The Library: Three Sketches from Life

by Bill Peak

I suppose most people, when they think of a library, think of books. If they're of a particular frame of mind, they might then add magazines to the mix, or genealogical archives, or any of the myriad other materials libraries are known for, but the one thing they're most likely to forget is the one thing that actually makes a library a library: people. Absent people, a library has no more claim upon a civilization's esteem than a warehouse full of old furniture.

Three quick stories.

Several weeks ago, while working behind the circulation desk, I noticed something odd in the children's section. From where I stood, the children's section is partially obscured by a bookcase that runs through the middle of the library like a low wall. Over the top of this bookcase, just visible from the shoulders up, I could see two young women standing talking to each other. That they were enjoying whatever they were talking about was obvious from the way they kept smiling and nodding at each other, but as they talked, as if they could scarcely contain the pleasure they took in each other's company, the two women rocked back and forth, each mirroring precisely the movements of the other. What added to the strangeness of this performance was that there was something vaguely familiar about it, even comforting, as if I too had once perhaps rocked to just such a tune.

After a moment or two even a bulb as dim as mine begins to shed a little light. Babies. Behind the bookcase and hidden by its bulk, both of the women held babies in their arms. This was why ... as they stood and chatted ... they rocked to a rhythm I found both familiar and comforting.

Last week, while getting something out of my truck, I noticed three little girls making their way up the opposite side of the street toward the library. Grown-ups who know each other and walk toward the same destination usually walk together, but these three, though evidently related (sisters, or maybe cousins), advanced up West Dover in a long, broken line, each child clearly embarked upon her own very private promenade. The first two, walking about ten feet apart, were the oldest, I would guess eight and nine, and they strode along determinedly, the one in front happy, her goal now in sight, the one behind frowning as if practicing her times sixes and sevens. At a little distance behind them, and steadily losing ground, was a much younger child who stopped regularly to study the walk before her, perhaps visualizing hopscotch squares, perhaps avoiding the cracks so detrimental to her mother's back. All three girls carried brightly colored “Catch the Summer Reading Bug” bags full of books they were returning to the library.

Not too long ago history put in an appearance at our library when, in the middle of a book discussion, the topic of discipline in the schools came up and Mrs. Alma Hackett of Trappe (formerly of Crisfield) raised her hand. “Propriety,” she said, “begins at the beginning. One can brook no exceptions.” A retired teacher of high school chemistry, Mrs. Hackett still bears about her an air of dignified authority. Each of us in the discussion group that night found ourselves sitting up a little straighter in our chairs, listening intently.

Back in the '60s, she told us, when Somerset County schools were integrated for the first time, she was among a handful of African-American teachers the board of education decided to retain in Crisfield's newly consolidated high school. On the first day of classes, Mrs. Hackett's first period students entered her room talking excitedly among themselves, doubtless as keyed up as the nation at large by the change overtaking their lives. But before they could find a place to sit, their new teacher told them they all had to go back outside, enter her room again. Bemused, the teenagers returned to the hall, then re-entered the classroom a little more circumspectly, muttering under their breaths. Again Mrs. Hackett ordered them out, telling them they would continue to enter and re-enter her room till they got it right. And it was then, as they were about to make their third attempt, that one of her students raised his hand. “You know I can still see him,” she told us, “still remember his name. He was a good boy, respectful. 'Mrs. Hackett,' he said, 'what is it you would like us to do?' And since he'd asked properly, I told him, told all the students, that when they entered my classroom they were to do so quietly, without talking. That in my classroom they were to behave respectfully, or they weren't to come to my classroom at all. After that I didn't have any problem with them.”

And I'll bet she didn't.

Two mothers, three little girls, and a lone matriarch ... each a story in herself, and each in turn part of a grander narrative, the story of our community and its very public, very free, very human library.