Here is a somewhat unexpected delight in my life right now: volunteering at the middle school library. I say somewhat unexpected because I did it last year and it was agreed that I would do it this year as well, so it’s not like Wow I had no idea that I would enjoy the thing I enjoyed several months ago, what a shocking turn of events what will happen next do you think I will also enjoy the same foods I have always enjoyed OH MY GOD I STILL LOVE POTATO CHIPS!!! However, I am more involved than I was last year, and that has deepened my enjoyment, and I am there more often, which means more enjoyment more frequently, and all of this is very very enjoyable, and I will really try to stop using variations of the word “enjoy” now.

On Tuesdays and Wednesdays I come for the first and second lunch hours (there are two lunch times at our middle school, which from my standpoint is not remotely ideal but I assume it’s done because the student body is big enough, or the student/staff ratio is small enough, that the logistics would be overwhelming if everyone had lunch at the same time) and just kind of help out. After they eat, kids are allowed to hang out in the library if they want, and last year I was foolish enough to think they came in to read. I actually put my hand over my heart and told the library lady how absolutely thrilled I was to be around so many young readers, and she was kind enough not to drop to the floor in hysterical laughter, because NO ONE READS IN THE LIBRARY. Okay, maybe one or two kids will actually look at a book, but the vast majority get in groups and engage in the somewhat-depressing modern socializing where everyone is completely engrossed in their phone/tablet but by some foreign-to-me multitasking ability they are also giggling about things together.

Anyway, the library is basically social hour and I am there to infrequently check out books but mostly to provide crowd control. There’s only one library staff member and she is the most incredibly gentle and mild person, and I think the only reason the kids haven’t eaten her alive is because she truly does not seem to have a mean bone in her body. But they can be noisy and rude and annoying and require some good old-fashioned Stern Beetle-Browed shhh-ing, although that’s on a bad day. On a good day, I find myself mingling a bit, now that I know more of the kids. I’ll chitchat here and there, check in with this group, ask that one kid what he ended up getting for his birthday, and so on.

It can be a real delight to spend time with the kids, when they aren’t being too teenagery (the 6th graders tend to provide better emotional ROI than the 8th graders), but what I really like is the peaceful period before or after lunches when I go around with a feather duster and shelve books and organize things. Oftentimes I’ll pause with a book and get lost in the pages for a bit, which feels more than a little magical. I remember how transported by books I was when I was a kid; I totally understand the siren call of the screens because I succumb to it so often myself, but what a loss to not be a reader. My own kids don’t read for pleasure — how on earth did that happen?

While there are precious few kids who spend their lunch hour reading (I suppose that isn’t so surprising, I can only vaguely remember my own middle school lunch breaks but I’m certain those times were spent with friends rather than novels, and I was a big reader) there are still some who choose to participate in OBOB, which is a state competition here in Oregon based on a selection of books, and that’s what I do in the library on Thursdays: OBOB coaching. Coaching sounds very official but it’s really just sitting with a group of kids and helping them try and prepare for the OBOB “battles,” which are far enough off right now that we are mostly in the who’s-going-to-read-what stage. For one group, for various reasons it seems unlikely that any of the books will be read to completion, so we just … talk. About the books, a little, but also about, well, whatever. One of the kids is devoted to Stranger Things, so we had a good discussion about Hop’s fate after that season 3 finale.

It is an enormous luxury to be able to spend part of my day at the school in this way, and I am so grateful for it. I never in a MILLION YEARS could have seen myself being a devoted library helper, in middle school no less. Holy shit, I might have said, had I been given the chance to peer into my own future. Is that a FEATHER DUSTER, who even uses those aside from BDSM enthusiasts? Heh. But also: How is that middle-aged lady surrounded by children me, when there is a big part of me that is mentally forever in 7th grade and middle schoolers are not children at all but peers, some of whom are intensely intimidating for social hierarchy reasons?

I observe all that social crap unfolding in ways both familiar and not among the kids today, and it’s like I watched some movie that made a HUGE impression on me all those years ago and now I can see how it was nothing but light projected on a screen. I wish I could convince my own kids that there is truly almost nothing less important than worrying about what other people think, but they of course are still seeing the movie. Aging is such a weird mix of loss and gain, loss and gain.

Well. My point is, I like my library gig an awful lot, and I think my favorite part of all is that it’s well-appreciated but not paid. If I can’t show up, no biggie. If I want to come in more, awesome! — but also not expected. And if I want to linger in the aisles and visit old friends like Island of the Blue Dolphins or Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH or The Indian in the Cupboard, that’s perfectly okay.

Comments

12 Responses to “Among the paperbacks”

  1. Kim on November 19th, 2019 10:48 am

    On the occasions, I attend a school function for my niece, I’m instantly transported back by that unique school SMELL. It’s not like other institutional smells, which I dislike a lot. I’m sure nostalgia plays a lot into it, but that, combined with the intense love of libraries and books, well that’s just a little slice of heaven.

  2. Ellen Morris prewitt on November 19th, 2019 2:28 pm

    I, too, snagged on the detail of the feather duster. So entirely amazing. I’m glad you are ENJOYing the experience. :)

  3. Donna on November 19th, 2019 4:46 pm

    I was totally that kid that read at lunch. Or recess. Or study hall. Or any time I got any kind of chance.
    I remember being in the library and my boyfriend and his best friend were there and kept trying to talk to me and I was so annoyed!

  4. Deana on November 19th, 2019 6:35 pm

    Yay for you for volunteering at the middle school! When my kids hit Middle school that was when I really stepped up the volunteer hours. Those three years are so fraught with social pitfalls, and anxiety…I really wanted to be able to understand what they were facing, not to mention I loved Scholastic Book Fair! I actually eventually became the volunteer coordinator, there are so many needs!

  5. HOLLEY S DIGBY on November 19th, 2019 9:51 pm
  6. Missy on November 19th, 2019 11:01 pm

    Loss and gain, loss and gain. So simple, but so true.

  7. Jill on November 20th, 2019 5:50 am

    Working in a Library is my dream job. It’s what I want to do in my retirement

  8. Mike on November 21st, 2019 5:46 am

    Dang.

    You know, I’ve been reading you for years and years and years, and I’ve got to say: THIS is actually the most real and mature post I think I’ve EVER seen. It’s… just nice.

  9. Jessie on November 21st, 2019 4:13 pm

    Aging is such a weird mix of loss and gain, loss and gain.

    You really have a way of squeezing the essence out of a thing.

  10. Andrea on November 23rd, 2019 2:52 pm

    I love middle school aged kids. My daughter would bring home dance permission slips, with the, I am UNABLE to chaperone this dance box already checked and the, I can contribute ___ cases of bottled water, or ___ bags of chips checked. However, she never balked at me chaperoning band trips, and that included 2 trips to Disneyland. That continued all through high school. I so enjoyed getting to know the kids outside my daughter’s friendship sphere.It was so different than the baseball team families from my oldest.

  11. Vanessa on November 23rd, 2019 3:28 pm

    When we moved from Oregon private school to California public school (!) I was certain my son would die. So I volunteered to hand out games at lunch for the middle school one day a week. That was when I learned that he was not going to die, we’d all be ok, there were some pretty nice 6th graders, an occasionally pleasant 7th grader, but nice 8th graders are few and far between. It’s partly because that’s the year they all have to practice saying “Fu**” a lot. And apparently hormones affect their behavior. I was so involved in elementary, but had no expectation of doing anything in Middle School. I am really glad I was involved despite myself.

  12. Anne on December 4th, 2019 4:50 pm

    I love this. I am a devoted reader – and have found the joy in that again in the last few years. The last hour of my evening is spent with my nose immersed in a book – or two! – and I. love. it.

    All I could think is what a wonderful thing it is that you are connecting with these students at one of the most awkward times in their lives. That you are seeing them as PEOPLE, not kids, who contribute to conversations and have important things to say. You are probably making a difference in at least one kid’s life – and that is amazing.

    And yes yes yes to revisiting those childhood favorites. I make it a point to reread mine as often as possible (Harry Potter – although I read those as an adult!, Anne of Green Gables, etc.).

    Anyway, I just love this. Thank you for putting it into words and sharing it.

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