Lord knows, I’ve had to deal with lots of problem patrons at the library. They’ve been angry, annoying, and downright creepy. But my last patron interaction of 2011 was downright sweet, so I’m going to take this as a good sign that my future is looking up!
It’s New Year’s Eve, and I’m spending the last hour of the day covering the Children’s information desk. Most of the kids have already gone home for the day. A girl is using one of the computers, and her mother is sitting at one of the tables. The girls asks me for help a couple of times, and I gave her some advice for how to translate the math assignment she had hand-written on paper into Microsoft Word. The last time she asked me a question, she asked it so quickly that I couldn’t hear her. I asked if she could repeat her question, and she straightened up, looked me in the eye, and said, “Can you help me find a good book?”
Ah. My FAVORITE question!
I started asking some follow-up questions to figure out some good book recommendations for her:
What grade are you in? I’m in fourth grade, but I read at level S! Okay, I have only a hazy idea of the lettered reading levels that the Board of Education uses (it’s the Fountas & Pinnell system, for those who want to keep up with such things), but I was able to correctly deduce that level S was around fifth grade level.
What kinds of books do you like to read? I like mysteries and funny books.
Okay, I can work with that.
So I walked over with her to the general fiction (4th – 6th grade) section, and started pulling books off of the shelves. I asked follow-up questions along the way about realistic fiction, about fantasy and science fiction, about her favorite authors, and more. I used my usual method of giving her lots of books to choose from and telling her to give me back any books that she didn’t want. I always believe that too many choices is better than not enough. We spent some time like that, going back and forth between the bookcases, with her asking me follow-up questions about the books I gave her. I’d included several Judy Blume books in the mix (under the “funny” category), and the girl mentioned that she’d never heard of Judy Blume. I assured her that she was a great author, and pointed out that we had a lot of her books to choose from. She then picked up Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret from the shelf and asked me what I thought of that book. I told her that it was one of Judy Blume’s best books. We looked through some more books for a while, but the girl eventually gave me back every book EXCEPT for Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret. At which point the girl told me, I think I’m going to choose this one, because it’s about a girl who’s going to have her first period … which is going to happen to ME very soon! I smiled, said goodbye, watched her and her mother leave …
and then, Dear Readers, I started CRYING.
It took me a few minutes to understand exactly what was going on inside me. The short answer was that the girl’s interaction with me was so goddamned sweet that I could cry, and I did. The longer answer is that the whole conversation encapsulated what I wanted to be when I decided to become a librarian, a romanticized ideal that I so rarely manage to reach.
Before I became a librarian, I imagined myself reading aloud to children. I imagined that I would be sitting in a chair, reading aloud from (of all things) Charlotte’s Web, and a group of kids would be sitting at my feet, listening to me with rapt attention. I’m telling you, it was a very specific vision. And it has never ever come true.
When I became a librarian trainee I found myself steered into young adult services, which on the one hand meant that I wouldn’t be working primarily with children but on the other hand meant that I would end up making personal connections with library patrons of all ages. I’ve helped children, teenagers, adults, and senior citizens find books to read. I have learned personal details about my patrons that they would not share with most strangers, and found myself holding my breath and concentrating on keeping my professional veneer as they shared intimate information with me. Sometimes these interactions have moved me to tears, but I have always maintained enough self-control not to cry in front of them. The times I’ve cried in the past were because a patron shared a very personal kind of pain with me. I will always remember the woman who asked me to help her find books about divorce laws and told me that she wanted to make sure that her daughter was safe from her abusive soon-to-be-ex-husband. I will always remember the woman who was looking for information about the brain injury that her baby sustained when it was hurt by the doctor’s forceps during the birth process.
And I will always remember the girl who connected with a Judy Blume book and told me that she was going to get her period soon. But for very different reasons.
I was happy and proud that I’d introduced this girl to Judy Blume. I identified with this girl because she was reading above her grade level and was proud of that. I was honored that she felt safe enough with me to trust me with one of the most important milestones of her young life. I wanted to tell her that Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret was the most important book of my young life, that I read that book over and over again (thirteen times, in fact) while I was waiting for my period to start. And I wish that I could have told her that our conversation made me remember why I became a librarian in the first place.