Small Matters at the Library

by Bill Peak

I was working out at the desk the other day when a young mother carrying a load of children's books walked up with her six year old. I helped the woman heap her books onto the desk, then noticed her son studying me shyly. As it happened, a shipment of returns had just arrived from St. Michaels and we were very busy, but if there's one thing I've learned from all the wonderful ladies who work at the library, it's to never, ever pass up an opportunity to interact with a child. It's what makes the job worthwhile.

So I looked down at the little fellow, nodded at the stack of books his mother had set on the desk, and told him I thought it looked as if he'd found some good ones. The suggestion of a smile, then the child turned and buried his face in his mother's skirts. When he peeked back out at me, I screwed my cheeks up into one of my best I'm-just-a-harmless-idiot faces, and was rewarded with a smile of genuine wonderment. Then, as if in payment for my clowning, the little boy fished something out of his shirt pocket and held it up before me in a tiny clenched fist.

“What have you got?” I asked. The boy's eyes grew wide and he looked at his fist as if amazed himself by the answer to that question. Then carefully, mindful of his treasure, he spread his fingers wide and there, resting on his palm, lay a baby tooth — one of the front ones I think. I had forgotten how small they are, and how perfect.

“It came out this morning,” his mother said, her tone indicating her patience with her son's preoccupation with this particular piece of information was, perhaps, wearing a tad thin. I looked back down at the tooth that earlier had been a living part of this child and had now become his first tangible proof of change, that he was undergoing metamorphosis, had, indeed, by this very measure, matured, grown older. The boy looked at me uncertainly. I smiled. He smiled. Then we both looked again at the small piece of time resting in his hand.

Now you mustn't think from this that all encounters with tiny figures bearing gifts result in such a sense of moment. Take for instance the little girl who, on my very first day at the desk, walked up to the water fountain opposite, stopped, turned, and, just like the little boy, advanced upon me fist held out in offering. Anxious to make a good impression on my first day, I obediently placed my hand beneath hers and, as indifferently as if I had been her mother, she dropped her gum into it. I remember I actually said thank you.

But you know, in a way, I suppose I was right to thank her. That little girl paid me the ultimate compliment: she trusted me to help her as she would have trusted a parent or guardian. She took my unambiguous care for granted. And that is precisely what we strive for at the library. We want children to feel secure here, to feel they've come to a place as welcoming and comfortable as home.

Our children's librarian caused a few hiccups in this year's St. Patrick's Day parade. As she walked alongside our library float, little ones kept disengaging from the crowd lining the street to run across the pavement and hug her knees. I think that pretty much says it all.