Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Library Lesson

I worked in the grade school library as a kid, arriving early every morning and staying late every afternoon to shelve and help check out books. If I hadn't had this extra access to the library I would never have known the full story about what happened that week in late spring when Volume J of the Encyclopedia Britannica went missing.

The school year was winding down and we had one last big assignment. We were supposed to write a paper about a famous American using library books and an encyclopedia as sources. After school, kids came into the library to check out volumes on George Washington Carver, Betsy Ross, Andrew Jackson, Eleanor Roosevelt and Jim Thorpe. It must have been a city-wide assignment because even the school cleaning lady, who always wore big sleeveless sack dresses, talked too slow, and didn't seem to understand things the way most grown-ups did, stopped by to haltingly ask the librarian if she could borrow a book about John F. Kennedy for her son who went to a different school; as it turned out, someone in our class had already picked JFK for his assignment so we had nothing to offer her.

By this point the "biography" section of the stacks was pretty picked-over and when our class met for our usual afternoon library period, we decimated the reference section as well. The Encyclopedia Britannica normally filled a complete shelf from end to end, but by the time we'd all grabbed the volumes we needed, the set of Britannicas looked like a picket fence with most of the pickets missing: Volume A, missing space, missing space, Volume D, missing space, Volume F, missing space...on and on. However, at the end of class we all had to put our volumes back because encyclopedias were non-circulating.

The next afternoon, we returned to the library and the librarian very seriously asked who in the class was writing their report on someone whose name started with the letter J. One girl -- I'll call her Cathy -- raised her hand and said she was writing about Andrew Jackson. The librarian pointed at the shelf of Encyclopedia Britannicas. There was an empty space -- as glaring as a missing tooth in the middle of a smile -- where the J volume was absent. She said, "Cathy, I thought I made it VERY clear that encyclopedias do not leave the library."

"I didn't take it home," said Cathy. "I put it back on the shelf."

"Oh really?" said the librarian, adding in a skeptical voice: "Well, perhaps you ACCIDENTALLY took it home."

"But I didn't!"

"I expect that encyclopedia to be back on the shelf by tomorrow morning at nine AM," the librarian warned, staring at Cathy. "The rest of you can continue with the work you started yesterday. Cathy, you can just sit quietly at the table since the volume you need is 'missing.'"

For the next forty minutes, we all worked on our reports while Cathy sat quietly, not even moving. At the end of the class, we all put our encyclopedia volumes back, leaving an empty space for the missing J volume and the librarian turned to Cathy and said only four words: "Tomorrow morning. Nine o'clock."

But when I showed up to work in the library the next morning, the book was still not on the shelf. The librarian was having coffee with a couple other teachers and explaining the situation. "I guess I was a little hard on my student yesterday," she admitted, then sighed and said, "But sometimes these kids need to learn a lesson."

That afternoon we did not work on our reports during library period. Instead we had a lecture on Responsibility. And Honesty. On Following Rules. And Doing the Right Thing. "Because of one individual, an entire school full of students is being deprived of a book. Did you know that it's impossible to replace a single volume of an encyclopedia?" (I've since learned this is NOT true.) "In order to get that one missing volume, we will have to order an entire new set of encyclopedias, which will cost hundreds of dollars! Because of one person!"

Cathy blew her nose and wiped her eyes with a Kleenex while shaking her head and murmuring, "But I didn't DO anything" to the kids at her table -- who regarded her with looks of sympathy and/or curiosity and/or suspicion.

After school that day, the librarian asked me to help her check the stacks to see if, possibly, the encyclopedia could have been misshelved. We scoured the reference section, feeling behind the books to see if the volume had accidentally fallen in back; examined the biography section; hurriedly scanned all the fiction and nonfiction shelves. It was nowhere to be found.

Until early the next morning when the cleaning lady came in and took Encyclopedia Britannica, Volume J, off her wheeled truck and set it on a table. The librarian and I stared at each other. "Where did you find that book?" the librarian demanded.

The cleaning lady looked worried. "I took it home. For my son," she said in her slow voice.

"That book was not supposed to leave the library--" the librarian began in a loud voice, but stopped when the custodian started blinking back tears and stuttering apologies, saying over and over that she didn't know and was only trying to help her son and she was so stupid she brought home the wrong book anyway.

"The wrong book?"

"J for John Kennedy," she said, "but...he's not...not even in this book."

The librarian patted her arm, then marched to the encyclopedia shelf, grabbed the K volume, and told me to go to the main office and photocopy the Kennedy entry. "Tell them I'll pay for the copies myself," she said.

By the time I got back, the librarian had tracked down Cathy and was apologizing profusely for what had happened. "Maybe we don't need to share ALL the details of this with your classmates," she said, adding, "Mrs. _______ doesn't always understand things...things like library rules...and we wouldn't want to make her feel bad about that, would we?"

That afternoon in class, the librarian announced that there had been a misunderstanding and that Volume J of the Encyclopedia Britannica had been found. She apologized to Cathy in front of everyone and said she felt we had all learned a valuable lesson from this.

Well, I knew what lesson SHE had learned; I doubt she ever accused a student of any wrong-doing again without overwhelming evidence.

As for Cathy, she probably learned the perennial kid-lesson that adults aren't always right.

And me?

If I were in Cathy's shoes, I knew I'd be telling everyone, "See? See? It wasn't me! It was the cleaning lady!" Yet at the end of class, when a bunch of kids surrounded Cathy and peppered her with questions -- "What happened?" "Where did they find the book?" "Did someone else take it?" "Who?" "Who did it?" -- she just shrugged and said, "I dunno. I guess it was all just a big mistake."

And I ended up learning my lesson from Cathy.


Anonymous said...

What a great story! Thank you for sharing it.

Jen Robinson said...

What an excellent story, Peter! It especially resonated with me because I also worked in my grade school library when I was a kid. I loved it so so much.

I have to say that this story sounds like something that you'd see in a book, or a television show or something. In your case, truth is more satisfying than fiction.

Ken Brown said...

Fantastic story. Great point and very well-told!