I count myself lucky to belong to that great coterie of people whose one consistent default is: Whatever happens, make sure the children are all right. When the weirdness begins—when someone says something inappropriate or a car drives by too fast—we're the ones who check to make sure the kids are all right first, that they remain safe, untouched and untainted. Then, sometimes, we notice each other checking and, with a dip of the head or a wink of the eye, share a moment of unspoken allegiance. We are the guardians, the catchers in the rye—the mothers and fathers, teachers and librarians, cops and general walking-around citizens whose first concern, always, is the children. Whatever happens, we make sure they're all right first. Many members of this unacknowledged, unofficial fraternity would, I'm sure, unhesitatingly throw themselves in front of a runaway truck to save a child they might not even know. I hope I would.
But I wasn't always this way. Though we wanted to have children, tried to have children, it just wasn't in the cards for Melissa and me. And so, for most of my adult life, while I liked children when I thought about them, I have to admit I didn't think about them often. They just weren't on my radar screen. Then I went to work for the Talbot County Free Library and for the first time children were a part of my everyday existence. I watched them struggle to sign their name (in real big letters) on their first library card, I helped them find books, I oohed and aahed with them over the books they'd found, I checked them out for them, and then, best of all, I talked with them about their books or the games they were playing or the craft they'd created that morning with Miss Rosemary.
For years I had thought it took some special mother or father sense to know how to talk with a child, that it was something you learned through trial and error. But working at the library, I quickly realized the only trick you really need up your sleeve is respect. (Truth be told, respect is probably all you need to speak with just about anyone.) You have to respect the child, respect what they have to say, respect whatever it is they're interested in, whatever it is that they want to talk about or read about. And you can't be acting. If you are in fact indifferent to books about Weather Fairies or Magic School Buses, they will know it in a moment ... and smoothly withdraw into the protective shell of bashfulness that childhood confers. And you know something? If you think about it, if you let your grown-up guard down and really think about it, there is something fascinating about just about everything, including the notion that somewhere in the world there might be Weather Fairies or a Magic School Bus. Once you've gotten over that hump, talking with children is easy ... and a lot of other things become easy too.
So, among the many gifts I have to thank the library for, there is this. The library gave me children to care about. I shall always be grateful to the people of Talbot County for letting me work in their library, but allowing me the privilege of protecting and caring for their children ... well, what can I say? It is the most important trust anyone is ever given. I thank you.