Monday, June 20, 2011

The Library, Part 2

(You can find part 1 of this story here)

One day while you're still recovering your strength and learning to trust your stomach again, you find yourself sitting with a small group of small boys and reading to them again from the same book that you've read from a hundred times. Somehow, they still love it - they love pointing to the picture and telling you what is happening on the page, then telling you what will happen on the next page, and the older ones even love showing off and reading a few words here and there. You start to say something to them, as you've said to them each of the last dozen times you've read from this book, but this time instead of "one day we'll have a whole library of books" or "one day we'll open up those 18 boxes of books in our library," what comes out is "do you guys want to read some new books?"

Something in their eyes - the incredulity tempered by a spark of curiosity - sets something off. By the time you're opening the door of the library, a group of 3 boys has become a group of 6 which soon becomes a group of 8 and then 10. They seem to understand intrinsically that the 35 pound boxes they are handling are worth more than their weight in gold: the first box that each boy opens reveals its contents, and - without fail - their jaws drop and eyes widen.

One box contains nothing but chapter books - The Westing Game, Indian In The Cupboard, Island of the Blue Dolphins - the books that you may have read in your boyhood, and they transport you back. Without meaning to, you're holding up books and whispering in reverent tones simple sentiments like, "oh, wow, you're going to love this." Book after book after book comes out of the box, and each one carries in its title a unique and precious memory. The boys are stunned that you've read so many books, want to know what each one is about, want to stop unloading and start hearing the stories each book contains, want to find the books they can read themselves. Soon, they bring every book to you and ask, "this one? Have you read this one?" Harry Potter and Hatchet, Little House on the Prairie, A Wrinkle in Time. One time not long ago, you might have thought these books weren't culturally appropriate for these kids, but seeing the way that they are delighted every time they come upon a book from your past, you can't help but spend 30 seconds or so spellbinding them with the wonders within. It's less than an hour before both you and they can't tolerate simply looking at the covers of books anymore, and you gather in a cluster and break open one of the Narnia books that they've picked out. They listen attentively, and at the end of the first chapter, they get up to go - the last two boys out pausing in the doorway to ask, "we can come back tomorrow?"

The library becomes a source of endless fascination and word about it spreads among all the children. Before the week is out, you can't walk from your house to the latrine without a child running up to you to ask if it's time to go in the library. Once that door opens, the children - girls as well as boys now - set to work unpacking boxes, stamping books, putting books into baskets and then onto shelves, and - of course - finding a few minutes here and there to read and look and wonder.

One Tuesday night is declared Story Night - in the afternoon the children working in the library select a handful of books that three members of staff will read to them, huddled in small groups throughout the church sanctuary. They pick out Frog and Toad Are Friends, A Disney Princess Adventure, and Goodnight Moon. At 8:00pm, the small petrol generator is fired up, and by 8:05pm 50 children are sitting in the church buzzing about which story they want to hear. Even the normally disinterested teenagers have made sure not to miss this night; in fact, as you read a chapter of Frog and Toad and encourage the older children to help you out by reading a paragraph or even a page, it seems like they might be enjoying the book even more than the kids who are just listening. Soon every child who is able wants a chance to read, and when they reach the end of a paragraph or a page they don't want to stop. At 8:30pm, the petrol runs out and the generator dies. Sitting in a suddenly darkened church, no one moves. By 8:31pm, flashlights come on and the reading continues until the books are finished.

And you can't know this for sure, but you like to imagine that the children fall asleep that night with images of princesses, frogs, toads, and moons running through their minds.

A library comes to life slowly, becoming a thing that lives in minds and imaginations before it becomes an organized collection housed on shelves. There are still boxes to unpack, and books to stamp, and bookcases to build and fill with stacks and stacks of books - but you have a library now.

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