Passing the Torch at the Library

by Bill Peak

A week to the day after the Boston Marathon bombing I was scheduled to host an evening poetry discussion at the Easton library. Which meant I spent the better part of an afternoon trundling supplies from my desk at the rear of the library out through the children's section and into the main meeting room. Over the course of those trips to and fro, I began to notice a little boy sitting at one of the children's tables with his mother. Pencil in hand, tongue protruding from the edge of his mouth, he was working his way steadily, if not always accurately, through a set of numbered arithmetic problems on a mimeographed sheet of paper. Beside him, his mother checked his sums and readied further sheets for his attention. A reddish drift of eraser shavings littered the table.

It was a beautiful spring day. Sun poured through the windows; tree blossom shadow danced on the walls. Nevertheless the boy labored on, anchored to his task by his mother's stony presence. And there was something about that presence, the mood of that little table, the fact that both the boy and I had to carry on while, outside, the day beckoned, that brought back memories of my own childhood, dreary afternoons spent conjugating Latin verbs and plumbing the depths of trigonometry beneath my mother's baleful eye.

On my final trip through the children's section, I turned and looked at them one last time. The boy had just completed a sheet of mimeographed paper and, awaiting the next, he had placed his forehead on the table before him and was now staring hopelessly at the floor between his knees. Sympathizing with all that he suffered, I cast my first real glance at the author of his pain.

She was sitting in a chair that would have perfectly suited someone three and a half feet tall. It was wooden, painted red, and there was the happy face of an owl carved into its back. Despite the incongruity of the image she presented in such a chair, despite the fact that it required her to sit with her legs slanted awkwardly to one side, the woman focused on the pile of mimeographed sheets before her with a concentration worthy of neurosurgery. And looking at her, watching that silent, determined back sitting in its little chair in the Talbot County Free Library, I suddenly felt an immeasurable sense of security and peace. Extremists of one stripe or another, frustrated by their lot in life, may try to destroy ours, may even set off the occasional bomb in Boston or Oklahoma City, but they really don't stand a chance, do they? How could anyone possibly hope to destroy all that we love, all that we believe in, when mothers like this are willing to sit hour after hour in a tiny owl chair and teach their children the lessons of life?

And so let's call this column a belated Mother's Day and an early Father's Day gift to all those parents who so nobly fulfill their roles. Like the library, they preserve and pass on civilization from one generation to the next. We are blessed, and they are the blessing.