This is a story I have never told before. It’s about libraries and me, and how I ended up as a library person.
Middle school was a pretty terrible time for me. It is for most people, but I had the special awfulness of having been homeschooled until fifth grade, having no fashion sense, and being awkward in my own skin. I was book smart and smug about it. I was convinced that everyone hated me, based on the constant teasing and the paranoia that constant teasing produces. To be honest, I simply don’t remember large swaths of my middle school years.
English class was its own misery. I was reading at a college level and devouring books. And I didn’t have the patience or grace to see that for some people reading is not a joy. I suspect that I could easily have ended up hating reading, hating school even more than I already did.
And then one day Mrs. Hughes, the school librarian, came down and asked my English teacher if there was someone who could come up regularly during class to help her, and my English teacher said I could. I still don’t know if the librarian genuinely needed someone to help out or if she and the teacher had cooked this up between them.
I still had to read the books and take the tests and quizzes but most days, instead of sitting in class and hating everything, I went up to the library and helped check in books and shelve them. By the time I was in eighth grade, I was helping with processing (sticking the labels and card pockets on the books, anyway). I had a job. I had a place.
At this same time, I was just discovering fantasy. Lloyd Alexander, Susan Cooper, Nancy Bond, Elizabeth Marie Pope, Robin McKinley, JRR Tolkien–I drank them in, like a thirsty plant. The rule at this school was that you could check out two books at a time. At some point, Mrs. Hughes said, “Maureen, you can check out as many books as you’d like.” And I did. I would check out three or four books every day and sneak them home (yes, sneak, which is another story) and read them and return them the next day and get three or four more. Everything was terrible at that point: at school, at home, in the world. But in books I found hope that things would not always be this bad, that good would win in the end.
Years later I would read Tolkien and LeGuin on the kind of escape that stories offer, and I would cry because that’s why I read. That’s why I checked The Perilous Gard and The Blue Sword out over and over again, clinging to them like life preservers, because that’s what they were.
In my memory, that library is always full of golden light. There’s some actual truth to this–it was a long room on the second floor of the building and it had lots of windows. But I’m also investing it with my remembered emotions. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the library was my haven. It’s not an exaggeration to say that it saved me.
There was one librarian at this school, and one assistant and what I remember about them is a vague sense of what they looked like, and their kindness. I was weird and bookish and awkward and out of place. They made a place for me and I am convinced to this day that Mrs. Hughes bought the rest of the Dark is Rising sequence because she saw I was reading them and realized I couldn’t get them any other way. At some point, I was talking with some other students and they said how mean Mrs. Hughes was and I didn’t know what to say because she never had been that way to me.
I don’t know if I ever really thanked her for everything she did for me. But in a very real way, I am where I am today because of her. Not only in the sense of making it through middle school without completely collapsing into misery and depression, although that’s true. It’s also because of her that I first thought, “Hey. Maybe I could be a librarian.” I spent some of high school thinking I should be an English teacher, but in the end I came back to libraries. I came home.