Reference Questions* I Have Known

 

  1. Is cabbage juice good for you?
  2. What is cystic ovary syndrome?
  3. Do you have any more picture books about fire trucks? He won’t read about anything but firetrucks.
  4. Is chemotherapy an effective treatment for multiple sclerosis?
  5. Do you have a book about condoms? I need to know who invented them.**
  6. How do I know what size bra to buy?
  7. How do you cure hams?
  8. Was Rachel Carson married to Kit Carson?
  9. How do you get to Gatesville, Texas?
  10. How do you make cherry pie?
  11. What did people eat in Victorian England?
  12. What do you call the 125th anniversary of the founding of a city?
  13. Is there a town called San Simon in Texas?
  14. Do you have any stories with voices?
  15. I need to know the names of some saints.
  16. Do I have to wear a hat to a Catholic christening?
  17. I need a list of scientists who’ve won the Nobel Prize.
  18. What does the Federal Reserve do?
  19. How many teeth does a giraffe have?
  20. How do you make a Sally Lunn cake?
  21. Where’s the book that was on that table the other day? It’s white.

***

*Some of the above might be outside the official realm of the reference question. But they’re close.

*No, dear freshman boy, in this little school library in this conservative little town in this conservative big state, I do not have a book about who invented the condom, and I’m trying very hard not to guffaw while I tell you this. (And when the little school library became a little public library, I didn’t have a book about it then, either. But I had books that came close.)

***

Images licensed under CC0, via pixabay

 

 

“Hell on Wheels”: The Story of a Lethal Librarian

Excerpt from “Hell on Wheels” by Kathy Waller appears in MURDER ON WHEELS: 11 TALES OF CRIME ON THE MOVE, published by Wildside Press, 2015

***

The day I found Mama stirring ground glass into the filling for a lemon meringue pie, I took the bowl away from her and called a family conference. We had to do something before she dispatched some poor, unsuspecting soul to his heavenly rest and got herself thrown so far back into prison she couldn’t see daylight.

The next day, while Mama was down at Essie’s Salon de Beauté, my brothers and sister and I crowded into a booth at the old Dairy Queen, just across the corner from the library where I worked. The DQ was practically empty. The only customers—besides Frank and Lonnie and Bonita and me—were senior citizens, and most of them had their hearing aids turned off.

When the waitress had delivered our orders and retreated behind the counter to her copy of People magazine, I explained why I had called the meeting.

“It hurts me to say it, but the time has come to put Mama out of her misery.”

Lonnie stabbed his straw through the plastic lid on his frosted Coke. “Mama don’t have no misery. I never seen nobody so contented with her lot.”

Bonita poked her pointy elbow into my side and reached across the table to pat Lonnie’s hand. “I think Marva Lu’s talking about a different kind of misery, baby brother. I’ll explain later.”

That was a case of the pot calling the kettle black. Bonita’s explaining was why it took Lonnie till he was twenty-nine to get his GED.

Frank, sitting across the table from me, grabbed a napkin and wriggled his way out of the booth. “Now look what you made me do. Scared me half to death, making such a mean joke about Mama.”

He dabbed at his tie with a napkin. “This necktie is a souvenir from when we took the kids to Disney World. That gravy landed right on Donald Duck’s tail feathers.”

I glanced over my shoulder at the other diners, several of whom were looking our way. “Frank Dewayne Urquhart, stop carrying on and sit back down,” I hissed. “You’re attracting attention.”

Frank unclipped his tie and laid it across the back of the booth. By the time he settled down to finish his steak fingers, the senior citizens had turned back to their burgers.

“Now, quit worrying about that duck’s derriere and look me in the eye,” I said, in the steely tone of voice I used on seventh-grade boys I found hiding in the how-to books, giggling over The Joy of Sex. “I am not joking. This is serious.”

Frank stuffed a couple of napkins into his collar and dunked another steak finger. “Serious?” He leaned toward me, his eyes wide and his voice just a whisper. “You want to … put Mama down … just because you saw her add something to the pie? I bet you didn’t have your contacts in. Might’ve been powdered sugar. She’s probably practicing something new for the Methodist ladies’ fundraiser cook-off.”

“The new bishop’s going to judge the cook-off.” I took a sip of my Diet Dr. Pepper and gave Frank time to think. “I can see the headlines now: ‘Murderous Methodist Does in Bishop with Omelet’. And every penny of our inheritance will go to pay a lawyer to try to keep Mama out of prison. Squeaky Vardaman says defense attorneys charge more when the client’s guilty. And Squeaky’s the district attorney, so he ought to know.”

Bonita stabbed me again with her elbow. “Uh-oh, look who’s coming.” We all followed her gaze.

A bright red Corvette was racing up the street. Ignoring the stop sign, the driver shot through the intersection, just missing a pedestrian, who scrambled onto the high curb and wrapped his arms around a light pole for support.

“There she is, on her way to Essie’s to get her hair screwed up.” Lonnie grinned. “Man, Mama can drive that car, can’t she?”

Frank cleared his throat and wiped his fingers on a napkin. “Yeah, Marva Lu, I see your point.”

Bonita wrinkled her nose and wound a blonde curl around her finger, a habit she’d gotten into when she was five years old and people told her it was cute. “Why don’t we keep a real close watch on Mama and make sure she doesn’t have a chance to put anything bad in the food? I mean, killing her seems a little extreme.”

“Are you volunteering to babysit around the clock?” I said.

Bonita wrinkled her nose again. “Well, what about putting her in the Silver Seniors Retirement home? We could have her committed. Then she couldn’t cook at all.”

“No way,” said Frank. “Old Dr. Briggs is as loony as Mama. He isn’t about to certify her. Hell, there’s not a man, woman, or child in the county, including us, who’d dare to cross her. After all, she owns the bank.” He wadded his napkin into a ball and dropped it into the empty basket. “You going to convince her to move to the home, Bonita?”

Before Bonita could get her nose back in gear, Lonnie finally caught up with the conversation. He sat up straight. “Killing her? What do you mean, killing her? You saying you want to kill Mama?”

“Shhh. Use your library voice, Lonnie.” Bonita patted his hand again. “Kill is just a figure of speech. Like one of those smilies we talked about before your test.”

I rolled my eyes. “No, it’s not a smilie. We’d better make sure right now that everybody understands what we’re doing.”

“I’m not doing anything,” whispered Lonnie. “If you’re going to kill Mama, I’m heading for the sheriff right now. Move, Frank, and let me out of this booth.”

I glared at Frank. He stayed put. I smacked Bonita’s hand off Lonnie’s and closed my hand around his. Poor Lonnie, he’d always been Mama’s favorite, and so softhearted. I should have known our talk would upset him.

I assumed the sympathetic tone I used when citizens called to complain about the library having dirty books. “Lonnie, sweetheart, you heard what I said about Mama’s new recipe. And you remember how Uncle Percy died last month, just hours after Mama cooked him a special birthday lunch.”

“Dr. Briggs said that was Uncle Percy’s ulcer.” Lonnie jerked his hand back. “Frank, let me out.”

I grabbed his hand again and hung on. “Jasper Alonzo, calm down. I’m going to ask you a question, and I want you to think about it carefully and then give me an honest answer. After that, Frank will let you out, and you can go to the sheriff or anywhere else you want.

“Now, here’s the question: How would it make you feel if they put Mama on trial for killing Uncle Percy? Or somebody else she fed bad food to? And what if she had to spend the rest of her natural life locked up in the prison at Huntsville?”

Lonnie’s brow wrinkled like it always did when he was turning something over in his mind. One thing about my baby brother, he never made snap decisions. I usually admired him for that. In this case, however, even with the answer so obvious, I threw in some details.

“Think about what prison’s like, Lonnie. There wouldn’t be a soul Mama knows. And most of those inmates are so common, not our kind of people at all. Mama would have to share a room, and you know how she values her privacy. There’d be no more trips up to Neiman Marcus, and she’d have to dress just like everybody else, in horizontal stripes. She’s always been dead-set against horizontal stripes. Essie wouldn’t be there to keep up her weekly White Mink rinse, and without that, her gray hair would get that ugly yellow tinge to it. And how would she survive without her Friday bridge club? Think about it, Lonnie. What kind of life would Mama have?”

By the time I got to “yellow tinge,” all the fight had gone out of Lonnie. His brow unwrinkled. Tears welled up in his soft brown eyes. It was just the saddest expression I’d ever seen on that sweet face. He looked so miserable I was tempted to toss the rest of my chocolate sundae into the big red waste bin and tell my siblings to forget the whole thing.

But I didn’t get to be Director of the Kilburn County Public Library and Archives by caving in to every pathetic face that stared at me across the circulation desk.

“All right, Lonnie,” I said. “What’s your answer?”

He pulled on his straw but got only a gurgle, so he quit stalling. “Mama wouldn’t like prison at all. So I guess I’d feel pretty bad.” He shook his cup and managed to suck up one more taste of frosted Coke. “But I still don’t feel good about planning to kill her.”

I looked out the window. Old Judge Vardaman was shuffling down the sidewalk from the courthouse, heading for the library, where he would spend his usual hour dozing over the Wall Street Journal. On his way out, he would tiptoe into my office and sit down for what he called “a little visit with my sweetie-pie.”

Bonita saw me watching him and smirked. “Well, here comes Big Sister’s gentleman caller. Honestly, Marva Lu, I don’t know how you can stand to have that old goat around. He’s older than God.”

“You should talk,” I said. “The way you drool over the old goat’s son since he got elected D. A. is a disgrace.” I passed the remainder of my sundae across the table to Lonnie and smiled. “Anyway, Bonita, he’s not so bad. Goats can be very useful animals.” I shouldered my purse and stood up to leave. “Don’t worry, Lonnie,” I said. “You won’t have to do a thing. I’ll take care of all the planning myself.”

***

Our anthology!

Print and Kindle editions available at Amazon.com
Print edition available at Barnes and Noble.com and at Wildside Press.com

“Hell on Wheels”: The Story of a Lethal Librarian

Excerpt from “Hell on Wheels” by Kathy Waller appears in MURDER ON WHEELS: 11 TALES OF CRIME ON THE MOVE, published by Wildside Press, 2015

Join Austin Mystery Writers for the launch of MURDER ON WHEELS at 7:00 p.m. on August 11, 2015, at BookPeople Bookstore, 6th and Lamar, Austin. Authors will read and sign. Refreshments will be served.

***

The day I found Mama stirring ground glass into the filling for a lemon meringue pie, I took the bowl away from her and called a family conference. We had to do something before she dispatched some poor, unsuspecting soul to his heavenly rest and got herself thrown so far back into prison she couldn’t see daylight.

The next day, while Mama was down at Essie’s Salon de Beauté, my brothers and sister and I crowded into a booth at the old Dairy Queen, just across the corner from the library where I worked. The DQ was practically empty. The only customers—besides Frank and Lonnie and Bonita and me—were senior citizens, and most of them had their hearing aids turned off.

When the waitress had delivered our orders and retreated behind the counter to her copy of People magazine, I explained why I had called the meeting.

“It hurts me to say it, but the time has come to put Mama out of her misery.”

Lonnie stabbed his straw through the plastic lid on his frosted Coke. “Mama don’t have no misery. I never seen nobody so contented with her lot.”

Bonita poked her pointy elbow into my side and reached across the table to pat Lonnie’s hand. “I think Marva Lu’s talking about a different kind of misery, baby brother. I’ll explain later.”

That was a case of the pot calling the kettle black. Bonita’s explaining was why it took Lonnie till he was twenty-nine to get his GED.

Frank, sitting across the table from me, grabbed a napkin and wriggled his way out of the booth. “Now look what you made me do. Scared me half to death, making such a mean joke about Mama.”

He dabbed at his tie with a napkin. “This necktie is a souvenir from when we took the kids to Disney World. That gravy landed right on Donald Duck’s tail feathers.”

I glanced over my shoulder at the other diners, several of whom were looking our way. “Frank Dewayne Urquhart, stop carrying on and sit back down,” I hissed. “You’re attracting attention.”

Frank unclipped his tie and laid it across the back of the booth. By the time he settled down to finish his steak fingers, the senior citizens had turned back to their burgers.

“Now, quit worrying about that duck’s derriere and look me in the eye,” I said, in the steely tone of voice I used on seventh-grade boys I found hiding in the how-to books, giggling over The Joy of Sex. “I am not joking. This is serious.”

Frank stuffed a couple of napkins into his collar and dunked another steak finger. “Serious?” He leaned toward me, his eyes wide and his voice just a whisper. “You want to … put Mama down … just because you saw her add something to the pie? I bet you didn’t have your contacts in. Might’ve been powdered sugar. She’s probably practicing something new for the Methodist ladies’ fundraiser cook-off.”

“The new bishop’s going to judge the cook-off.” I took a sip of my Diet Dr. Pepper and gave Frank time to think. “I can see the headlines now: ‘Murderous Methodist Does in Bishop with Omelet’. And every penny of our inheritance will go to pay a lawyer to try to keep Mama out of prison. Squeaky Vardaman says defense attorneys charge more when the client’s guilty. And Squeaky’s the district attorney, so he ought to know.”

Bonita stabbed me again with her elbow. “Uh-oh, look who’s coming.” We all followed her gaze.

A bright red Corvette was racing up the street. Ignoring the stop sign, the driver shot through the intersection, just missing a pedestrian, who scrambled onto the high curb and wrapped his arms around a light pole for support.

“There she is, on her way to Essie’s to get her hair screwed up.” Lonnie grinned. “Man, Mama can drive that car, can’t she?”

Frank cleared his throat and wiped his fingers on a napkin. “Yeah, Marva Lu, I see your point.”

Bonita wrinkled her nose and wound a blonde curl around her finger, a habit she’d gotten into when she was five years old and people told her it was cute. “Why don’t we keep a real close watch on Mama and make sure she doesn’t have a chance to put anything bad in the food? I mean, killing her seems a little extreme.”

“Are you volunteering to babysit around the clock?” I said.

Bonita wrinkled her nose again. “Well, what about putting her in the Silver Seniors Retirement home? We could have her committed. Then she couldn’t cook at all.”

“No way,” said Frank. “Old Dr. Briggs is as loony as Mama. He isn’t about to certify her. Hell, there’s not a man, woman, or child in the county, including us, who’d dare to cross her. After all, she owns the bank.” He wadded his napkin into a ball and dropped it into the empty basket. “You going to convince her to move to the home, Bonita?”

Before Bonita could get her nose back in gear, Lonnie finally caught up with the conversation. He sat up straight. “Killing her? What do you mean, killing her? You saying you want to kill Mama?”

“Shhh. Use your library voice, Lonnie.” Bonita patted his hand again. “Kill is just a figure of speech. Like one of those smilies we talked about before your test.”

I rolled my eyes. “No, it’s not a smilie. We’d better make sure right now that everybody understands what we’re doing.”

“I’m not doing anything,” whispered Lonnie. “If you’re going to kill Mama, I’m heading for the sheriff right now. Move, Frank, and let me out of this booth.”

I glared at Frank. He stayed put. I smacked Bonita’s hand off Lonnie’s and closed my hand around his. Poor Lonnie, he’d always been Mama’s favorite, and so softhearted. I should have known our talk would upset him.

I assumed the sympathetic tone I used when citizens called to complain about the library having dirty books. “Lonnie, sweetheart, you heard what I said about Mama’s new recipe. And you remember how Uncle Percy died last month, just hours after Mama cooked him a special birthday lunch.”

“Dr. Briggs said that was Uncle Percy’s ulcer.” Lonnie jerked his hand back. “Frank, let me out.”

I grabbed his hand again and hung on. “Jasper Alonzo, calm down. I’m going to ask you a question, and I want you to think about it carefully and then give me an honest answer. After that, Frank will let you out, and you can go to the sheriff or anywhere else you want.

“Now, here’s the question: How would it make you feel if they put Mama on trial for killing Uncle Percy? Or somebody else she fed bad food to? And what if she had to spend the rest of her natural life locked up in the prison at Huntsville?”

Lonnie’s brow wrinkled like it always did when he was turning something over in his mind. One thing about my baby brother, he never made snap decisions. I usually admired him for that. In this case, however, even with the answer so obvious, I threw in some details.

“Think about what prison’s like, Lonnie. There wouldn’t be a soul Mama knows. And most of those inmates are so common, not our kind of people at all. Mama would have to share a room, and you know how she values her privacy. There’d be no more trips up to Neiman Marcus, and she’d have to dress just like everybody else, in horizontal stripes. She’s always been dead-set against horizontal stripes. Essie wouldn’t be there to keep up her weekly White Mink rinse, and without that, her gray hair would get that ugly yellow tinge to it. And how would she survive without her Friday bridge club? Think about it, Lonnie. What kind of life would Mama have?”

By the time I got to “yellow tinge,” all the fight had gone out of Lonnie. His brow unwrinkled. Tears welled up in his soft brown eyes. It was just the saddest expression I’d ever seen on that sweet face. He looked so miserable I was tempted to toss the rest of my chocolate sundae into the big red waste bin and tell my siblings to forget the whole thing.

But I didn’t get to be Director of the Kilburn County Public Library and Archives by caving in to every pathetic face that stared at me across the circulation desk.

“All right, Lonnie,” I said. “What’s your answer?”

He pulled on his straw but got only a gurgle, so he quit stalling. “Mama wouldn’t like prison at all. So I guess I’d feel pretty bad.” He shook his cup and managed to suck up one more taste of frosted Coke. “But I still don’t feel good about planning to kill her.”

I looked out the window. Old Judge Vardaman was shuffling down the sidewalk from the courthouse, heading for the library, where he would spend his usual hour dozing over the Wall Street Journal. On his way out, he would tiptoe into my office and sit down for what he called “a little visit with my sweetie-pie.”

Bonita saw me watching him and smirked. “Well, here comes Big Sister’s gentleman caller. Honestly, Marva Lu, I don’t know how you can stand to have that old goat around. He’s older than God.”

“You should talk,” I said. “The way you drool over the old goat’s son since he got elected D. A. is a disgrace.” I passed the remainder of my sundae across the table to Lonnie and smiled. “Anyway, Bonita, he’s not so bad. Goats can be very useful animals.” I shouldered my purse and stood up to leave. “Don’t worry, Lonnie,” I said. “You won’t have to do a thing. I’ll take care of all the planning myself.”

***

Our anthology!

Print and Kindle editions available at Amazon.com
Print edition available at Barnes and Noble.com and at Wildside Press.com

Hansel and Gretel and Cuthbert and Me

This is the story of Cuthbert, a five-year-old boy who visited my school library
for twenty minutes every week.
My job was to teach him about the library.
I’m not sure what his job was.
But he was very good at it.

*

Once upon a time, I read “Hansel and Gretel” to a class of kindergarteners. The audience, sitting rapt at my feet, comprised sixteen exceptionally good listeners, a fact I later regretted.

Arthur Rackham, illustration to Hansel and Gretel
Arthur Rackham, illustration to Hansel and Gretel (Photo credit: Wikipedia). Public domain.

While I read, Cuthbert sat on the floor beside my chair and stroked my panty-hose-clad shin. Small children are fascinated by panty-hose.

When I reached, “And they lived happily ever after,” Cuthbert stopped stroking and tugged on my skirt. I ceded him the floor.

“But it’s a good thing, what the witch did.”

Since he spoke kindergartener-ese and sometimes I didn’t, I thought I had misunderstood. Come again?

“It’s a really good thing, what the witch did.”

I should have slammed the book shut right then, or pulled out the emergency duct tape, or something, anything to change the subject. But I’m not very smart, so I asked Cuthbert to elaborate.

His elaboration went like this:

When the witch prepared the hot oven to cook and then eat Hansel, she was doing a good thing. Because then Hansel would die and go to Heaven to be with God and Jesus.

I smiled a no doubt horrified smile and said something like But But But. While Cuthbert explained even more fully, I analyzed my options.

a) If I said, No, the witch did a bad thing, because it is not nice to cook and eat little boys and girls, then sixteen children would go home and report, Miss Kathy said it’s bad to go to Heaven and be with God and Jesus.

b) If I said, Yes, the witch did a good thing, because cooking and eating little boys and girls ensures their immediate transport Heavenward, then sixteen children would go home and report, Miss Kathy approves of cold-blooded murder and cannibalism. Plus witchcraft. Plus reading a book about a witch, which in our Great State is sometimes considered more damaging than the murder/cannibalism package.

c) Anything I said might be in complete opposition to what Cuthbert’s mother had told him on this topic, and he would report that to her, and then I would get to attend a conference that wouldn’t be nearly so much fun as it sounds.

Note: The last sentence under b) is not to be taken literally. It is sarcasm, and richly deserved. The earlier reference to emergency duct tape is hyperbole. I’ve never duct taped a child.

Well, anyway, I wish I could say the sky opened and a big light bulb appeared above my head and gave me words to clean up this mess. But I don’t remember finding any words at all, at least sensible ones. I think I babbled and stammered until the teacher came to repossess her charges.

I remember Cuthbert was talking when he left the room. There’s no telling what his classmates took away from that lesson.

I suppose, if I’d been in my right mind, I’d have said something to the effect that God and Jesus don’t like it when witches send people along earlier than expected.

But the prospect of talking theology with this independent thinker froze my neural pathways.

And anyway, it took all the energy I had to keep from laughing.

*

“Hansel and Gretel and Cuthbert and Me” appeared on this blog in 2011 and again in 2012. The discussion about  fairy tales and religion took place twenty years ago. I think about it often and feel fortunate I’ve never had a nightmare about it. But I remember Cuthbert fondly for giving me what was simultaneously the worst and the best day of my career. He was a cute little boy.

Marion Community Library at the Crossroads

Ray Bradbury
Ray Bradbury (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“I discovered that the library is the real school.” ~ Ray Bradbury

 “What a school thinks about its library is a measure of what it thinks about education.”
 ~ Harold Howe, former US Commissioner of Education

I just scrapped an entire post. It wasn’t terrible. It was just too much. Here’s what I really want to say. I’ll try to make it brief.

In 1992, Marion ISD and Marion Community Library Association (MCLA) created a joint-use library, a partnership between the school district and a public non-profit organization.As one of the few school-public libraries in Texas, it was an experiment. I was founding librarian.

The experiment worked–for everyone. The school district had three (later four) campus libraries with existing collections of books and materials. The MCLA was eligible for grants and government funding not available to the school district. Together, the two entities built a library system that served people of all ages. The libraries were busy places. Everyone was welcome there.

When I retired, a co-worker took my place. The library got busier and better. For several years, it was listed on the Texas Library Association website as an exemplary small library. It was the center of activity in the town and the school district. My successor retired after several very successful years of service.

Now the library is in crisis. Public patrons have reported feeling unwelcome there. Public attendance and participation have decreased. The three branch libraries no longer qualify under state regulations as public libraries. The library lost its state accreditation.

Marion Community Library Association needs help to revive the library as a positive force–for the entire community. It needs and welcomes new members..

If citizens want to keep the library serving the public, they must step up and make their wishes known, to both the MCLA and the school district.

They also must show up–join the public library board and get the Marion Community Library back on its feet.

*****

I found the quotation from Ray Bradbury on Aimless and Purposeful, a wonderful blog that comes out of Seguin, Texas, about twelve miles from Marion. Read the rest of Bradbury’s comments there: http://aimlesswithpurpose.wordpress.com/2012/06/09/the-real-school/

Hansel and Gretel and Cuthbert and Me

Please don’t leave, I’m still here!  Just embroiled in getting a newsletter online before the month is out.

In the meantime,  I’m reposting this story about my friend Cuthbert, the free-thinking kindergartner. 

*

Arthur Rackham, illustration to Hansel and Gretel
Arthur Rackham, illustration to Hansel and Gretel (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If I were to write a memoir about my years as a librarian, I would title it The Accidental Librarian.

Because the job wasn’t part of a plan. It just happened along.

One Sunday afternoon in early August, many years ago, I was sitting at home, minding my own business, when  a school administrator /old friend called and said, “You want to be the librarian?”

The previous librarian had resigned. School would start in two weeks. The principals had talked amongst themselves and designated me The Chosen.

My end of the conversation went from Who, me? to I’m not qualified to Well, I don’t know. A week later, after conferring with a dean of the UT Graduate School of Library and Information Science (UT-GSLIC, or just the Library School), I moved on to a shaky Okay.

Three years earlier, I’d completed my M.A. in English, breathed a sigh of relief, and promised myself I was finished with grad school. Oh well. I wouldn’t have to register until after Christmas.

So. The state education agency granted a waiver. I cleaned out my classroom. I gave away most of my teaching materials. I moved across the hall to the high school library. School started. I found myself with the title of District Librarian and responsibility for three campus libraries.

Which included teaching primary and elementary students two days a week. Teaching being a relative term.

I had no education about or experience with that age group. I’d seen hardly anyone below the age of fourteen for years. I was certified to teach grades six through twelve. But Learning Resources Specialist was an all-level certification.

My certification was temporary and had been granted on a technicality. But when the going gets tough…

I learned a lot. Boy, did I learn a lot. Fast.

I learned that writing one’s name at the top of the page required fifteen minutes out of a twenty-minute class.

I learned that if second graders said, “May we write in cursive?” and I said, “Of course,” the task would take thirty.

I learned that if I showed third-graders a new historical picture book about Queen Elizabeth I, the principal would ask me, months later, why I had told students that if they went into the restroom and turned off the light and said, “Bloody Mary, Bloody Mary, Bloody Mary,” a severed head would appear in the mirror.

I learned that fourth-grade boys love to use the unabridged dictionary, because it has some fascinating words not found in the abridged dictionary. Even the abridged unabridged dictionary has some really good words. Fourth-graders are impressed by words the rest of us don’t notice. (I almost convinced them not to become hysterical at the mention of Captain Underpants.)

The most important lesson I learned was that sometimes I wouldn’t have any idea what I’d learned. To wit:

Once upon a time, I read “Hansel and Gretel” to a class of kindergartners. My audience, sitting rapt at my feet, comprised sixteen exceptionally good listeners, a fact I later regretted.

When I reached “And they lived happily ever after,” little Cuthbert (not his real name) stopped stroking my panty-hose-clad shin and tugged on my skirt. I ceded him the floor.

“But it’s a really good thing, what the witch did.”

Since he spoke kindergartner-ese, I thought perhaps I had misunderstood. Come again?

“It’s a really good thing, what the witch did.”

I should have slammed the book shut right then, or pulled out the emergency duct tape, or something, anything to change the subject. But I’m not too bright, so I asked Cuthbert to elaborate.

His elaboration went like this:

When the witch tried to shove Gretel into the hot oven she was doing a good thing. Because then Hansel and Gretel would die and go to Heaven to be with God and Jesus.

I smiled a no doubt horrified smile and said something like But But But. And, while Cuthbert explained even more fully, I did a quick analysis of my options:

a) If I said, No, the witch did a bad thing, because it is not nice to cook and eat little boys and girls, then sixteen children would go home and report that Miss Kathy said it’s bad to go to Heaven and be with God and Jesus.

b) If I said, Yes, the witch did a good thing, because cooking and eating little boys and girls ensures their immediate transport Heavenward, then sixteen children would go home and report that Miss Kathy condoned cold-blooded murder and cannibalism. Plus witchcraft. Plus reading a book about a witch, which in our Great State is sometimes considered more damaging than the murder/cannibalism package.

c) Anything I said might be in complete opposition to what Cuthbert’s mother had told him on this topic, and he would report that to her, and then I would get to have a conference that would not be nearly so much fun as it sounds.

(N.B. The last sentence under b) is not to be taken literally. It’s sarcasm, richly deserved. The earlier reference to emergency duct tape is hyperbole. I’ve never in my entire life duct taped a child.)

Well, anyway, I wish I could say the sky opened and a big light bulb appeared above my head and gave me words to untie this Gordian knot. In fact, I can’t remember finding any words at all, at least sensible ones. I think I babbled and stammered until the teacher came to repossess her charges.

I’m sure Cuthbert kept talking. There’s no telling what his classmates took away from that lesson.

I suppose, if I’d been in my right mind, I’d have said something to the effect that God and Jesus don’t like it when witches send people along earlier than expected.

But the prospect of talking theology with this independent thinker paralyzed my brain.

Anyway, I was expending all my energy trying not to laugh.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Image of Gingerbread House with Gumdrops courtesy of Marit & Toomas Hinnosaar, under CC Attribution 2.0 Generic License.

The Tale of Kerwin, Part II: Ostracism

In yesterday’s post, I introduced my first best teaching story, that of Kerwin. Tonight brings that story’s stirring conclusion.

If you have not read Part I, please do so now. Part II will pack a much harder punch if you know what came before.

Since publishing Part I, I’ve realized I failed to name the librarian who serves as our main character. For convenience, I shall call her Mary.

And before beginning, I once again emphasize that although I know every detail of this story, and that Mary’s every thought and emotion resonates with me as if it were mine alone–even so, the story is not mine. The fact that Mary is my name as well as hers is mere coincidence.

Now to resume.

You recall that Mary has been stressed almost to the point of saying a word she has never said. And that it is the Class from Hail that she fears she will say it to.

I will not identify the C from H except to say that its students were old enough to know better. Period.

Mary and the C from H had maintained a peaceful coexistence for several months without incident. Mary had simply begun carrying a strong antacid in her purse on their class day.

On the day we meet them, Mary has prepared a lesson on reference books. She has made a set of transparencies. She plans to lecture. She plans to assign class work. She has great expectations. In the next forty-five minutes, she will turn the C from H into crack encyclopedia users.

Things did not go as Mary planned. Students came barreling across campus from the gymnasium. They were jiggly. They were wild. They did not care to sit and listen. Every time Mary opened her mouth, one of the C from H opened his or her mouth and spoke a gross irrelevancy. Mary thought about the antacid in her purse.

When, after eight or ten interruptions, Mary thought she had things under control, she began her lecture–again–but here came Kerwin. Late. Loud. Fully aware of the production he was making of himself.

Mary stopped, got Kerwin settled in his chair, got him settled again, got everybody settled again. Then she began–how many times now?–her talk.

For some reason, Kerwin decided he needed to move his chair. Halfway across the room. He stood, reached between his legs, took the seat of the chair in hand, and scooted it backwards across the carpet.

Now for another digression. I have described Mary as soft-spoken, polite, well-mannered. She was. But when pushed too far, Mary sometimes snapped. She increased in height. She became majestic. She spoke–not loudly–but even more softly, but in majestic, measured tones. She became Maya Angelou, Dame Edith Evans, John Gielgud, and the Incredible Hulk, all rolled into one. She was a most impressive sight.

And when Kerwin and his chair went scooting across the room, Mary snapped.

She strode over to Kerwin and took him oh-so-gently by the nape of the neck.

“Come with me,” she said. She turned and marched Kerwin to the door to the front room.

She had no idea where she was going or what she was going to do when she got there.

Once in the front room, she saw a chair by the front door. She marched Kerwin over to it.

“Sit there and don’t move,” she said.

She waved to the computer teacher to let her know Kerwin was there. Then she walked–majestically–back to the C from H.

When she walked in, the C from H were sitting at their tables. They were hushed. Their eyes were enormous.

Mary walked to the overhead projector, switched it on, pointed to the first transparency, and defined encyclopedia. She talked and talked and talked about the encyclopedia.

The C from H sat and stared with their great big eyes.

Finally, one of the C from H mustered enough courage to speak.

“Where’s Kerwin?” he said.

Mary answered, as if she’d never even heard of an antacid, “Kerwin has been ostracized.”

And in the little silence that followed, she saw one member of the C from H lean toward his neighbor and heard him whisper:

“She castrated him?”

If Mary’s career had a high point, this was it. Because she kept her cool. She got right back to her lecture.

She did not smile. She did not laugh. She did not fall on the floor and have a first-class case of hysterics.

She maintained her dignity.

When the time came, she escorted her class to the back door and shooed them out. Then she packed up her transparencies, shelved some books, did whatever had to be done before leaving campus.

Twenty minutes later, when she walked into the front room to return a reference book, she found Kerwin, still sitting in the chair by the door.

She’d forgotten to dismiss him.

He hadn’t moved a muscle.

Hansel and Gretel and Cuthbert and Me

If I were going to write a memoir about my years as a librarian, I’d title it The Accidental Librarian.

Because the job wasn’t part of a plan. It just happened along.

One Sunday afternoon in early August, many years ago, I was sitting at home, minding my own business, when  a school administrator /old friend called and said, “You want to be the librarian?”

The previous librarian had resigned. School would start in two weeks. The principals had talked amongst themselves and designated me The Chosen.

My end of the conversation went from Who, me? to I’m not qualified to Well, I don’t know. A week later, after conferring with a dean of the UT Graduate School of Library and Information Science (UT-GSLIC, or just the Library School), I moved on to a shaky Okay.

Three years earlier, I’d completed my M.A. in English, breathed a sigh of relief, and promised myself I was finished with grad school. Oh well. I wouldn’t have to register until after Christmas.

So. The state education agency granted a waiver. I cleaned out my classroom. I gave away most of my teaching materials. I moved across the hall to the high school library. School started. I found myself with the title of District Librarian and responsibility for three campus libraries.

Which included teaching primary and elementary students two days a week. Teaching being a relative term.

I had no education or experience with that age group. I’d seen hardly anyone below the age of fourteen for years. I was certified to teach grades six through twelve. But Learning Resources Specialist was an all-level certification.

What a shame mine was temporary and had been granted on a technicality. But when the going gets tough…

I learned a lot. Boy, did I learn a lot. Fast.

I learned that writing one’s name at the top of the page required fifteen minutes out of a twenty-minute class.

I learned that if second graders said, “May we write in cursive?” and I said, “Of course,” it would take thirty.

I learned that if I showed third-graders a new historical picture book about Queen Elizabeth I, the principal would ask me, months later, why I had told students that if they went into the restroom and turned off the light and said, “Bloody Mary, Bloody Mary, Bloody Mary,” a severed head would appear in the mirror.

I learned that fourth-grade boys love to use the unabridged dictionary, because it has some fascinating words not found in the abridged dictionary. Even the abridged unabridged dictionary has some really good words. Fourth-graders are impressed by words the rest of us don’t notice. (I almost convinced them not to become hysterical at the mention of Captain Underpants.)

The biggest lesson I learned was that sometimes I wouldn’t have any idea what I’d learned. To wit:

Once upon a time, I read “Hansel and Gretel” to a class of kindergartners. My audience, sitting rapt at my feet, comprised sixteen exceptionally good listeners, a fact I later regretted.

When I reached “And they lived happily ever after,” little Cuthbert (not his real name) stopped stroking my panty-hose-clad shin and tugged on my skirt. I ceded him the floor.

“But it’s a really good thing, what the witch did.”

Since he spoke kindergartner-ese, I thought perhaps I had misunderstood. Come again?

“It’s a really good thing, what the witch did.”

I should have slammed the book shut right then, or pulled out the emergency duct tape, or something, anything to change the subject. But I’m not bright, so I asked Cuthbert to elaborate.

His elaboration went like this:

When the witch tried to shove Gretel into the hot oven she was doing a good thing. Because then Hansel and Gretel would die and go to Heaven to be with God and Jesus.

I smiled a no doubt horrified smile and said something like But But But. And, while Cuthbert explained even more fully, I did a quick analysis of my options:

a) If I said, No, the witch did a bad thing, because it is not nice to cook and eat little boys and girls, then sixteen children would go home and report that Miss Kathy said it’s bad to go to Heaven and be with God and Jesus.

b) If I said, Yes, the witch did a good thing, because cooking and eating little boys and girls ensures their immediate transport Heavenward, then sixteen children would go home and report that Miss Kathy condoned cold-blooded murder and cannibalism. Plus witchcraft. Plus reading a book about a witch, which in our Great State is sometimes considered more damaging than the murder/cannibalism package.

c) Anything I said might be in complete opposition to what Cuthbert’s mother had told him on this topic, and he would report that to her, and then I would get to have a conference that would not be nearly so much fun it might sound.

(N.B. The last sentence under b) is not to be taken literally. It’s sarcasm, richly deserved. The earlier reference to emergency duct tape is hyperbole. I’ve never in my entire life duct taped a child.)

Well, anyway, I wish I could say the sky opened and a big light bulb appeared above my head and gave me words to untie this Gordian knot. In fact, I can’t remember finding any words at all, at least sensible ones. I think I babbled and stammered until the teacher came to repossess her charges.

I’m sure Cuthbert kept talking. There’s no telling what his classmates took away from that lesson.

I suppose, if I’d been in my right mind, I’d have said something to the effect that God and Jesus don’t like it when witches send people along earlier than expected.

But the prospect of talking theology with this independent thinker stopped my brain function.

I was expending all my energy trying not to laugh.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~