Compline at the Talbot County Free Library

by Bill Peak

Like most people, I suppose, I like closing time. I look forward to a quiet drive home, dinner with Melissa, a good book to read, and then, eventually, the wholesome restorative of sleep. But, truth be told, I also like closing itself, the ritual tasks we go through each night to shut down and secure the library till the next day. It's as if we were putting the place to bed for the night, giving it a chance to rest and recover as well. As I hit the final light switch, watch the library's shelves grow dim, recede into darkness, I like to think about the place resting through the night, all its computers stilled, its books waiting expectantly upon the morrow.

The other night, as I was hurrying through our end-of-work checklist, I found a little girl playing a game on one of our children's computers. We were only minutes away from closing, which meant it was time for the computer to be turned off, but I hate telling little ones their game is over, they can look so sad. But this child accepted the news bravely, stepped politely away from the machine, and then hurried over to her mother, who was reading in one of the children's section's comfortable grown-up chairs. As I moved past these two on my way to check the doors into the children's garden, I overheard the little girl ask her mother if they could have hot chocolate and watch a movie when they got home. “Sounds like a great idea to me,” I said, and the young woman laughed. But her daughter, in the way of children, looked surprised by this intrusion into the private space she shared with her mother alone. With large, dark eyes, she studied me gravely.

From the children's section, I moved on into the library's meeting rooms, turning off lights, checking doors. By the time I worked my way back around to the adult section, the little girl was standing by her mother at Circulation as she checked out a pile of brightly colored children's books. With little else to do in a library that was by now almost empty of patrons, the child watched me closely as I hurried along, pushing in chairs, picking up stray books. After I'd shut down the Reference Desk computer and made sure all the library's study rooms were secured for the night, I hurried back toward the lobby to unlock our book drop and lower the flag. As I made my way past mother and daughter again at Circulation, the little girl summoned up the courage to address this stranger who had intruded upon her evening. “I like your shoes!” she cried after me.

A Rockport cross between tennis shoes and dress shoes, my “library shoes” are practical at best. No one—and I do mean no one—has ever complimented them before; but apparently this child had found something about them she liked. I stopped mid-stride, laughed aloud, smiled and thanked the little girl, then hurried on.

As I carried the flag back into the main library, I passed the two again, the mother by this time stowing her daughter's haul in a large book bag. The little girl, apparently seeing this now as something of a game, called out to me again: “I love your clothes!” Once more I laughed, stopped, thanked her for the compliment, then hurried on. When I'd completed my final sweep of the library, I returned to the lobby to close and lock the automatic doors. I held one of the manual doors open for mother and daughter as they, our last two patrons of the day, exited the building. As mother pulled daughter after her into the darkness, the door beginning to close, the child cast a final glance up at me and said, “I love you.”

Of course children are naturally generous with their affections—they wear their hearts upon their sleeves—but, still, it came as a shock to have this child I'd never seen before tell me she loved me like that so quickly and apparently unequivocally. It was probably just as well the door closed before I had a chance to respond. I have no idea what I would have/could have said. When, earlier, I had impulsively seconded the little girl's wish for hot chocolate and a movie, I had silenced the child completely; and now, just as impulsively, she had silenced me. It's an interesting exchange that goes on day in and day out between children and the grown-ups assigned to protect and nurture them—and the learning, of course, goes both ways. I thank my lucky stars that I get to work in a place where that two-way exchange begins when the lights come on in the morning and doesn't end till we turn them off again at night: the Talbot County Free Library.