April 20th, 2016

A library memory

Mark got me a new jewellery box for Christmas and so I cleared out the old one. I trashed the stuff that is legitimately useless (broken necklaces, single earrings) and gave anything I knew I would never wear again to my local 6-year-old (who was thrilled! 6 year olds are the best!) I found a bunch of badly tarnished silver stuff I hadn’t worn in years, went on a quest for silver polish (oddly hard to find–surely silver jewellery hasn’t gone out of fashion) and polished it all up. This process took months, but finally my setup is all worked out and I have access to a lot of pretty things I’d forgotten I owned.

Today I’m wearing a silver necklace that took me forever to polish because it has square links–it’s hard to get around the corners–but that’s also what makes it an interesting-looking piece. When I put it on, I realized I’ve had it for almost thirty years! Like most stories from my childhood, this one is weirder and sweeter than I knew at the time…

I went to a strange country school where there were only a few kids in each grade–usually between 7 and 9 in mine. Me and two girls named Jenny were the central girl population, with other girls coming for a year or two before moving away (why was the population of my little town so transient, I wonder now). With such a small group and my nerdish nature, it was easy to find myself without friends for a time, which is where I was in grade 4. Like I say, it was a tiny country school so no one was particularly mean to me most of the time, and I still got to play in any game that required quorum. Those games were often pretty rough, though–things like British Bulldog and Red Rover–and with my tendency to fall down even when nothing roughhouse-y was going on, I tended to want to stay away, even though I would have liked to play with other kids (note: I had friends and did fun outdoor stuff other years; grade 4 was just a rough one).

So I got really into being a “library helper” in my school library. I had done it for at least a year prior to grade 4–you just put books other kids had returned away during recess. I wish I could say I did it due to my intense love of reading, and I certainly liked all the books, many of which I would read or skim as I put them away, but mainly I was just looking to avoid recess.

That was the year the teacher-librarian, Mrs. Palubski, fell down a flight of stairs (at home; our school didn’t have stairs) and broke her ankle. Now that I think about it, something else must have been wrong with Mrs. P beyond a broken ankle, because she fell in the fall and took of the entire rest of the school year, but I didn’t know at the time that that was odd.

For a while we had a string of temporary subs come into the library for just a day or two at a time. Because any teacher could sub in for a teacher-librarian, often they knew nothing about libraries, so when I came in I would tell them about the Dewey Decimal system, which had become my favourite thing about the library, better even than the books or lack of other kids. It was just so orderly, and order was something I felt was sorely lacking at school, especially at yelling, pushing, red-rovering recess. I can still find things via the Decimal system, even though the libraries I’ve gone to in the past 20 years have almost all been Library of Congress style. 636 is my favourite, domestic animals (ok, I just looked it up–animal husbandry, but close enough!)

I’m sure I was an officious little dweeb, but I think the subs humoured me, partly because they realized this was the main thing going on in my life at school and partly because I actually did a fair amount of work that they, in turn, did not have to do. It was a good system.

I just remembered that maybe Mrs. Palubski was pregnant, which could be why a fall down a flight of stairs was such a problem. Or maybe it was just that by the time her ankle healed, it was time for mat leave. This wasn’t really on my priority list at the time–sorry, Mrs. P. I hope everything worked out ok for you!

Anyway, when it became clear that Mrs. P was not coming back, we got a long-term substitute for the rest of the year: Mrs. MacDonald. Mrs. MacD was young but not very young–perhaps thirty–with shoulder-length blond hair she often wore pulled back in a hair band. She had a vaguely western aesthetic, though thinking back now she might also have been a bit of a hippy. I thought she was gorgeous, but more importantly, she was really interested in the library and thus, really interested in what I had to say.

I’m not sure if she’d never worked in a library before or actually knew all about Dewey and just wanted to give me the floor, but I was thrilled that she let me give her the outline of our tiny library. I still did a lot of the shelving, but Mrs. MacD would shelve too, and we’d chat while we worked. Mainly about books–we both liked them–but also about other stuff, most lost to the mists of time. I know she had a husband, which seemed like a good idea to me, and many silver rings, which I also admired. At the time, I thought of us as two colleagues working together and passing the time of day, but now I know what I gift it is for a child to be treated as an equal to grownups, even in a tiny way. She never prodded me about going outside with my peers, and I don’t recall ever bringing it up. The problem would more or less resolve itself in grade 5, and then I would shift schools for grade 6 and finally make some real friends, so I think we both had it right in leaving well-enough alone at the time.

I was very sad when the year was wrapping up and Mrs. MacD was leaving, seemingly for good. I brought her a gift, as I did all my teachers–probably some jam my mother had made, as June is prime berry time and my mom was (and is) good at jam. And she gave me a silver necklace with small rectangular links. She loved silver jewellery and said she hoped this piece would be the start of my own collection of silver. It wasn’t, as I never buy jewellery and only have what I’ve received as gifts, but I treasured the necklace and wore it often for years, through high school and university.

Probably you’re thinking that a silver necklace is a bit of a strange gift to give a young student, and I guess you’re right. But unlike a classroom teacher, Mrs. MacD didn’t have to worry about playing favourites–she had no class of her own and I was really the main volunteer in the library (other kids would show up once in a while, then go play soccer). And it seemed like the sort of gift an adult would give a good friend, which is really what I wanted to be to Mrs. MacD–a peer she liked to hang out with, not a kid she was responsible for. She made me feel smart and cool and useful, which was a huge lift that tough year.

The necklace is still lovely, but somehow I forgot about it for a few years and let it get terribly tarnished, too much to wear, and then couldn’t be bothered to get silver polish. When I finally did, I was surprised to find how much I still like the necklace, and that it still really suits my aesthetic. I’m wearing it right now.

Mrs. MacD did indeed never return to my school, which is actually weird–the place was so far out of town that anyone willing to drive there to sub tended to get used over and over, as there weren’t that many. Maybe she got pregnant too, or decided she didn’t want to teach, or went to get her masters of library science. Maybe she wasn’t even a good teacher–I don’t know, since I saw her mainly one-on-one. I don’t know her first name or I’d google her–she’ll have to remain a mystery. But she was my cool friend when I needed one, and for that I’ll always be grateful.

2 Responses to “A library memory”

  • Kerry says:

    Grade 4 was the year being a library helper saved my life too, when we moved to Peterborough and I found myself absolutely friendless at recess. Libraries saved so many of us, didn’t they…


  • Rebecca says:

    Oh, Kerry, I didn’t know that–cool coincidence! Libraries have saved me more than once!


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So Much Love by Rebecca Rosenblum

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