Derrell* is a college senior majoring in chemistry. He told me he owed his upcoming college degree, maybe even his existence, to libraries and librarians.
To understand this you need to go back to Derrell’s early childhood. His mother was in the Army serving in Afghanistan. His father was serving a 28 year sentence for what Derrell was told were false charges. Derrell and his younger brother Devon lived with their grandmother. She suffered from heart problems and diabetes. “I never knew her healthy,” Derrell says. “Her legs were always swollen up and it was hard for her to breathe.”
His grandmother had worked at a lunch counter for nearly 40 years, but by the time her two grandsons came to live with her she wasn’t able to work any longer. Derrell remembers his Gran as smart, always ready with an adage or Bible quote. He also remembers how little they had. A can of soup divided between the three of them, with stacks of plain white bread to fill the stomach, was a typical supper. No money for fruit. Sometimes no money for milk. Definitely no money to go out anywhere, even to share an order of fries.
Every day in the summer Derell’s grandmother walked the boys to the park. They stayed much of the day, eating a packed lunch, then walked back at supper time. Every day in the winter Derrell’s grandmother walked them to the library where they also stayed most of the day. It was warmer there than in their apartment.
His Gran would flip through magazines or doze in a chair. Derrell and his brother would play in the stacks of the adult section until they were chased out by a librarian, then they’d shuffle off to the children’s section. There they sat on low benches, looking at stacks of picture books and watching people go by through the tall windows.
The best part, Derrell says, was a little drink nook where the library offered coffee, tea, and hot chocolate free for patrons. His Gran showed him how to make the best of a cup of hot chocolate. Dump out the packet, add hot water, but don’t stir. Drink it warm, leaving the dark sludge at the bottom. When it’s gone, take the cup to the drinking fountain and fill it partway with cold water. Mix with your finger. That way you get a hot and cold drink out of one packet. Derrell particularly liked the library’s styrofoam cups. They held the heat or the cold, and he liked to bite the rim until the cup looked as if it had been quilted with interwoven designs.
Librarians in the children’s section arranged all sorts of programs. He was ushered into the first one without knowing what the word “program” meant. There a librarian read aloud a book about a dragon, using puppets for the dialogue. One puppet was a dark green dragon with long teeth. There was also a princess in a shiny blue dress and a knight in foil-bright armor. Derrell was so caught up in the story that he didn’t leave when the other kids walked out of the room. He worked up his courage, holding his little brother’s hand, to ask “what happened next?” The librarian looked up from the case where she was packing the puppets. “Their adventure goes on,” she told him. “It’s just too big a story to tell the whole thing now.” Derrell went to bed that night making up all sorts of endings for the story.
Thanks to library programs, Derrell and his brother painted pictures, made dioramas, went to story hour, listened to musicians play, took part in painting a mural, watched a fencing demonstration, and attended nature programs where they were encouraged to touch baby crocodiles and tiny chinchillas. His grandmother’s cold apartment seemed like a way station between time at the library.
But summer came again and his Gran again took them to the park during the day. Derrell missed the library, but Gran said that was for winter. When cold weather returned Gran was too sick to go there with the boys. She trusted Derrell to take his brother on his own. But there were new policies in place. If kids weren’t signed up in advance they couldn’t attend programs. The door to the room where hot chocolate poured into styrofoam cups was locked. Although he tried to sit down and show his brother books, the little boy ran and yelled through the library until they both were asked to leave.
Things didn’t get better for Derrell. His grandmother got sicker and eventually died. His mother reclaimed them but was so ill with PTSD that she wasn’t able to handle them for long. They stayed with different relatives until eventually they were put into foster homes. Those were painful years. Derrell is still coming to terms with them. But he never forgot that sanctuary called the library.
“Gran probably took us to the library because it had free coffee for her and cocoa for us, ” he says. “But it changed my life. Even after I was a foster kid, I went to the library after school and on Saturdays to get away. The library was always the best kind of hideout.”
“My advice is to talk to librarians every time you go. They’re there because they’re into books too,” Derrell says, “and especially if you go a lot and they get to know you, they’ll save books they’re excited for you to read. If I hadn’t hung out at the library I wouldn’t have read books like 47, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, or Somewhere in the Darkness. And I sure wouldn’t have had my mind snapped open by men I wanted to emulate like Uncle Tungsten, Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman, and The Pact.
Derrell is now 23 years old, finishing up his last year of college classes and also working the late shift at a convenience store. He says he can’t even smell hot chocolate without the sensation of biting a design into the malleable shape of cup offered for free.
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