Friday, May 30, 2008

The Illiterate Librarian

Much has been said of the librarians who don't like to read at the start of "Quiet, Please." I suppose it is quite shocking for some to hear that librarians (some anyway) don't like to read; before I wrote that chapter, I wrote this story about a librarian who is illiterate. There's truth to all fiction, I suppose, and you'll probably notice other things in the story that later became parts of the book.

These two stories are just the beginning; next month I will post an entire book online (granted a short book). An electronic version of "The Library Tree" will be posted here and on my website. This story was originally written for kids; in the future, I plan on releasing a full-length adult novel for free on the Internet. Stay tune for more information on both of these, and in the meantime, enjoy the short story below....

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When Dick Lambert, manager of the Harbor Branch library, was taken from his office in handcuffs for possessing over 400 pictures of child pornography on his work computer, Graham O’Connor, an illiterate librarian, knew right away that things were about to change at the small Anaheim library where Graham had been the librarian for the past nine years.

Two days after the removal of Harbor’s manager, Terri Twain, an energetic librarian who claimed to be distantly related to Mark Twain, was transferred from the main branch library to take over Lambert’s role as branch manager. Terri was young, had freckles covering her face, and kept her hair in tightly braided pigtails. She always wore baggy pants and imitation Hawaiian t-shirts. Other librarians often joked that she was the secret lovechild of Weird Al Yankovic and Pippi Longstocking.

The library Dick Lambert had created was a complete contradiction of Twain’s vision of what a library should be. When Lambert became the Harbor manager, his goal was to have people come into the library, checkout their books, and leave. He took out the reading tables and put a permanent out of order sign on the restrooms, to discourage patrons from staying any length of time. And to hide his fetish for child pornography, Lambert discarded almost half the library's collection of children’s literature and replaced them with stuffy academic books that no one read.
Terri Twain was transferred to turn Harbor back into the children’s library that it had been before Lambert had come. In her first two months, every employee but Graham was transferred to other libraries and replaced with fresh, young, energetic workers who loved children, and had a passion for introducing the library to the community. The library director insisted that Graham stay at the library for a year to teach the younger librarians the procedures and politics of the library.

The library was transformed quickly. Every day, dozens of classes from nearby schools came each day to hear stories and check out books. The weekly storytime was averaging 50 to 70 kids each week. Because Graham was the only full-time librarian, besides the manager, his official title was changed, against his will, to children’s librarian. And as much as Graham silently hated Terri Twain for what she was doing to his job, he had to pretend to like her because everyone else gave her nothing but praise.

When everything was completely bad for Graham, there came the Thursday that made it horribly worse. Graham was in the staff lounge sipping coffee and scanning the newspapers photos. Terri came into the lounge anxious and nervous carrying under her left arm a copy of The Dilbert Principles.

“Paper, huh?”

Graham looked up, nodded, and then looked back down. He could see Terri’s reflection in the window. She was nervously chewing on her ink pen. Graham knew by the awkwardness in her tone that she was about to say something that he was going to hate. He sat still, watched the second hand on Terri’s Mickey Mouse anniversary watch, and waited for it to come.

Terri bit her lip and scratched the red nail polish off her thumb. Then she asked the question that would certify the fact that Graham was going to have a bad week, “How would you feel about doing storytime next week?” Then she began to laugh.

Storytime?” Graham laughed with her. “I don’t believe I could ever pull that one off.”

“Everyone’s taking their vacations, and I’m desperate. It’s just this once—I promise. And it wouldn’t have to be anything special. Just read a few pictures books, sing a song or two, and do a craft. Simple. Nothing to it.”

“I don’t think so. I’m not good at that sort of thing”

“You are the children’s librarian, you know?”

Graham shrugged and loosened his tie.

“You’re not afraid to do it are you?”

“No.”

“There’s nothing to be afraid of. It would be a piece of cake. Nothing to worry about.”

“I’m not worried.”

“I’d do it myself but I have a meeting.” She touched his wrist, “I’m in a bind and we all need to be team players.”

Graham sighed.

Terri patted him on the shoulder, “Thank you—you’re a life saver. I owe you so big.”

“I….”

“Don’t worry, you’ll do fine.” She looked him over quickly, and then looked down at the management book she was holding and tapped her finger on the head of the man on the cover, “You really should start dressing a little more fun.”

Graham had worn a tie everyday since he started working as a librarian in Anaheim. “I wear it to be professional.” He offensively explained.

“I can’t force you to change, but it makes you look too stuffy. It’s all about being a team player.” She started to walk out of the break room, but turned before she reached the door, “You’re going to do great—you’re so good with kids.”

Graham smiled and nodded. As a matter of fact, he hated kids.

# # #

The earliest memory Graham had of his childhood was seeing his father staring intently at a book while sitting in the recliner chair. He was almost five-years-old. “Why are you doing that, Father?” Graham asked. “Because reading is what smart people do,” was his father’s reply. The next day Graham picked up the encyclopedia “T” and pretended to read. His mother saw him and began telling all of her friends what an excellent reader her young son was. Graham’s earliest memory was where his most elaborate deception began.

As Graham grew older, he found that the best place to hide from his lie was the root of the lie.

There was a library next door to his grade school, and he began to visit it daily. The librarians, over time, were all very friendly with him. It was so adorable to all of them for such a young boy to spend so much time in a library. In high school one librarian was so moved by his desire to go to college that she helped him find and get several grants; he used the grant money to pay for poor graduate students to do his homework. He majored in art, which he concluded long before he began college, would be the easiest subject to study since so much time was spent analyzing paintings.

His parents had no clue—they never had. When he excelled in school, it only validated their belief that their illiterate son was nothing short of perfect. He remained single just to ensure that no one would ever get close enough to discover his secret. His only serious romance was with a teacher’s assistant in college, but her intelligence became too serious to compete with.

He went to San Jose State University and got his masters degree in Library Science taking all online classes and paying undergrads to do all of the work. He claimed his handwriting was messy and asked other people to fill out applications. He was good at persuading others to do tasks that were easy for people who could read. He became a master of all the arts except for literature. He frequented museums all of his free time, and knew about wars, art, music, and history in general from museum tours and television documentaries. He was a gifted, intelligent man, who just happened to not know how to read.

He also taught computer classes at the library, because he had expert computer literacy. Two months ago he had turned in his resume to the California State University of Fullerton extension office in Garden Grove and he hoped to be teaching a night class in computers in the Fall.
He had no intention of ever learning how to read because there did not seem any use to it. From an early age, he learned that things were better understood graphically. Now he was a children’s librarian who couldn’t read, and somehow he had to read a handful of picture books for next week’s storytime.

# # #

Whenever someone asked Graham what he did as a librarian, a sly smile always crossed his face before he answered. He never went into what he did. He would give a routine answer filled with theory and rhetoric that he had learned in graduate school. But the truth was Graham had become quite good at doing absolutely nothing of relevance. There were exceptions to this rule of nothingness, of course—days when he would have meetings with other city librarians and he would say just enough to make it clear to everyone that he was a valuable commodity to the library system. Most days, however, he did nothing. He’d begin his mornings sipping tea in the staff lounge while pretending to read the paper. About thirty minutes into his eight hour shift, he’d make his way to his desk where he’d immediately turn on talk radio and begin his day pretending to browse the libraries OPAC. Most of the time he’d appear to be doing something and nobody would question it. But on those rare occasions that someone dared to ask, “So what’s that you’re working on?” He’d answer in a tone that indicated he was stressed, “Oh, I just noticed a lot of our mysteries are cataloged as ‘new’ when they’re old, and I’m trying to straighten them out,” or, “just checking the circ record on some books.” Now that Twain was in charge, he frequently would say, “A teacher asked if I’d pull picture books about animals doing silly things for their class visit next week.” And if, by chance, they had the nerve to ask what teacher, he’d say, “I can’t believe it—I forgot to ask. I’ll just leave them at the reference desk and we’ll figure it out when the class comes in next week.”

When Graham got tired of looking like he was working, then he would take a break. He took several breaks during the day. He was only allowed two breaks a day, but he had developed a strategy to get the most of these. He always kept water in the refrigerator, and took five to ten minute water breaks about four times a day. Then there were the bathroom breaks—at least two. There were what he called “chit-chat” breaks, which were to inform other staff of friendly library gossip. At the minimum there was one of these and it usually lasted until the conversation was interrupted by another employee needing help with something (which meant conversations lasted about twenty minutes). Finally, there were the real fifteen minute breaks, which rarely ever went under thirty minutes; these long breaks had a strategy in themselves.
Terri, wanting to change Graham’s routine, created a library policy that stated librarians most take two one hour rotation a day at the reference desk to help improve “team player” skills. Graham’s rotation was 12-1 and 3-4. He had, of course, protested this, but when he saw there was no way out of it, he sought a way to at least shorten it. So he took breaks. To spend the least amount of time at the desk, he’d always started his breaks 15 minutes before his desk time was supposed to be over, and added another ten-minute break for the bathroom. His total time on the reference desk was never more than 35 minutes.

During his time at the desk, he did all he could to scare kids away, but occasionally one would come up with their mother and even his meanest face couldn’t keep a mom away. He liked dad’s better, because they were easier to discourage.

“I’m looking for a book for my son to read.” A determined mom said as Graham searched the web for a Lee Krasner painting to use as wallpaper on the Windows desktop (he used Google, because it had a user search for images and not just articles).

Graham looked up and politely gave a fake smile, “Well we have plenty of those here.” He tried to sound perky in a phony way. Terri told him his mannerism was too dry.

“He doesn’t like to read very much. I want to get something that will get him excited about reading.”

“That’s normal for a boy his age.” Graham forced a smile, then tried to sound sincere, “What’s your name, buddy?”

“J.R.”

Graham looked at the boy, who looked about ten or twelve and was shyly staring at the ground, and scratched his chin, pretending to be seriously thinking about the perfect book for the woman’s son. Finally, after keeping the mother in suspense, Graham stood and said, “Well J.R., I think we have just the right book—follow me.”

He walked them through the book stacks, looked at the boy again, and then randomly grabbed a 30-page picture book.

“This ones really good.” Graham said. He shoved it at the boy and forgot to be perky.
The mom grabbed it and set it down. She looked at the book oddly, “That’s a little to juvenile for him.”
Graham smiled. “Of course—I was just showing him my favorite as a kid.” He looked at the boy again, “How many pages do you normally read?”
The boy shrugged.

“A hundred or so would be good.” His mom answered for him.

He patted the boy on the shoulder and honestly said, “That’s’ better than I read at your age.”

Graham walked to the chapter books and browsed carefully. He recognized the book Tuck Everlasting because the cover looked like the movie poster. He picked it up quickly, “This ones really good.” He said and handed it to the boy.

J.R. looked at the book, then at Graham, “What’s it about?”

Graham’s mind struggled for an answer. He never saw the movie or heard the television reviews. “Lots of things.” He saw the boy wasn’t impressed and added, “They turned it into a movie.”

The boy looked at his mother excited.

“Thank you.” The mother said.

Graham nodded and walked away having no clue what he had recommended. He hated the reference desk and it was time for a break.

In the lounge, Graham reclined in a chair and rubbed his neck relieving the stress he had received from his 35 minutes on desk. A library page was reading notes he had made in one of his textbooks, and Graham, trying to be friendly because Terri called this ‘A team player skill,’ tried to make friendly conversation. “What’s that you’re reading?”

The page removed the headset he was wearing. “I’m reviewing some notes for a test I have tomorrow on early India civilization.”

“Really?” Graham asked taking a seat across the table, “The Indus civilization?”

The kid looked at his notes, “Yeah.”

“Amazing how advance that civilization was.”

“Yeah.”

“You read anything about the graves in Mohenjo-daro?”

“I don’t think so.”

“That’s because they never found any.”

The page looked up curious.

“Found them everywhere else—Harappa, Lothal, Kalibangan—but none in Mohenjo-daro. I’ve always wondered what they did with the dead bodies. I keep thinking they’re going to dig one up and put my mind at ease.”

“How do you know so much about them?”

Graham smiled. “I work in a library—where do you think?” He actually watched it on cable. He was excellent at memorizing. Once he listened to an audio collection of Shakespeare’s sonnets and memorized half the book to impress people with his alleged knowledge of literature.

# # #

Graham thought carefully about what he would do for his storytime, and when it came, he wasn’t as concerned as most illiterates would have been. He prayed for the storytelling room to be empty when he entered, but was unnerved when it wasn’t. Graham looked at their eyes carefully. Some seemed excited to hear what a male librarian could do, others seemed nervous. A few of the mom’s in the back held their hands to appropriately show they had no wedding rings. One mom adjusted her blouse to show more cleavage.

“Well,” Graham got the courage to say, “Shall we get things started?”

A few nodded.

“Okay then,” Graham held up an ABC picture book, “I’ll need your help for this one.”

The kids read aloud each of the letters and laughed at the silly pictures of animals doing funny things that occupied each letter. “A” had an ape in a dress skipping rope. “B” had a bear roller-skating down a steep hill headed straight for a swimming pool. “C” had a cat riding a roller coaster. “D” had a dog chasing the cat on the roller coaster. “E” had an elephant water-skiing. And it went on like that all the way through the alphabet. The kids clapped when he finished. One asked him to read it again.
Next he asked an audacious girl if she’d like to read the second story—and she did. It was called the “Belly Button Boy.” There were a few words that she struggled with and looked to Graham for help, but he only smiled and said, “Sound it out.” When she did, even if she had said it wrong, he smiled and nodded and said, “Good job—see you can do it.” He was very encouraging that way.

For the final story, he said, “A Picture is worth a thousand words—anyone ever heard that phrase?”

There were a few nods—mostly from the parents.

“What it means is sometimes we don’t need words—sometimes a story explains it all.” Graham looked around the room. Most the kids were looking down or at there parents or at the picture on the wall. Three seemed to be eating up every word Graham said. “This next story is called Tuesday’s and it has almost no words—only pictures.” Graham opened first page, “You tell me what’s going on in this story—what do you see in the picture?” Asking them questions about the pictures got all of the kids excited. By the end of the story all the kids were raising their hand to tell what they saw in the picture, many of them made up things that were not even in the story.

About the only thing that Graham made any effort at doing was showing how to do the craft, which was a Popsicle stick dressed up like a monkey. He got the template from another librarian.
Several parents complimented Graham for getting the kids involved and not just reading. J.R., the Tuck Everlasting boy, was at the storytime, and could not wait to see Graham, “I really liked the book you picked.” He told him.

“Really? Good.”

His mom stepped up, “You really did a great job.”

“I’m glad you enjoyed it.”

“Will you do it again?”

“We’ll see.” Graham said. And as he thought about what he said, he was already considering doing another storytime in his mind.

“I really hope you do.” She smiled, “Now I need your help again.”

“Okay.”

“My six year old is kind of into taking things that aren’t hers.”

“That’s not good.”

“Yeah—so I wanted to get a picture book that teaches her not to steal.”

“I see.” He pretended to think, then asked, “Well how about Dr. Seuss?”

“He wrote a book on stealing?”

“Oh sure. Just browse through them and you’ll find it.” He knew Seuss had wrote lots of picture books but didn’t know what they were about.

“Do you recall the name?”

“Not off the top of my head—just browse through them. You’ll find it.”

Graham was helping a girl with a craft, when the mom came back with Horton Hatches an Egg. She held it up proudly, “I found it!”

“Good.” He Looked up, smiled and nodded, “Yeah, that’s the one I meant.”

# # #

Things didn’t go to bad in the weeks that followed. Graham’s biggest threat was when the manager mentioned that she was thinking about moving some of the books around. Graham quietly protested because he had memorized the position of every book in the library, and in the end he won after proving the old way was more handicap accessible.

Parents, especially the single moms, began requesting Graham for storytime. Reluctant and nervous at first, Graham agreed to do it once a week. He had still never read a story, but no one noticed. Each week he’d have different kids read the story, and even pick the books to read for themselves.

Graham felt he had accomplished an impossible barrier for an illiterate. He had become a storyteller! One day, as he glanced at a book he’d let a kid read during storytime, he saw the reflection of Terri Twain in the window and his body became tense. Regretfully he turned and smiled at her.

“I have a surprise.” She said holding up a wrapped box.

“What’s this?”

She handed it to him, “Open it.”

It was a Hawaiian shirt with Mickey Mouse. He did his best to show some courteous enthusiasm.

“Wow, thanks.”

“It was on clearance at the Disney store and I thought you’d like it.”

“Maybe you could wear it instead of a tie one day.”

“Maybe.” He lied. “Thank you—I love it.”

“There’s more.”

Graham starred curiously.

“Look under the shirt.”

There was a Southwest Airlines envelope. Graham was confused.

“It’s to Sacramento.”

“Sacramento?”

“The library allotted some money this year to spend on sending a librarian up North to the CLA conventions.”

Graham slowly nodded.
“You’ve been chosen to represent the library next month! Isn’t it exciting?”

Graham hated conferences, but forced a smile, “Thrilling.”

“And you’re going to do a lecture on children’s programming.”

“Children’s programming?”

Terri nodded excited, “Yeah—words got around on the way you let kids read the stories in storytime. Everyone thinks it’s giving the kids better self-esteem and motivating kids to be better readers.”
“Oh.”

Terri patted Graham’s shoulder, “Aren’t you excited?”

2 comments:

Roland Saint-Laurent said...

Terri Twain at the Harbor Branch Library reminds me of someone, but I can't quite put my finger on who.

Anonymous said...

Heh, as an employee of the real Harbor Branch—an oceanographic research facility in Florida, I'm cringing at the thought that all future Google searches of 'child pornography' + 'librarian' will now always return Harbor Branch hits. Ouch. Good bit of writing, though.