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.

July 18th, 2011

Days 6 and 7, Oxford and Manchester

Oxford is just so incredibly beautiful, full of history and learning, gorgeous architecture and fields and gardens and places to buy books and pubs. But the thing that blew my mind is that this historical place going back centuries is *still* an accessible (well, to some) institute of higher learning. Just as my parents drove me to Montreal with my purple sheets and London Boy t-shirt when I was 19, some people’s parents drive them to *Oxford* and leave them there to increase their brilliance.

It was the summer term while we were there, so we didn’t see all that many students. A young man biking frantically ahead of our bus with his academic robe streaming behind him gave some idea of what the vibe will be there come fall. And we saw a few groups coming into or out of graduation ceremonies: the girls in pretty dresses, the guys in white tie and tails for some reason.

It’s just as well that most of the students weren’t around, as the tourists would’ve completely trampled them. I know it’s terribly poor form to complain about tourists when one *is* a tourist, but it’s also practically de rigeur–everyone does it. There were MANY tourists in Oxford, which surprised me–it’s a university, after all. Most were there, I think, for the architecture, which was stunning, and not so much interested in the colleges themselves. There was also an undercurrent about Harry Potter that I did not understand–apparently there are some scenes in the films set there, but I haven’t seen the films. We saw this broom at All Souls’ College, and people seemed pretty excited about it–thoughts?

Other highlights of the day included the Bodleian Library (though I was very sad that we were not allowed to see the actual stacks), Blackwell’s Books, which has 3 miles of shelving in the basement alone, and where I bought my lone book purchase of the trip, The Book of Other People, which I am much looking forward to reading. (NOTE: If I had not grown to loathe both my luggage and my miserable lack of upper-body strength, I would have bought many more. Consumer responsibility is increased when one will have to carry it.) We also had some really good pub food.

We saw our 7th consecutive sunny dawn the next morning, and were really starting to doubt the rumours about English weather. We left our cosy hotel and it was only when we were standing at the bus stop preparing to depart that I realized we’d be staying next to a Cattery the entire time. A cattery! House of cats must be what that means, right? Certainly explains the cat I saw in the parking lot at the hotel (I chased it; it bolted; I never learn).

We took the bus to the train station, and were very early (as usual). Then the train was delayed. Then we got on the train and it was chaos–no assigned seating, no where to put large suitcases, totally zoo with people still staggering through the aisle 15 minutes after the train had departed, looking for a place to collapse. The strange thing is that I was the only one that minded; the English were quite cheerful about having to stand in the aisle for a whole stop, or sit with their legs sprawled around their baggage. In light of their good grace, I refrained from complaining (much) either.

Still, it was a looooonng train ride to Manchester, and the flapjack I had bought as a genuine English treat disintegrated into a million particles all over me (and Mark) and was much too annoying to eat. Plus I never figured out where the bathrooms were. So I was not in great spirits by the time we arrived at Manchester Piccadilly, which I had thought was not actually where we were supposed to be, as our tickets said Manchester Metrolink.

It turns out that the Metrolink is a tram service (basically just like Toronto streetcars, but with tootling little kids-show-style horns), so the ticket saved us 90p in getting to our hotel. Unfortunately, a) some idiot tripped me and walked away as I crashed to the ground, so then my knee hurt, plus I was angry, b) our train had been delayed so much it was rush hour by the time we got on the tram, and c) when we got off at the stop proscribed by the info dude at the train station, it was completely not apparent where we were, and none of the streets were labelled.

So, I didn’t get off to a great start in Manchester. By the time we arrived at the Stay Inn (which is technically in another town entirely, Salford), I was in a bit of despair, and not thrilled to see that there is no entrance to to hotel from the street, and you had to go through an alley and parking lot to get in there. The very helpful and sweet staff working the desk were horrified at my suggestion that it wasn’t safe to be sending pedestrians through a dark alley and lot if they came home late–they assured me both that it was, and that the owners were building a street entrance the next year.

The room was nice, if small–the tv was on top of the wardrobe, which meant you either watched flat on your back, or with your neck at a 45 degree angle. Odd. The kindly hotel staff misunderstood our desire to see the town and sent us toe Piccadilly Gardens, which reminded me of Yonge and Dundas Square, with spray fountains and artfully arranged cement plazas, and nothing much to do but shop. Actually, as Mark pointed out, Manchester is a lot like TO, down to the tram/streetcars.

Instead, we strolled the Chinatown, and had a nice, very authentic meal in a room full of Chinese people–always a good sign. I kept thinking I would learn about the Chinese population in Manchester when I went to the People’s History Museum the next day, but I never did. That’s odd, too.

The next day was much better and I didn’t fall down once.

May 30th, 2011

More from Me

A few other blog postings about town from yours truly:

On Kerry Clare‘s estimable Wild Libraries I Have Known series, I contribute a bit of bookish (well, semi-bookish) nostalgia, about my very first library, Binbrook Library.

On Biblioasis‘s Devil’s Engine series, Cathy Stonehouse and I talk about that pesky stories to novels career arc rumour.

It’s a good thing I’ve got these otherwhere blog posts to send you to, as I have nothing much of my own to say right now. Oh, except that if you have overripe bananas, put them in the freezer (peel them first), then chop up the frozen bananas and each them with a spoon–like banana ice-cream!

January 21st, 2008


When I was a wee one, what I wanted to be when I grew up, more than anything, was a librarian. I felt it drew together my love of books and my obsessive organizational tendencies so perfectly. I was as serious about this dream as possible for a grade-schooler–I alphabetized my own books, rigorously dusted my parents’ shelves (I was not allowed to reorganize them, as my father had his own arcane system) and volunteered at the library every day after school until, as often happens in these tales, I lost interest when I entered high school. And though, when at libraries, especially when I worked (civilian position) at one, I often admire the work of librarians, and think fancifully of what they might do in a day, I am pretty sure that I lack a number of personal qualities, not to mention the years of training, necessary to make a good librarian. The patience, the pedagogy, the knowledge of catolguing and archival systems, the interpersonal skills necessary to deal with the public at all levels of knowledge–what an incredibly demand job. No wonder I didn’t rise to it.

I try to remember this when a librarian tells me that the edge of my shoe is touching the couch, in a cooing voice that clearly implies that I am not only a heathan but a moron.

And recreate a place in my own world

So Much Love by Rebecca Rosenblum

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