As long as I can remember there were books. In the beginning, picture books alphabet books and pop up books. Much later (High School and University) textbooks, encyclopedias and dictionaries. However, in between these vastly differing spaces of time, reside the most important books and reading of my life. So let’s back up a little…
One Monday morning, our first grade class, made its way, in single file, to the second floor of our elementary school. We were there to attend, what would become, our weekly library period. The pod dedicated to said library was covered in blue carpeting. There were three elongated steps with colorful pillows for children to sit on. On the final step there was a mini bookcase running along the entire length of back wall and it was packed with toys and puzzles and stuffed animals. Directly in front of this area, at the base of the stairs, was a rocking chair and behind that, rows and rows of wooden shelves filled with books of all sizes and colors. In the farthest corner of the room there was an area dedicated to maps and illustrations.
On that first day, we were told to choose a pillow and to sit down and remain quiet while waiting for the school librarian, who would be reading to us that day.
That is how I met Mr. B.
Were I to observe and describe him today, I would see a man of thirty something with brown hair brown eyes, of average weight and height, with no distinguishing physical features and a subdued sense of style. If I were to dig further, I would discover a calm, kind and dependable librarian, with a degree in pedagogy, who was a voracious reader and extremely good at his job and in his interactions with children of all ages.
What my six year old self saw (after a few lessons) was someone with the super power of being able to correctly guess what type of book you would enjoy reading, just by looking at you. I saw someone who knew everything. If you wanted to find out about the Milky Way or why penguins didn’t fly… well, Mr. B. could tell you straight out, or always knew where to find the answer. I also saw someone who always spoke in a kind way, even if you asked a stupid question. “All questions are good questions” he would say, or “Let’s find out together.” And he never made fun of you if you had a stutter like Tony or were too shy to speak like Kathy or, in my case, if you were an especially thin girl with buck teeth and unruly hair who asked lots of questions.
Reading a book as a child becomes part of you like no other reading
This soft spoken man is largely responsible for getting me and a good portion of the class through our years of growing pains. Instead of only remembering awkwardness and discomfort, I remember years brimming with discovery and learning. Every book I read was like a morsel of nutritious food for my hungry and needy brain. Through Mr. B’s suggested readings, I met protagonists that were scared yet found the courage to go on, I ventured onto islands and mountaintops, castles and huts, met young people who shared my same thoughts shame and confusion, others who had to stand up to bullies in the schoolyard and still others who had to face and figure out what it meant to die.
This period of intense and varied reading informed my future ideas about power, empathy, belonging and so much more. I dipped into my memory pool for years, when I needed to fly away or was cowering in a corner feeling vulnerable.
You were never alone as long as you could read
You were never alone as long as you could read. Digesting bits of lives and experiences that intertwined with your own; discovering those parts of yourself that had yet to be unearthed and figured out. Doubts and embarrassment, dreams and aspirations as well as issues like poverty, inequality, truth and justice were devoured daily increasing my knowledge base and setting future building blocks in place.
From Grade three through to grade seven, I volunteered at the library. The hall monitor made too many enemies, so only the tougher kids volunteered for that job. And the really shy girls that aspired to being teacher’s pet were assigned the end of day task of wiping down the chalkboards and collecting assignments. But I only had eyes for the library, and so happily spent many hours of pure delight filing books, organizing the card catalogue and learning as much as I could from Mr. B.
One day, in grade five, Mr. B. was ill and no substitute teacher was available, so I got to read the book of the day to the rest of the class from the much coveted rocking chair. That experience taught me how to change my pitch and tone in order to make the reading more exciting for listeners. Under the watchful eye of the gym teacher (who had been summoned to cover the last half hour of the class) I asked and answered questions from my classmates. I felt so proud and so at ease. That simple experience was a defining moment for me.
That little library felt like a protective and cozy hug. Nothing bad could happen to you there under Mr. B’s watchful and keen eye. The smell of ink and paper, the quiet proud look of the room, the pure possibility inside each book will stay with me forever.
We were allowed to sign out 2 books at a time from the stacks (one fiction and one non-fiction). I loved the weighty feel in my school bag as I lugged my two picks home, along with my textbooks and exercise books. I had vowed in grade three that I would read all the books in the library before the end of grade eight. I didn’t actually make it, but sure put a good dent into it.
In my mind’s eye, I can still clearly see all my classmates and me sitting cross legged on colorful cushions, heads tilted listening to Mr. B. read to us. And as we listened and imagined and made connections we were becoming the people we were supposed to become. I will forever be grateful for having known and grown alongside this very special unassuming, seemingly ordinary guy…our school librarian.