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.

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.”


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