I’m reposting a story I wrote for International Literacy day a few years ago, which was September 8, this year. I didn’t get a chance to post it then because I was involved in a writer’s workshop, which is one of the wonderful places that literacy leads you. Once you realize the beauty and power of words, how can you resist writing your own story? I read an article recently that talked about how readers develop a stronger sense of empathy, fiction readers in particular. I’ve always thought reading fiction and poetry was the best and most accurate way of gaining the perspective of someone completely different than myself. It’s like living in someone else’s head.
International Literacy Day is a cause that’s very close to my heart because I know that if I hadn’t learned to read, I probably wouldn’t be alive right now. Just about everything I know, I learned at the library.
The following story was written for a performance at the Central Library in 2010. I got to tell a 5 minute story. In my enthusiasm for the subject, I wrote a 20 minute story and had to edit edit edit. I think it’s a good idea to edit, but sometimes I just like to take my time, go off on tangents and be discursive and inclusive, so here is the long version of that story. I hope you enjoy it! And if you find yourself hankering for something more — visit the library where a whole worlds are available in neatly bound books.
Love at the Library
The library has always been my favorite place, ever since first grade. My interest in books came before I can remember. It was kind of an odd way of learning to love them:
My earliest exposure to books was through punishment. My father had two children’s books. One was a book about all the terrible fates awaiting bad children. I hated that book. The pictures were graphic and awful – the girl who cried too much had her eyes fall out, the boy wouldn’t stop sliding down the stair banister came completely apart and his head, arms and legs went flying off his fat torso. Spoiled children who played with matches, didn’t eat their vegetables or didn’t comb their hair had all kinds of terrible things happen to them. We knew we’d been bad anytime my father came armed with that book.
The other children’s book was Indian Tales for Little Folks by El Comancho. I liked it much better, although I didn’t get to hear the stories as often. It had some pretty scary pictures, too. But they were about animals and Indians, not bad children. Mysterious words and symbols sparked my imagination almost as much as the great pictures.
Both of these books were antiques and we kids were not to touch them. They were old and fragile and we were young and wild. My father kept them tucked away in his room. If I had only ever seen the book on bad children, I wouldn’t have cared. But just as soon as my father went to work, I would sneak into his room and find the Indian Tales. I also discovered he had a collection of world travel and art books. So while my brothers and sisters were out playing, I was squirreled away with picture books making up stories about them.
I was so happy when I got to school and learned to read. For one thing, I got introduced to a lot more books, and even though Jane, Dick and Spot seemed rather unadventurous to me, I used what I learned to decipher the much more exciting tales in Indian Tales. I was delightfully surprised that El Comancho told much better stories than me. See, I thought this guy was kissing the boo-boos of the animals, and the real story is that he’s a god and breathing life into all the animals in the world, animals he created from clay.
After I learned to read, I found the world was full of places where people did marvelous things like build pyramids and sky scrapers, worshiped all kinds of cool gods, wore beautiful exotic clothes, looked different, ate different food and had different languages. But they all told stories.
My parents were not really suited for each other and by the time I was reading really well, they were fighting a lot. I was a little bit unhinged by it all and never quite figured out how to play well with others. I was shy and nerdy and loved school. Something about the order of it all made me feel secure. And at school, you could spend time in the library where there were so many books you could never possibly read them all. I was not a speed reader, I read slowly but I loved it. And there were oh so many picture books where the world was bright and beautiful, fluid and often funny. I was never lonely; I always had stacks of books as my friends.
Well, time went by and I started reading books with fewer and fewer pictures. Also, my mother and father divorced and we went from being poor to being very poor. The way my mother dealt with it was to move us around a lot. She always believed there was a neighborhood where rent was cheaper and she’d find a good job.
Where ever we moved, I always tried to find the library as soon as possible. No matter how little money we had, I could always get a stack of great books at the library for nothing. And when I read them, I could take them back and get a whole new stack.
Unfortunately, the same wasn’t true of clothes and other necessities of life. The summer when I was about 12, money was particularly tight. We lived in a ratty little boarding house in Macon, Georgia. The library closest to where I lived was an idyllic little spot close to a park. It was in a grand white building that had a marble entry way and big Greek columns. You entered on a hot summer day and the first thing you noticed was the cool air conditioning. Then you saw all the big wooden tables for spreading out your books. And there were thousands to choose from.
I usually headed straight toward the series books for middle readers and grabbed one of the Black Stallion books by Walter Farley. I was in love with Black, the beautiful wild Stallion and his children, and Alec his tender but driven owner. I also had a huge crush on Chris, the teenage boy who was volunteering in the Young Adult section. I believed we were destined ride off into the sunset together, in that way only a twelve year old girl in love can imagine.
I always went to his check-out when he was there, but he was only there part time and I was there almost every day the library was open. When I finished reading every book in the series, I started it over again. I loved the world Farley created, there were adventures but all the problems in the novels were clearly answered and the most complex characters were the horses. I sometimes read most of the volume right in the library and Chris would always make some comment about what a fast reader I was. It thrilled me pink and he laughed at my blush.
“You want a horse when you grow up, Curly Top?”
I hated that he asked me that way because I thought I was already grown – I was in the young adult section. And my name was not Curly Top! But I just giggled, “Oh, yes.”
I always wore my best shirt and jeans to the library. That shirt was the only really nice one I had. It was a white and lacy with a bit of frill around the buttons, cuffs and neckline. It had pearlized buttons. I loved it, wore it every day and washed it every night.
On the days Chris wasn’t there, I went back to the children’s picture book section and feasted on the art and stories. The children’s librarian there was a lady named Sarah, who insisted everyone call her by her first name. She was a tall thin Black woman with a short Afro that had a shock of gray hair right around the edges of her face, as if she were framed in silver. She was always very friendly and always called me by my name, not Curly Top. She showed me the new books, and since she knew that I like horses, she made sure I saw the ones on how to care for horses, on horse legends and myths.
One day, I was feeling especially despondent that Chris kept calling me Curly Top and told her I wished I could have hair like a horse’s mane, or even better, like Cher. She very kindly took me into the restroom and took out a little hair oil and brushed it through my wild, humidity shocked mess and turned it into a civilized, wavy hairdo. “You have pretty hair. It just needs a little attention. You’d be surprised how much a little attention to things will make all the difference.”
There were a lot of very poor kids in the neighborhood and I’m sure I wasn’t the first child Sarah had to give a few grooming tips to. She was very diplomatic and always subtly stressed intelligence over looks.
After that she put me in charge of feeding the library fish. She showed me all the books on caring for fish and all kinds of weird animals like iguanas, snakes and emus.
About that time, the book Black Stallion’s Ghost came in. I’d been waiting for it for a long time and was thrilled to be the first one in the library to check it out.
It was not the same as the other Black Stallion books. There was a scary sequence of events and a curse that I wasn’t quite sure was real. My mother and her latest boyfriend were having a fight and I was ignoring them by reading through dinner. I was engrossed in the Florida Everglades when Mr. Momma’s Boyfriend slammed his hands down on our flimsy kitchen table to make a point, and my beans and rice bounced up and landed right on my belly–on my beautiful white shirt.
This particular dish of beans and rice was seasoned with neck bones and tomato sauce. It was pretty awful and awfully greasy. I screamed out my very first dirty word. My mother and her boyfriend were shocked, then burst out laughing. I was furious and ran into the bathroom and began scrubbing my shirt with our little sliver of bath soap. It took an hour and it seemed like I got it clean. I continued reading. I began to see the themes in the book on a deeper level. I felt I had grown. I thought of something really grown-up to say to Chris at the library. I didn’t sleep much.
When it was morning, even though I was groggy and red eyed from lack of sleep, I saw that my shirt had dried with a big globular brown splotch on the front. I was devastated. The only other shirts I had were t-shirts in various states of decay. I scrubbed my beautiful shirt again. And again. And again. I scrubbed it till a little hole opened up where my belly button show. I think I said my second dirty word.
I knew Chris was going to be at the library from 11 till 2 and I HAD to get there to turn in the book to him and tell him about how the ghost represented two things, real fears and imaginary fears. I knew he would be astounded and ask me what I meant and he’d never call me Curly Top again. He’d probably ask me for a date and I’d say, “After you read this book.” I’d be so cool.
The shirt was still damp and stained when it was time to go the library, but I thought it was the best looking of all my shirts. I decided if I held the book against my shirt just so, he’d never see the stain, only the pretty cuffs and neck line and pearl buttons. I put it on and dashed away to the library.
It didn’t occur to me that when I turned in the book I’d expose myself, stain, hole and all. It didn’t occur to me until I placed the book on his counter and pronounced “This is the most mature book Walter Farley has ever written.” And that boy laughed out loud.
“Good Lord, Curly Top, who you been fighting today? I’d hate to see the other girl, or did you beat up some poor boy?” He could have stopped right there, but there was a gaggle of teenagers around and they laughed so he just had to go on. “Don’t you have another shirt? You wear that old raggedy thing everyday. You’d be pretty cute if you’d change your clothes once in a while.”
I turned pink, then red then ran out of the library.
I got all the way to the edge of the park before I collapsed into tears. It didn’t take me long to realize that I was going to have to blow my nose, and I didn’t have a Kleenex. I was going to have to blow on my shirt. My favorite shirt. My favorite stupid raggedy shirt. I was just getting ready to blow, when a Kleenex appeared before my eyes.
I took the offered gift and blew. I knew I would have to explain everything, my tears, my shirt — and no I didn’t have another one — and my whole miserable life. I took a deep breath but before I could get out word one, Sarah said. “I think you forgot it’s your day to feed the fish.”
“I didn’t forget,” I sniffed. “I’ll do it after Chris leaves. He…”
“He’s a trifling little fool is what he is. You know he can’t even understand the Dewey decimal system? I have to write out where the books go every time. I swear that boy needs a map to find his own head. I’m glad we’ve got smart girls like you coming in to help with the fish. If he had to feed them, they’d all be fish sticks by now. He’s just jealous because you’re smarter than he’ll ever be. And those fish are hungry now. They’ve been asking for you.”
I rolled my eyes. “Fish can’t talk.”
“I didn’t say they talked. They just keep coming to the front of the aquarium and looking. You should have seen them light up when you walked in. Now they’re all depressed and sulking down by the sunken treasure chest.”
“You don’t believe me? Why don’t you come see for yourself.” She took another Kleenex out of her pocket and wiped my face and stroked my hair. “You look real sweet today.”
I followed her back in the library and as I did I told her about the Black Stallion’s Ghost. She said she thought the same thing when she read it. She got me a book of African American Myths and Legends. “Tell me what you think about these stories.”
She never said word one about my shirt. It just wasn’t as important to her as what was going on in my mind.
The rest of the summer I stayed in the children’s library and Sarah always had some magical mythical book for me to read and would always ask me what they meant to me. I read tales from exotic places like Brazil, Mexico, Japan, China and even far away Canada. I felt like a librarian by the end of the summer.
The first Saturday after my first week in 7th grade, I went to the library in my brand new back-to-school clothes and that boy was there.
He said, “Hey Curly Top, looking sharp.” But I had no time to talk to him, I had to show Sarah my reading list and all the grown up books I’d get to read. She didn’t say anything about my clothes. She said, “I want you to come here every Saturday and tell me what you think of each one of those books.”
Unfortunately, right after that, we had to move again. I used to feel really bad that my mom didn’t give me a chance to say good-bye to Sarah. However, when my momma got it in her head it was time to move, she just packed us all up and we were gone. Now that I’m older and a life-long reader, I know it wasn’t as important to say good-bye to Sarah as it was to spend the time there with her in first place.
Like so many librarians, she was there to help out kids when she could and encourage the love of books. And her help stayed with me all my life. Just like the stories stayed with me, the words I read, the meaning I found. The meaning I find in every book remains with me. And the librarian’s spirit stays with me so that no matter how poor I am or what troubles I have, I know there are books at the library to help me, delight me and make every day an adventure.
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