The books are whispering.

In the Library by Charles Simic

for Octavio

There’s a book called
“A Dictionary of Angels.”
No one has opened it in fifty years,
I know, because when I did,
The covers creaked, the pages
Crumbled. There I discovered

The angels were once as plentiful
As species of flies.
The sky at dusk
Used to be thick with them.
You had to wave both arms
Just to keep them away.

Now the sun is shining
Through the tall windows.
The library is a quiet place.
Angels and gods huddled
In dark unopened books.
The great secret lies
On some shelf Miss Jones
Passes every day on her rounds.

She’s very tall, so she keeps
Her head tipped as if listening.
The books are whispering.
I hear nothing, but she does.

Last year at a deacon meeting, our pastor mentioned that he is going to be doing an occasional series of sermons on the questions he gets asked most often. Then, of course, he asked us what questions we thought he got asked the most often. As any public librarian worth her salt would know, the most-often asked reference question is, of course, “Where is the bathroom?” I could not resist the opportunity to make a joke, even at a deacon meeting, so I put that forth as my suggestion. He laughed and said, well, you know, he meant more along the lines of spiritual questions. But he does get asked that one, too. My reward was that, when the sermon series started, he mentioned what I had said and that some of the deacons got a little bit smart alec-y with him about the idea of questions. I was only disappointed that he didn’t mention me by name.

Recently someone asked me why I switched from public libraries to school, whether I disliked working in public libraries. I hastened to tell them that, no, by no means did I dislike it. It was a good job doing good work with good people, but the job itself, its physical location, was far from where my life is. If I was given the opportunity to have this schedule at that library, I might have stayed, and if I could have this schedule at a public library close to home, I am not sure what I would do. The jobs are similar, but have very different frustrations and are fulfilling in different ways. I wish I could do both! Pick my favorite parts from both jobs! Someone make this happen.

I try not to talk about the challenges of work in this public forum, but I will say that the economy has affected my school system just as it has been affecting school systems throughout the country. I have been angry about some of the decisions that have been made, and that anger has made me feel flat and uninteresting. My anger, it burns hot and fast, especially when I sense injustice. (Sensing injustice is like my superpower or something.) Sometimes my anger burns so hot and fast that, frankly, I am a little bit embarrassed about it after things calm down. This is my apology for being so flat and uninteresting lately, as well as my apology for being so angry and feeling so helpless that it reduced me to incoherency. Things have worked out at my school, but I am still feeling a bit drained and discouraged.

As part of the apology, I am offering you the words I spoke at the school board meeting this evening. I spoke on behalf of my assistant, who is a kind, generous, hard-working person.

I was excited to see that respectful and responsive service is part of [the school system]’s strategic plan. Many of us who have chosen to work in the school system do so because service is important to us. I have been given the privilege of working with a woman who embodies respectful and responsive service—my school’s media assistant. Earlier this year, our staff read a book about service and accountability and many people commented that our media assistant is the best example of service in our school. She goes out of her way to help students and staff, and they respond to her care and attention with great affection.

In the library, my assistant and I juggle many tasks that range from instruction to recommending books to providing a listening ear. Together, we are able to serve our students, staff, and community, providing them with the materials they need and promoting information skills and the love of reading, things that are proven to help increase our students’ achievement. We take very seriously the idea that that “true educational excellence is possible only in an environment that promotes and delivers service excellence as well,” and we strive to provide that excellent service for every student. Her presence enables me to work with classes, teaching information and technology skills that prepare our students for the future. It would not be possible for a volunteer to know the staff and students and provide for their needs the way that our school’s media assistant does, because her service goes beyond the media center and extends to every part of the school. She works directly with students, taking the time to help a struggling reader gain confidence, which affects more than just test scores—it can affect the way a student sees himself in the world. She draws out some of our more challenging students and takes great care when assisting our EC students as they discover the world through the library’s information, books, and computers. From her, I have learned the truth of the words of Marian Wright Edelman, “I’m doing what I think I was put on this earth to do. And I’m really grateful to have something that I’m passionate about and that I think is profoundly important.” To an outsider, it might seem as if providing students and staff with calculators, laminating, technology, supplies, and books is not important, but without those services, it would be difficult for our school to create such a positive learning environment.

If [the school system] is serious about “focusing . . . time, attention and resources on providing more respectful and responsive service as part of this strategic plan,” then I would ask you to consider that libraries are part of that service, and we need well-staffed, well-funded libraries as we strive for educational excellence. To cut an entire position cripples the possibility of excellent service in the future. As the strategic plan shows, service is something our students, staff, and community deserve. More than that, it is something they cannot afford to be without.

I spoke at the meeting in the hopes that voicing my opinion would give me the peace that has been lacking lately. Standing up at that meeting and speaking was incredibly difficult for me (THERE ARE TELEVISION CAMERAS THERE!!!!!), but I did it because there are people in this world who are worth sticking up for, and my assistant is one of them. And because my faith compels me to stand up to injustice. And because I am my father’s daughter.

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