19
Mar
09

after school

children-and-iris-0341Every afternoon, when the elevator doors open on the third floor at 3:05, children of all sizes spill out wearing backpacks and looking like assorted sized beetles. Today the noisy swarm has arrived ten minutes earlier than usual and I brace myself for the onslaught of after-school combustion. The crowd is energetic having been constrained and monitored, shushed and directed until finally free they explode like fizzy soda pops.

“Keep your voices down! Remember where you are!” Allison, one of the other librarians, shouts, making as much noise as the children. It isn’t that they’re trying to be noisy, but put fifteen to twenty of any size human beings together in the same place and they’ll be noisy even if it happens to be in a library.

“No eating!” she continues. She puts her hands on her hips and stares pointedly at the lollipop hanging out of a mouth. It’s a familiar routine.

“It’s just a little can…” the boy begins to protest.

“Out!” she says, pointing a stern finger to the trash.

Along one side of the vast space of the third floor is administration, called admin, for short, not always affectionately. Sealed off from Youth Services by walls and firmly locked doors, they operate in a pristine zone removed from most of the hustle and bustle of the public. The rest of the floor is dedicated to young people: newborns in carriages or strollers at one end, and would be drivers of cars at the other.

They flock to the cubbies. Some put their belongings neatly into the spaces provided; others throw them on the floor. I hear the usual snippets of conversation: she said, he said, she said, he said, a continuation of the day’s goings-on.

“Shhh…” I say committing the cardinal sin.

“Please take anything valuable with you!” Jan warns. There’s been a rash of I-pods stolen recently. “And put your things IN the cubby!”

Many of the young girls are wearing strings for blouses, skirts so short they dare not lift their arms over their heads or jeans worn like plaster over their shapely bodies. Their eyes are outlined, their lashes long and their lips, glossy. I understand them and can remember my own yearnings to be grown. Yet, I still have to suppress the urge to repeat my mother’s warning: You have many years to be an adult, why rush it?

A little girl, probably five and a quarter years old, (at that age they often make sure you don’t forget the quarter), steps cautiously up to the low public service desk, her eyes wide, darting around before settling on me. My face is level with hers.

She whispers something I can’t hear.

“Don’t worry Love; I don’t bite, at least not on Mondays.” It’s a joke that has worked well in the past to put children at ease. Stepping back, she seems set to run. “I’m sorry, I’m really joking,” I say quickly, feeling remorse. I give her a gentle, apologetic smile.

She looks suspicious but then seems to regroup. She steps forth to deliver her question, standing her ground in pink and purple sneakers and matching socks.

“Do you have animal books?”

Her hazel eyes are deeply set in her dark brown skin looking like beautiful, shiny jewels. Her chin juts out sharply from her face and her dark bushy eyebrows are almost touching, making her look both childish and old for her years. She wears thin, long braids, maybe eight or ten, which had previously been restrained with a pink ribbon. They are now free and seem ready to defend her if necessary.

She and her braids wait for my answer. I half-expect a back up posse of children to leap from behind the display stacks and demand that I produce the book.

“We have many, many animal books.” I keep my voice soft.

I stand and walk around the desk to stoop in front of the small child who smells faintly of Irish Spring soap. I’ve learned that sometimes it’s better to get from behind the desk. “Why don’t you give me a little more information?” I smile warmly. “Is this for homework or for fun?” I can’t help myself: often homework isn’t fun.

Not a muscle moves in her face and she crosses one leg over the other as if she needs a bathroom.

She nods, then turns around and runs into the stacks, returning a few moments later with her friend, another little girl with a long blond ponytail and a pug nose. I’m right, a small posse.

I decide that it’s best not to remind them that running isn’t permitted in the library.

“I want to find out about squirrels. They keep eating our bird seed.”

“Okay! Let’s go!” I say, relieved to be making progress. “I’m sure we can find a book about squirrels, but it’s a long walk! I always need a snack to make it from here to there. Did you bring any nuts or raisins; because I don’t have any today I’m afraid.”

I can’t see their faces, but hear giggles behind me. I turn to face them. “Well, if you don’t have any, we can always sneak some nuts from those squirrels in 599; we’re sure to find some hidden for the winter.”

The first little girl shakes her head, “No, we don’t have any snacks.”

I slap my cheek and turn to face them. “Oh no! The real problem is that I didn’t even bring any water, and we’ll be walking through the desert, you know, over there in the 570s!” I point towards the stacks. They are holding hands now and with the other hand they try to hide the smiles that decorate their faces.

“Well, we’ll have to tough it out. We’re almost there anyway.”

We reach the squirrel books and I show them how to use the index. They select two and seem satisfied.

“Okay, thanks!” they shout happily and run off holding hands. I don’t dare remind them that shouting, too, is not allowed in the library.

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“If stories come to you, care for them. And learn to give them away where they are needed. Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive.” —Barry Lopez
“‘Thou shalt not’ is soon forgotten, but ‘Once upon a time’ lasts forever.” Phillip Pullman

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