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At Oneida Middle School, comics open door to reading

At Oneida Middle School, comics open door to reading

About 120 students have signed up
At Oneida Middle School, comics open door to reading
Oneida Middle School students in the comic book library.
Photographer: MARC SCHULTZ

Oneida Middle School eighth-grader Doresh Khemraj likes his classic superhero comics: Superman, Spiderman and, when asked who his favorite is, he doesn’t have to think.

“Batman,” 13-year-old Doresh said as he walked over to a bin full of the caped crusader’s classic tales. “I like the stories and how he fights and saves the day.”

“Wow, there’s Batman?” seventh-grader Rejena Murtagh asked from across a handful of long art tables covered in comics from all genres and eras. “Where’s Batman?” she said in a deep, faux-menacing Gotham voice.  

Rejena worked her way over to the Batman comics and started riffling through the collection – a handful of titles in a sea of classic comics, off-beat series, graphic novels and other stories at the Oneida Comic Book Library, which opened in late-January. “I love Batman,” she told Walt Mahoski, Oneida art teacher and keeper of the comics.

“My great-grandfather used to collect comic books; he’s got a garage full of them,” Rejena said, earning Mahoski’s interest. “He’s 94.”

“He’s probably got some good stuff in there,” said Mahoski, who has taught in Schenectady for nearly 30 years and moved from Van Corlaer Elementary to Oneida at the start of the school year.

“He’s got like 14,000 of them,” Rejena said.

“Ohhh, I want to get in his garage,” Mahoski said.

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For nearly a decade, Mahoski has been scouring Craigslist, garage sales and other sources for comic book collections up for sale. When he finds a collection, he sends a note to the seller: "Good luck selling your comics, but if the cash doesn’t flow in, consider donating to a school comic library I have." Often, he scores a donation, and his own collection, which he shares with his students, is up to around 8,000 titles.

“They like to know they are getting read,” Mahoski said of the collectors-turned-donors he has connected with.

But his comic devotion dates to his childhood, when a love for comics sparked a love for reading. He still has the Mighty Thor comic that launched his passion at home and strewn about the library are some of the comics – the exact copies – that he read as a kid.

“I was a terrible reader,” he said. “My mom dropped a bunch of comic books in my lap, and that was that, I was hooked.”

That’s exactly what he hopes happens for the Oneida students.

“There’s some kind of alchemy, with the stories, the color, the layout, the panels and word bubbles,” Mahoski said. “There’s something about it that hooks people, not just kids.”

There are around 6,000 comics, graphic novels and other books in the library, which sits on tables and desks in the back corner of Mahoski’s third-floor art room. About 120 students have signed up for the library, giving them the right to drop in, pick up a book or comic – or multiples books and comics – and take it home. Each student registered to participate – Mahoski said the library could probably handle 100 more students – has a card with their name that they record books checked in and out. Just like an old library card. Doresh has already checked out 30 or 40 books since the library opened. As of Thursday morning, there were 140 comic books checked out from the library.

“It’s pretty much an honor system,” Mahoski said. “They check them out and check them back in.”  

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The students enjoy the wide selection and some find themselves moving from comic books to novelized versions or the other direction, expanding their reading choice and interests.

“His books are so fun to read,” said 13-year-old Morgan Villano, an eighth-grader. “You go to the real library and you can’t find a good horror book; here you can find it.”

The library also makes for an easy transition to class projects. Mahoski has his students working on hero characters, raising discussions about what makes a  hero and what kinds of powers superheroes have and could have.   

Morgan’s character was a hero for good but had design elements that would suggest villainous traits t0o, an homage to many of the superheroes of the Marvel cannon and more – just like Iron Man, she said.

But the most important goal is to get the students interested in reading – to get them reading. And Mahoski said he doesn’t want it to become a resource or idea overused by teachers across the school, hoping it retains its independence in the minds of students. Some students, after all, lose interest in something the second it becomes part of a school assignment.  

“The whole idea is simple here: provide something they want to read and they’ll read without being told to,” Mahoski said. “It’s all about reading. As a teacher, you can’t do anything better than help a kid become an avid reader.”

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