“Honestly,” she recalls, “staying at home was the hardest job I ever had.” She began substitute teaching at Howard when Allie was in the third grade. Their second child, Jordan, was in kindergarten. In 2013, Howard’s librarian retired, and the school asked Gurwitz if she’d take it over. She jumped at the chance.
People often ask her why there’s even a library at Howard. The school focuses only on pre-K and kindergarten. The answer, says Gurwitz, is simple: “A child who reads becomes a child who thinks.” And her goal is to encourage every student at Howard to embrace reading just as much as she does. Walk into the library, and it is easy to see how Gurwitz has put words into action. It’s a fun, happening space.
“There are so few bookstores these days,” she notes. Fewer and fewer children get to experience what it’s like walking into a store filled with books. So she gives Howard students that experience in the school library. “When kids walk into the library for the first time, their eyes pop. I encourage them to walk around, pick up a book and find something they think they might like,” she says.
“I still remember Miss Gibbons, my fourth-grade librarian at Rocky Ridge Elementary School in Birmingham. She let me stamp cards in the back of books and help organize books on the cart. I know Miss Gibbons would be proud of me. Thanks to her encouragement, I read every female biography in the library that year.
Gurwitz told 78209 Magazine she reads every new book that comes to the library before she puts it out. She has also increased the Howard Library’s cultural collection. “I want our books to speak to everyone’s heart. I expanded the bilingual section for our kids whose parents read Spanish, not English,” she says.
It should come as no surprise to learn Gurwitz still reads a lot for pleasure, too. “I read hardbacks,” she says, “because I prefer the feel of a real book.” For fun and relaxation, she reads fiction and admits she loves a “great story.” And, she adds, “I am endlessly searching for something along the lines of Harry Potter to love.”
Gurwitz says Howard has “embraced Race to Read.” The program’s website says it helps kids learn to love reading by using love of racing and passion for the sport to motivate with fun challenges and events. This, along with support from communities, schools and teachers, can ensure that kids have a future full of reading. [For more on Race to Read go to www.racetoread.org]. During the two-week Race to Read initiative last school year (2015-16), Howard students read more than 7,000 books.
Gurwitz has also launched reading programs like “literacy on the lawn” and “picnics on the lawn” to make reading even more fun. She explains, “A child is not a vessel to be filled, but a lamp to be lit.”
What should be obvious to anyone who spends a few minutes with Gurwitz is her enthusiasm for books and reading is contagious. Perhaps former first lady Laura Bush put it best when she said, “Libraries allow children to ask questions about the world and find the answers. And the wonderful thing is that once a child learns to use a library, the doors to learning are always open.”
Thanks to Rachel Gurwitz, those doors are always open at Howard ECC.
For more information on the Howard Early Childhood Center library go to www.howard.ahisd.net/departments/library_hecc.
By Ron Aaron Eisenberg