Every Word Is a New Idea

Ground Zero, October 2009

“We say that our way of life was attacked on September 11. What we mean is that our words were attacked — our sauntering, freewheeling, raucous, stumbling, unbridled, unregulated, unorthodox words. All that we are in this country came out of words — 18th century words, 19th century words — which in turn wend their way back into a past that existed long before the first sentence of the Book of John. Every word is a new idea, and there is nothing like a new idea to counteract the stony madness of fanatics. If a man spends enough time in a library, he may actually change his mind. I have seen it happen.”

from “Ground Zero” by Roger Rosenblatt, Time, May 25, 2002

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 III

I realized only yesterday that I left the story of Kerwin‘s ostracism unfinished. When I left off, I had just–whoops!–Mary had just walked into the front room of the library and found Kerwin sitting beside the door, where she had left him over a half-hour before.

He looked a little pale.

Mary felt a little surprised.

She had escorted the rest of his class out the library’s back door, as she did every week, and had forgotten Kerwin wasn’t with them. His teacher was no doubt wondering where he was.

“Kerwin, what are you doing there?” she said.

“You told me not to move.”

Oh.

He was correct. That’s what Mary had said. It hadn’t occurred to her that he would take the instruction so literally.

“All right, Kerwin, go on back to class.”

Color returning to his cheeks, he jumped from the chair and shot out the door.

Mary packed up and walked back to the high school library, where she officed.

The end.

I regret the story ends so anticlimactically. For literary purposes, I wish it had a dramatic ending.

If I were writing fiction, I’d have stopped with Part II. But I wanted to make clear that everyone survived intact.

I’m sure I’m the only one involved who remembers.

The Tale of Kerwin, Part I

Last week I shared the story of Cuthbert, my second best teaching story. Today I share the story of Kerwin, my first best teaching story.

I offer it against my better judgment. But it’s been years since judgment factored into any of my decisions. So we begin.

~~~~~~~~~~

Once upon a time, there was a librarian–for this story, Gentle Reader, is not my own; I heard it from someone who heard it from someone who heard it from a reliable source.

As I said, there was a librarian.

This librarian was a lovely person. She was kind and patient. She was soft-spoken. She was in no way profane. She was not in the habit of using what were once called unprintable words.

She did admit to employing two words that were once frowned upon, but that are now, in our advanced culture, hardly noticeable: damn and hell.

Those were her father’s words. And, because they were the only not-nice words she heard until she was nearly into her teens, she thought they were the worst words in existence.

And, although she understood they were not-nice words, and that she was not supposed to say them on pain of bad things happening, her father used them in such a way that made them sound perfectly acceptable.

In fact,  her Baptist Southern Belle hat-and-glove-wearing maternal grandmother (who had once told the future librarian, when said future librarian at the age of seven had impulsively demonstrated her erudition in spelling, that privy wasn’t the nicest word for a little girl to know how to spell),–as I say, her grandmother was so taken with the future librarian’s father’s by-words that she sometimes uttered them herself, mimicking his singular pronunciation: Well, day-um. (Hell was pronounced hail.)

(The grandmother never got in trouble for saying those words either.)

But, after the librarian’s father died, the librarian missed hearing those words, and she had attained her majority and then some, so she adopted the words as her own.

She sometimes worried that her usage didn’t always sound as innocent as her father’s. She sometimes said those words as if she really meant them. She wasn’t proud of that, but she managed to live with it.

She did not, however, venture further down the list of not-nice words without serious provocation. And such instances were practically unheard of. With her even temper and unfailing sense of propriety, she did not require that safety valve.

There were days, of course, when she came close. But when students were present, she never let an improper word pass her lips.

For years, she maintained this high linguistic standard.

So time passed. Enrollment in her school district increased rapidly. The Powers That Were decreed that the primary/elementary library should be moved to temporary lodgings in a house.

A small house. A small, old house.

The arrangement of the is germane to our story. The front room was divided by a partition about four feet high; to the right and down a couple of steps was a “sunken” computer lab supervised by a teaching assistant; to the left was a larger room where library reference books were shelved. Behind the reference room was a 12 x 30-foot room that ran the width of the building.

The rest of the library collection was shelved in that back room; the circulation desk was there; the card catalog was there; tables and chairs were there; the librarian taught her classes there.

Did I mention it measured 12 x 30?

The day after the roof leaked, a large puddle of water appeared there as well, but the card catalog was so expertly built that the liquid pooling atop it did not seep inside.

I will not mention the mold.

Now, a digression: Lest it be thought the librarian complained, I’ll add that the library’s sojourn in the old house lasted only three years, and that its next home, across the street, was new and roomy and bright and cheerful. And that pending relocation to the new building, the librarian polished her martyr complex and pretended she was having fun.

But pressure was building.

Sometimes she discussed her feelings with friends in similar boats.

One of those friends, Janie, a librarian who doubled as a preacher’s wife, confided to our librarian that she and certain individuals were embroiled in an ongoing disagreement over policy. Janie said she had been trying to rid herself of negative feelings about her opponents. She said that on frequent visits she made to a nursing home, she often saw an elderly lady sitting in the hallway in her wheelchair, cursing like a sailor. Janie was afraid that if she continued to harbor ill feeling in her bosom, she would end up the same way.

“I can’t think of anything worse,” she said, “than a preacher’s elderly widow sitting all day in a public hallway, cursing.”

Our librarian countered that if her own situation didn’t improve, she would disgrace herself by spouting out a word in the presence of her students.

And she knew exactly which students and what word:

The word would be smarta**.

And the students would be the Class from–Hail.

To Be Continued

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.

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