One of the first people to influence my love of books was my elementary school librarian, Mrs. Oliver.
(I’m not sure if that’s her real name, it was certainly something that sounded like “Oliver.”)
Tall, straw-haired, soft-spoken Mrs. Oliver. Quick to help you find the books you’re looking for and to suggest other books you might enjoy, sometimes very much and often for different reasons. Knowledgable and stalwart, friendly yet adamant, Mrs. Oliver.
She was very good at her job. She was, in every way that counted, perfection.
Our library was small but serviceable, the books arranged according to grade level as well as alphabetically. Lower grades (kindergarten to grade 3) on the lower shelves. Higher grades (4 to 6) on the higher shelves. Easy peasy. A very workable, easy-to-understand system.
I read widely and largely ignored this system. The “fact books” (i.e. “Facts on Dogs,” “Facts on Trucks,” “Facts on Trees,” “Facts on The Breeze”… your basic all-purpose non-fiction for beginners) located on the fourth shelf from the bottom – the shelf meant for the older students and not second-graders like me – were a particular favourite. I read them often, even checked a few out using our self-check-out system (back then, a sign-out sheet with matching card placed in an envelope glued to the inside jacket of the books).
I did this for weeks. I did it for months and months.
This is a true story:
One day, as I reached for the fourth level self, Mrs. Oliver appeared and, gently but firmly, stopped me.
“You can’t take those books out, I’m afraid. They’re for the older students only.” She pulled the book from my hands and put it back in its place on its shelf. From then on, she watched me whenever I was in the library, making sure I would not access books above my grade. Making sure the system, the whole system, in its entirely, worked, and was therefore perfect.
She was always still and in every other respect, the one and only Mrs. Oliver.
By the time I reached the fifth grade, and was therefore able to take out almost any book I wished, Mrs. Oliver was gone, replaced by someone whose name and face I definitely do not remember.
But I do remember thinking, the day she took the book away from my small hands: “Oh, Mrs. Oliver. You just did it, didn’t you?
You made an enemy for life.”
Let me repeat.
For life, Mrs. Oliver.