Wednesday, March 19, 2014
The Awkward Adolescent and the Perpetually Grumpy Librarians: A Cautionary Tale by Braden Bell
I need to preface this by noting that I was possibly the least functional adolescent in the world. Seriously. I didn't have a whole lot going for me (good and loving parents, but that's another story). I wasn't good at school, I wasn't good at sports. I was shy and insecure. I lost things, procrastinated, and was just generally a train-wreck in a pudgy body.
While not actively bullied, I didn't have many friends. I did poorly in school because I never did homework, and because of that, I was often in trouble at home. We didn't know about ADD back then, but I'm quite sure I have it, and that didn't help matters.
I'm not trying to wallow in self-pity. Being a mess during adolescence is the common lot of humanity, and the longer I teach, the more I see that. But in my mind, those were dark times, and I need to establish that to tell the rest of the story.
I had one great joy and solace during these awkward years, and that was the library in my small town. I read voraciously and perpetually. During the summers, I would walk to the library a few times a week, spending hours and hours there, lost among the stacks. I'd check out as many books as my pre-pubescent, unmuscular arms could carry, then I'd return home and happily lose myself once again.
However, being as forgetful, disorganized, and careless as I was, I soon ran afoul of the librarians. Somehow items always got overdue or lost--I didn't know how. It all seemed rather mysterious to me. Nevertheless, my book fines multiplied with rabbit-like speed. Pretty soon, the library staff all knew me by name and, frankly, didn't care for me. I often found myself at the counter, ready to check out a new stack, only to be told I had a hold on my account because of my fines. (To this day, I have sympathy for those people who try to buy food at the store and find out their credit cards are overdrawn). I found myself doing chores around the house to earn enough money to pay down my fines to the level that would still allow me to check books out again.
This went on for a while, and while the librarians were proper and polite, I could tell how much they didn't like me, and I soon felt unwelcome.
I'll admit that I was at fault: you shouldn't lose books (or original cast album cassette tapes of Camelot--I still remember the tongue lashing that got me from the head librarian). Library patrons ought to be responsible, pay their fines, not be late with checked out items, and so on. I'm sure that I was very frustrating to those librarians.
But then I start thinking, wait a minute! Yes, I was annoying and frustrating. But I was also a kid! For crying out loud, for what purpose do libraries exist? If that chubby little kid--the one with no friends and no fashion sense, who fails at nearly everything but loves to read--if he can't come to the library where can he go? Were none of these librarians ever young and foolish? Did they never make mistakes?
Surely it must have been apparent that this sloppy mess of a kid could have used a little kindness. The fact that I didn't deserve it means that I needed it more than ever.
After a few unpleasant years of cold silence, narrow eyes, and occasional chewings-out, a new librarian came from a different branch. She always smiled and welcomed me by name. She didn't act put out when I made enormous numbers of Inter-library loan requests. Back then, it was a cumbersome process. She'd always help with whatever I needed without sighing or tightening her lips, and when she told me I had fines, it was in a matter-of-fact way--she didn't shame or guilt me. Fines seemed to be a routine matter, not a cardinal sin. She would ask me questions about my life, about books, and then acted like my answers were clever. This woman was simply kind and helpful. That was all. In each interaction, she treated me like a valued patron. I still remember how kind she was and how she made me feel.
The story ends happily. In high school, I found a niche, found motivation, and friends. Life went on and got much better. Ironically, one of the friends I made was--wait for it--the daughter of that librarian. I was so surprised when I put that together. She proved to be as warm at home as she was at the library. I wonder if she has any idea what a difference she made.
So, where am I going with this post? Many who read this blog work with kids. Teachers, librarians, writers, parents. In different ways and contexts, we are around those kids each day. And when you think about it, they are really the reason we exist.
I think that's the main thing that the librarians of my childhood forgot. I think they saw their job as safeguarding the treasures on those shelves from the entropy that seemed to swirl around me. That's not a bad thing. Guarding those priceless treasures is important--especially in the pre-digital age. And no doubt, they were overworked and underpaid.
But I think they were mistaken. Their job was not to guard the books from me. Their job was to help me navigate those treasures. Their job was to help me take the natural love I had and turn it into a passion, to point me in new directions I wouldn't find on my own. They could have taught me how to be responsible and careful too. And if more of them had taken time to show a little kindness, who knows what else they could have taught me?
My plea for all of us is to look around and look for that awkward, lonely little kid. The one who needs love precisely because he or she is so unloveable. The one who needs attention and kindness from us because no one else will provide it. We can write books for this child. We can teach and mentor and love this child! We can be a little bright spot of kindness in an otherwise bleak time. And we can help them discover and relish the infinite treasures contained in books.
My plea is to remember that we exist for that child--and not vice versa. I know I'm preaching to the choir, but I still think it is a sermon worth giving. If only for my own benefit.