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Ode to my grade school librarian

By Karen Racelis Published Nov 03, 2023 5:00 am

Like many kids, I looked forward to lunch break in grade school. When my best friends would close their lunchboxes and lay out Pokemon cards, I would sneak across campus to our library… which was not much.

In 2007, our library was a quaint, dimly lit room usually populated by four people during the lunch hour. In the back, there was often a teacher marking papers; near the window, one student taking a makeup quiz. At the door, there would be a staff member manning the Xerox machine, and one librarian.

The common conclusion I derive from the tales I have read since childhood is that I am by no means a finished story.

I remember little about her now, but I do recall a soft-spoken lady with graying hair. Her station consisted of a dark brown carrel flanked by a wall on the opposite side, which was obscured by piles of dusty textbooks. I would walk up to the table, on tiptoe, and say hello. She would greet me with the tiniest smile and ask: "What kind of book do you want to read today?"

Our librarian would greet me with the tiniest smile and ask: "What kind of book do you want to read today?"

It was through pages of history, fiction and art that I first began to form an idea of identity. Now looking back at my formative years and pre-teens, I see three books in which I found fragments of myself.

Dear America: Voyage on the Great Titanic by Ellen Emerson White

Voyage on the Great Titanic follows the fictional Margaret Ann, an orphan who served as a companion to a first-class passenger during the Titanic’s infamous 1912 journey across the Atlantic. This book was my introduction to historical fiction.

In hindsight, class was such a heavy theme to deal with even in light reading during the second grade. My concept of socioeconomic rank began to concretize during my first dive into the rabbit hole that was the Titanic’s sinking. As I read this book, I wrestled with two sides of me. One side imagined the grand staircase and candelabras, dressing herself in Margaret Ann’s skirts. The other knew that she would not have been able to afford such luxury if she were born in that era. It would be years until I learned the vocabulary for that feeling. I needed to do some growing up to understand the term “middle class.”

The Giver by Lois Lowry

The Giver depicts a seemingly utopian community where differences between people are suppressed for the sake of conformity and order. In the world crafted by Lowry, true human emotions have been left to history. Only two people can experience genuine emotions: the titular Giver and the Receiver of Memory. In one scene, the protagonist Jonas asks his parents whether they love him. In response, Jonas’ father asks him to be more precise in his language.

As a pre-teen, I thought I had command of the range of emotions involved in “love.” This book made me wonder, for the first time, whether there was more about love to discover. The Giver came at that pivotal moment when, all around me, friends were experiencing the first pangs of kilig. As the barkada’s designated mother figure, I had to give advice on blossoming romances without having experienced romantic love firsthand. Until now, I find myself wondering exactly why friends ask me questions about a kind of love they know I haven’t had.

Till We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis

Till We Have Faces is a retelling of the myth of Cupid and Psyche, narrated by Psyche’s half-sister Orual. Throughout the first part of the book, Orual is forced to hide her hideous appearance while Psyche is so beautiful that the masses revere her as a goddess.

I read this for the first time at 13. Back then, all I drew from the drama was a difficult identification with the protagonist. In her cursing the gods for her ugliness, I saw my own bitterness. I once asked God: why is my skin patchy, my hair curly, my weight so far from the standard of beauty expected of girls my age?

When I read it again at 17, I learned that my questions were not just questions about myself, but my beliefs. To ask why I am not pretty is to ask why God would unjustly give beauty to the lucky few. But the book suggests that such questions are nonsensical. If I honestly believe that there is a God with wisdom far beyond mine, then I cannot force Him to agree with my distinction of what is just versus what is unjust. To insist that God define justice the way I do is to claim that I have divine knowledge. Luckily, Orual realizes this before the last page.

The question, “What kind of book do you want to read today?” has mutated into different questions throughout my life: what do I want to accomplish? Where do I want to go? What do I want to know? So I must take a moment to thank Ms. Librarian for asking me that question in the first place.

Ms. Librarian, thank you for taking a curious child under your wing and giving her a space to grow. When you allowed that little girl to choose her next great read, you planted the seed of a lifelong healthy relationship with books. As she grew, stories of all kinds opened her mind to both role models and cautionary tales, giving her points of comparison in identifying the values she wants to emulate and the vices she wants to avoid. Thank you for helping her answer some of life’s biggest questions.

What do I want to accomplish? I want to make a name for myself, which will not come easily considering my station in life. Where do I want to go? I want to reach the farthest corners, places where beauty takes different definitions and God is painted in different tones. I want to taste flavors that only pages have described to me. What do I want to know? I want to know what love is, far beyond the romantic lives that I have lived only vicariously. In this life, I hope to touch all kinds of love so that when I use the word, I know all that “love” can mean.

Who do I want to be? TBD. The common conclusion I derive from the tales I have read since childhood is that I am by no means a finished story. I like to think of myself as a growing montage of the heroes whose journeys I wish to emulate and the villains whose redemptions I hope to deserve.