Wednesday, January 14, 2009
It's little wonder libraries are in trouble today. Oh, there's the digital revolution and all that, but libraries have bigger problems. Some librarians are evil. Not all of them, I admit, but I tangled with one who was and it scarred me for life. I was seven. That's me in the school photo.
My teacher, Mrs. Cloud, handed me a small slip of paper, folded in half. I opened it, read it, and must have surprised her a little as I gradually acquired several blotchy red patches on my neck. "I turned that book in last week," I mumbled, staring at the paper. "Well, go see the librarian," Mrs. Cloud replied. She probably wondered why I was so dejected. The paper only said I owed a dime because my book was late.
"I already returned this," I said, as I handed the slip to the tall, thin, gray-haired librarian whose name I don't recall, though I knew it at the time. "Well, I have your card right here telling me that you still have it. If you had turned it in, I would have pulled this card and put it in the book pocket and re-shelved it."
"But I know I returned it."
"There's no reason to lie about it. Just pay the dime and bring it in tomorrow."
"Lie about it! Over a dime, you think I'd lie about it?" Now I was furious. I had instantly gone from a bit embarrassed, accused of being late returning a book and owing ten cents, to enraged, accused of lying on top of it all. Next thing I knew I was being marched to the principal's office and my mother was on her way to school!
Once my mother arrived, the principal explained to her that I had not turned in my book, I owed a dime, and I was lying about having returned it. My mother was shocked. This was not what she expected when she got calls from school. "There must be a mistake. Georgie doesn't lie. My son is the liar, so I know lying when I hear it." The principle, in a bind, punted. "Let's go see the librarian."
So off we went, the three of us. When we arrived at her desk, the librarian told the same story about the check-out cards. "Well, if Georgie says she returned it, she returned it. Let's check the shelf," Mother suggested. This was perfect. The librarian and I probably both believed that the shelf would support our conflicting stories. She confidently called out the call letters on the check-out card, and we all marched over to the shelf where the book would be if it had been checked in.
There it was. The librarian snatched it from it's little thin space, opened the cover and there, inside the pocket ... she found the wrong check-out card.
The librarian had pulled the wrong card and placed it in the pocket of my book. I was so relieved and looked to my mother, took her hand, happily noted the obvious, "see, I did return it," and turned to leave. But to my utter astonishment, the librarian accused me a third time: "Why didn't you check to be sure I pulled your card and checked your book in correctly before you left?" I simply could not stop myself. I blurted out, "Well, it never occurred to me that you could make a mistake," with more than enough sarcasm to get into big trouble for being disrespectful.
The whole incident became a referendum on my deportment in the face of provocation. The librarian's reaction to a child who contradicted her had been swift -- mistrust and accusation -- but I was to overcome this. That was a hard lesson. I was a good student, I didn't lie, I was well-behaved, and I enjoyed in return that people believed what I said. I worked hard to earn trust. This lesson seemed to reneg on the deal: Someone may accuse me of lying rather than consider other possibilities, and I am to tiptoe around the obvious and say nothing to offend the accuser. I don't think I ever got the "be polite to adults no matter what" thing. But I did learn a lesson. Don't be like the librarian. Things work out much better if you recognize early in any conflict that you may be wrong.
And better late than never -- today I'm turning in my "thank you" to the evil librarian.