The Accidental Librarian

At the Montessori school, I was standing in a classroom surrounded by preschoolers playing inexplicable games with wooden maps when the principal walked in. “Would you like to be our librarian until the end of the year?” she said.

I did that thing where my smile freezes on my face. Possibly I blinked a lot.

“Come on,” she said, heartily.

Yes, that library – I’d seen it when I walked in. Initially my glances toward it had been covetous; I’d thought of my time in elementary school, when I wanted nothing more than to hide amidst the stacks (though far away from the terrifying Goosebumps books) forever. And this was a superior library – sunlit, at the heart of the school, with colorful carpeting and skylights and plenty of books.

But oh… the state of its desk. You could not see it for the papers that ringed it; it was surrounded by a fortress of carts, all piled high with shiny-jacketed materials, yet to be reshelved. It was a heap of junk, and it was terrifying. I’d glanced away quickly, as had the children. From what I’d been able to gather in my day and a half at this school (I’d been the gym sub on Friday, had forgotten to return a whistle, and had thus decided to return on Monday), the previous librarian had retired suddenly, without time to organize or clean or anything. Or maybe – as I found out later – it had just been like that for years.

“But I don’t know anything about being a librarian,” I said.

She grinned. “You’ll figure it out!”

I like to think now that she saw something in me, some heretofore-undiscovered quality of librarianishness. But probably it was just that I was the only sub in the building at the time, and that I wear hornrimmed glasses.

I said, “Well, can I try it out for a week?”

She said, sure, and then left. I stood there, mildly panicked, already bemoaning my lack of substitute-teacher flexibility; the amazing thing about the job (among the only amazing things, apart from the times when you, say, run into your childhood best friend’s mom at a school) is that you don’t have to work if you don’t want to. “Eight-fifteen to three?” I murmured. “For the rest of the week? But what if I want to work on my novel?”

It could not be helped, though, and the next day, I showed up in the library.

There was a moment of initial panic as I stood amidst the dust of the front desk… and then a following ten minutes of sustained panic when I went into the back room, which was, as Bill the building engineer explained, “a fire hazard. Yeah, the marshal’s gonna come by soon, I reckon. You gotta get everything off the floor.”

“Everything?” I whispered. “All of it?”

I was having a feeling I get in used bookstores: the sense that there have already been too many books written and forgotten about, that I wouldn’t necessarily be adding anything to the conversation by writing more. That plus the dust plus my latent cold – the pages clogged my nostrils, and I sniffled –

But I gave a yogic breath and dove in.



An hour and a half later, I was exhausted and jubilant. I couldn’t see the end, yet, but it felt like this was the job that a decade of moving from town to town had prepared me for. I could hear my father’s voice echoing in my head – “Just get rid of it,” he boomed, and I did. I’d made boxes of discarded materials, of donated books, and of inexplicably ripped bar codes; I’d started to pile construction paper in the cabinets; I’d cleared enough space for a coffee cup on the front desk. The teachers, who – when I’d taught gym – had been but a faceless mass of kindness, began to gain distinct personalities as they wandered by and complimented me on my work. “I can’t believe it’s happening,” they kept saying.

I feel vain, talking about it now. Probably I am vain – these two months of librarian-ing have given me a swelled head. But my gosh, they have been marvelous.

After you’ve got the floor cleared, to be an elementary school librarian is to be a celebrity. Nearly all of the school’s five hundred-and-change children visit you on a weekly basis; their teachers are there, so there isn’t as much shouting-at-them-to-be-quiet to be done as there is in usual subbing, and besides there is the innate desire to be shushed in a library working in your favor. They sit in rows on their carpet squares, and they are eager to hear a book.

For – the previous librarian, who loved reading, had always read to them; and they were used to being entertained. I tried not to disappoint, shouting my way through Shel Silverstein’s A Giraffe and a Half and Jon Klassen’s Where Is My Hat? (which is hilarious – please read it if you’ve got anyone under the age of ten). My natural desire to show off was absolutely okay here in the library, and the children rewarded me by shouting my name in corridors, running out of line to hug me. I stuffed things in my hair – thirty pencils, one time, then a balloon, which I pretended not to see. I watched children discover books they loved. I felt like a less-scary Goofy. I was legion.

A blurry photo of me reading “Stellaluna” to six-, seven-, and eight-year-olds. Their heads are cropped out, as it is not legal to take pictures of children, but their expressions are reasonably rapt.

In my life previous to this year, I have always been the one leaving – I’ve moved from Germany to Iowa to New Zealand, scarcely stopping to take a breath. Finally, though, here in Minneapolis, I’ve gotten a small sense what it’s like to be the one left behind; to have a place or a relationship depart without your having wanted it to.

Yesterday the fifth-graders were graduating. Kindergarten was the day before; it had been merely adorable rather than sad. But fifth grade is a time when people begin to gain a sense of poignancy; there are fraught relationships with teachers, friendships that are suddenly more complicated, a new knowledge that next year, you’ll continue on into the rest of your life, the death-march of middle school, high school, college, after. It’s the first step in a series of leaving, and when they filed through the halls singing “When I’m gone / When I’m gone / You’re gonna miss me when I’m gone…” to the familiar accompaniment of Mr. Bob’s backpacking guitar (it is a Montessori school, after all), I was surprised to find a single tear dripping down my cheek and into my perennially-refreshed cup of coffee.


Due to a hiring freeze, I can’t be rehired for next year; it’s got to go to someone already in the district. I go back and forth; sometimes, I think I would like to be, and other times I think that the routine of scanning hundreds of library cards each day would (also) drive me bonkers. Maybe I was always meant to be a short-term fixer – someone so delusionally optimistic that she could look at that mess and go, “Well, I think I got this!” And if that’s the case, I am okay with it.

The used-bookstore feeling did not resurface; rather, it was so wonderful to, each day, go to work and be surrounded by people who adored reading so much. Kids can’t believe that libraries are for free; neither can I, really, when I get right down to it. Sitting in that chair I rediscovered so many worlds I’d long forgotten – Betsy & Tacy. Frog & Toad. From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. Julie of the Wolves. Gulliver’s Travels. I got to go back to where I was when I first discovered that I loved stories, and for that, I am so grateful – I think only with this job would I have finished my novel (for the third time), going to my favorite Dunn Bros. (just down the street) and typing for four hours each day (so as to miss rush hour). It was just the right amount of frenetic, and I never would have thought I’d enjoy it, but I did.

“It’s okay to enjoy yourself, you know,” said my mother a few weeks ago. Which is funny – I like to think of myself as perennially entranced with the world, but the truth is that going to a different school each day was getting overwhelming, and I could not think my way out of the problem except to go forward and hope it would get easier. But because I’ve finished my novel, I’ve gotten the courage to apply to other places that might have me – namely independent schools, where I want to use my MFA to teach similarly-excitable middle- and high-schoolers.

I realize now that I’d gotten in the habit of feeling that my life outside of writing had to be a slog – what I didn’t quite get was that one could enhance the other in a feedback loop of jubilance.

And so forward, all of us, into joy. (Especially you, fifth-graders – I don’t envy you, because I wouldn’t do middle school again for the world.)


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