Sunday, April 18, 2010

Traumas at the Library Check-out Desk

I got my hot button pressed today. Had to rant and rave, take a trip down memory lane, and investigate a few rabbit trails along the way. Get a cup of coffee and settle in, this is gonna take a while.

Karen Blados blogged that her first-grade son, "The Punk," was all excited because he had checked out a "chapter book" from the library. There was a substitute librarian on duty at the time who didn't know first-graders weren't allowed to get books from the yellow section.

Well bully for him! I hope he sneaks over to the yellow section every time he's in there. I hope he can manage to tote out stacks and stacks of chapter books that are supposedly too advanced for him. Because if a kid has a burning desire to read a chapter book, he shouldn't be limited to Fuzzy Bunny's Adventures in ten pages with more pictures than words.

Yep, this is a big ol' hot button for me...The Yellow Section Restriction. Brought back a particularly hateful memory which I've never forgotten or forgiven. Trailing on its heels was another library moment as a little kid that turned out OK, and another which happened just recently. Childhood traumas are not easily forgotten it seems.

Let's start this story at the beginning, shall we? Nana, my sister, is twelve years older. She was born a teacher and I was her star pupil and teaching guinea pig. She instilled in me a love of reading. She would bring me the good stuff, Newberry Award winners like Charlotte's Web and Dr. Doolittle, and a mystery series with five kids, The Happy Hollisters. (Yes, I remember this like it was yesterday, are you impressed Nana?) I sucked them up like a sponge. Thank you Nana!

My real passion for reading started somewhere around the third grade. That's when I became too nearsighted to see the world beyond the length of my arm. I could live out my childhood adventures in the pages of books. I read everything I could get my hands on. Our house was full of books and I was free to read anything I wanted. Mother probably didn't realize I was reading Valley of the Dolls at age eleven, but it kept me out of her hair and that was fine with her.

Nana and Pris (the middle sister) brought home their worn out high school Literature books the school was replacing. From those I got my first taste of Sherlock Holmes in The Adventure of the Speckled Band. I also got bits of Pygmalion, Cheaper by the Dozen, The Ransom of Red Chief, and other great classics. I read those Lit books cover to cover at least three times.

I also discovered a cache of the complete Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew series in a dusty corner of the church basement. Every Wednesday after choir practice I'd get three and return them Sunday morning. Took me about a year to read through the whole collection.

On Saturday morning Mom did the grocery shopping. She didn't want to lug me through the grocery store so she dropped me at the library and picked me up when she finished. I had about 40 minutes to snatch up a week's worth of reading material, somewhere in the neighborhood of ten to twelve books. That would last me from Saturday to Wednesday until I got to choir practice.

Suffice it to say I was an avid reader and read well beyond my grade level. One of the first "adult" books I was allowed to buy was Shakespeare's Four Tragedies: Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, Julius Caesar, and Hamlet. (It's still in my bookcase to this day.) I was in elementary school at the time. I was looking for something a little meatier to read. I chose well. Shakespeare is a bit meaty for a grade-schooler. I remember Mom raising an eyebrow and asking if I rillyrilly wanted *that* book. I said yes. She shrugged her shoulders and paid for it which is very unlike my Mother now that I think about it. I guess she figured if I wanted to try to tackle Shakespeare it was worth the 60 cents.

So, that's my background on books and reading. Now we get to the nasty memory.

Third grade, class trip to the library. The school library is one small room. Low bookcases under the windows for Grades 1-3, tall cases on the opposite wall for Grades 4-6. Every person in the class gets to check out a book to take back to the classroom for the week. The books stay on a reading table and we can read any of them after we finish our work. I always finish early and snatch up a book. Had the whole pile read in a matter of days. By the time I reached third grade I had read most of the books in the Grade 1-3 section.

This particular library trip I'm searching in vain for fresh reading material. I realize I've either read everything at my level, or what I haven't read is below my level. I need to hurry and pick something because time is running out. I turn to the big stacks on the other side of the room. Ah ha! Big books, chapter books, books I won't finish in fifteen minutes. Fantastic! I wander over and gaze in wonderment at all the marvelous books in front of me, scanning the titles, trying to decide on just one.

Then the evil librarian catches me in The Forbidden Zone.

"Hey! You can't be over there! You have to get a book from this section!" she snarls, pointing at the low bookcases.

"But I've read all those books. They're all to simple." I reply.

"It doesn't matter. You can't have a book from over there. Pick one from over here...and hurry up about it."

So, frustrated, I walk to the low bookcases and grab whatever my hand lands on. What I really wanted to do was scream, "Look bitch, I'm slogging my way through a high school Lit book at home and you are forcing me to take Fuzzy Ducky's Bathtime? Are you crazy???" But I was only eight and didn't have adequate vocabulary at the time.

"This one. I'll take this one," handing it to her to check out for me.

"You didn't even look at it!" she says, accusing me of being a smart-ass with her glare.

"It doesn't matter. I won't read it anyway. It's too simple."

She checks it out to me, still glaring, and I'm almost in tears. I want more than anything to read, but I want a big book, one with chapters and no pictures, one that will entertain and enlighten for longer than 15 minutes. But that's forbidden just because I'm in third grade, not fourth grade.

I hated that woman from that day forward. She was the librarian, someone who is supposed to nurture and encourage a child's love for reading and books, not smash it flat with stoopid rules. I thought she should be fired. When I read her obit in the hometown paper I had a satisfied smirk for the rest of the day. Good riddance.

Fast forward a year or two. Saturday morning county library/grocery trip. I have collected my dozen or so books for the week and go to the checkout counter. I'm barely tall enough to see over the top. I set my stash on the counter along with my library card as I have done for weeks and weeks and weeks. The lady at the counter (new, not the librarian) peers over the counter at me and says, "Oh, little girl, you can't check out all these books. There's a three-book limit."

"But, but, but, I always check out this many."

"There's a limit, only three a day."

"But I'll finish three by this afternoon!" I say, my bottom lip quivering and tears welling in my eyes imagining a week with no books to read.

The new lady, who is actually very nice about it all, sees my panic and tries to explain again. I try to explain again to her.

"But, but, but, I get this many every week. I always get this many. Look at my card!"

By this time Miss Baker, the librarian, steps out from the office to see about the commotion. (Yes, at our quiet little county library this would be considered a commotion.) The nice lady explains to her, pointing at my mountain of books, that I'm over the limit.

Miss Baker is something like second cousin once removed to my father and is approaching a hunnert years old. She is the quintessential old-maid librarian who has devoted her entire life to books, the library, and her library patrons. She has checked me out every Saturday for most of my life and has never batted an eye at my carnivorous reading habit. That's why I was clueless about the three-book limit.

Miss Baker adjusts her bi-focals (complete with the little chain that clips on the earpieces and goes around her neck, draping across the shoulders of her ancient cardigan) and peers over the counter at me. Then she smiles a little smile. She turns to the nice lady and says, "It's OK, I know her. She can check out all she wants."

Tears of joy, tears of relief. I got my books but not without some much remembered trauma. I sniffled all the way home.

Fast forward lots and lots of decades to a year ago. I'm at the community college library checking out four art and drawing books.

Nice lady at the counter says, "I'm sorry, but there's a three-book limit."

Just for an instant I am that little girl at the county library again and I get an adrenalin rush of panic. My eyes moisten in an involuntary reaction. My lower lip runs out just a smidge. The library check-out trauma I had as a child has bubbled once again to the surface. Somebody with stoopid rules is trying to restrict my access to books. I know kindly old Miss Baker will not be here to rescue me this time.

But I relax when I realize I'm a big girl now. The three-book limit is not a problem. I probably won't finish three before the due date anyway. I can come back and get more books any time I want. I have a car and can drive myself. Life is good.

I think about Miss Baker as I hand over one to go back to the stacks. Kids need more librarians like her, somebody who understands that just because you are little it doesn't mean your brain is; somebody who understands that sometimes three books just ain't enough, and that they need to have more words than pictures.

Maybe The Punk found his Miss Baker today in the substitute librarian when she let him check out his chapter book from the yellow section. I hope so.