Friday, May 20, 2011

A Year in the Church of Urban Youth

In August when I accepted the job as librarian at the inner-city high school, the principal told me, “Don’t bring anything to work with you that you don’t want stolen.” I filled my office with impersonal yet pretty things to brighten my days: a few art postcards, a scented candle, a fake plant. They didn’t do much to improve the job.

Inner-city students are somewhat famous for not reading. Days would go by, weeks, where not a single book would circulate. I had become a librarian because I loved books and reading. What was a library without patrons? What good a librarian? In the Church of Urban Youth, I was a heretic, posting my READ posters on the door like a proclamation, but to no avail. I was useless. I was utterly bored.

In September, I decided I would at least have the best organized library in the district, starting with the library’s walk-in storage closet.

“What if someone needs you while you’re working in there?” the principal asked.

“Then that would be a miracle,” I said, but to appease her, I put out one of those clerk bells you see at stores.

A week later, the principal called me to her office to berate me. She’d stopped by the library while I was cleaning and found no sign of me, and no way to summon me.

They’d stolen the bell.

In an effort to boost circulation, I gave a staff development presentation in October on improving our reading scores, where I laid it all out for my coworkers.

“This is a list of bestselling books that we have here in the library – many of you have probably read a few of these.” The assembled teachers responded with nods and murmurs. “If enough of you tell your classes about the titles you’ve read, we might reach someone.”

Within days, students were coming in to ask about the bestsellers. Which were gone.

They’d stolen the books.

Opening the library before school one winter morning, I found the door kicked in. Accompanied by the principal and the dean of students, I surveyed the damage from the robbery. None of the computers were missing, nothing had been vandalized, but everything had been picked over. They’d taken the peanut butter crackers out of my office, the cute stop sign that said “SHH!” on it, a few of the art postcards.

They’d stolen the pretty scented candle from my desk.

"Bell, book, and candle!" I laughed out loud.

“Laughter is not an appropriate response to this situation!” the principal chided.

“Excommunication latae sententiae,” I giggled.

“Leave her,” said the dean. “She’s confused. I don’t think the poor dear has ever experienced robbery before.”

What I had experienced…


My conversion was swift and absolute. Stripped of Puritanical notions of running my library through hard work, I became a student of Zen.

One December day, my lunch was stolen. Deep breaths. Present moment focus. “A moment ago, I had an unstolen sack lunch. In this moment, that is not the case.” I learned to live in the lunch-less moment, to meditate on the experience of hunger.

In February, my twenty-seventh stapler was not missing because it had been “stolen” but because it was “seeking enlightenment through travel.” I did not request a new stapler from the school secretary: I respected the wishes of all staplers everywhere to journey whither they pleased.

When they told me a new printer was not in the budget, I spent March contemplating the broken printer’s state of being. If a printer doesn’t print, is it still a printer? Is this still a library? Am I a librarian?

By May we knew the state was closing the school due to unacceptable test scores. I was a sea of calm in an otherwise chaotic world. The principal suffered, arranging the paperwork for an official audit of the school’s resources. My coworkers fretted over their résumés. I started library inventory with serenity and grace.

In a world full of fabulous movies and video games, trashy novels on the couch with hot tea, swimming pools and sunshine, or dinner with friends, right now, I was doing library inventory. And because I could not change right now, I lived in and I enjoyed it. Because it was my library, my work, pure and purposeful. I was at one with the library. I was genuinely happy. It’s one of my happiest memories.

It was the day I achieved nirvana.

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