In 1st grade, I got a zero on a math test. A ZERO.
We were doing these things:
3 > 1 6<7 10>8
and I got every answer wrong. All 25 questions. Wrong.
My teacher circled a big, red F at the top of the page and never readdressed it with me, which really, was her fail. <1 minute of her time would’ve corrected this situation and saved me the stigma of an F.
I mean, of course I bloody knew 10 was greater than 8. So I’m grateful to the substitute teacher who later recognized my mixup and explained it another way.
“See that duck’s open mouth?” She pointed to the < . “It always wants to eat the larger number.”
And *poof* I got it.
But most of school was like that for me. I often needed things explained another way. Except for reading. Words and characters and plots, those made sense to me. So when a student teacher arrived one morning with a copy of Charlotte’s Web, I was all smiles.
“Y’all be quiet, now. Pay attention!” our teacher warned everyone, looking at me.
She opened the book, pulling us onto the farm, early morning. Songbirds warbled on darkened branches against the purple sky. Mrs. Arable cooked pancakes. Papa was up earlier than usual, and Fern and I realized at the exact same time where he was going with that axe.
Oh god. No, no.
I shifted on the cold floor.
What if he felt pain? What if Papa didn’t kill him with the first blow? Save him, Fern! Save him! We ran into the barn, halting that downward CHOP! Crying and pleading until Papa relented and Wilbur was saved. . . and let me tell you, all 7 years of me was emotionally invested in this pig.
She closed the book and promised to return for chapter 2, but never did. Which, that day, was the second most horrible case of injustice I ever heard of.
I procured a copy of Charlotte’s Web and swam in its pages.
And a hungry reader was born.
When a child likes to read, we say thank goodness. We subconsciously assign academic prowess to this trait. But for me that wasn’t the case.
Unless a teacher delivered dynamic, interactive visuals, my mild bolted like a pinball. I stared out windows, wondering what classrooms looked like across the world. If I’d ever meet Paul McCartney. How many days til my birthday. Chewed pencils and prayed my mom would give me money for the Scholastic Book Fair readers can I get an amen.
2nd grade. 3rd grade. 4th grade.
I studied classmates’ heads. Wished I was in England. Counted right-handed people. Left-handed people. Bit my nails. Wiggled my legs. Tried out new handwritings. Fantasized about George Michael in the Careless Whisper video. Wondered if Alyssa Milano was popular at school. Made up lives for the people in my Social Studies textbook. Talked to my neighbors Jennifer come put your name on the board.
In hindsight, one recognizes the
ADHD infant writer, but parents didn’t rush for diagnoses like they do now. Back then I was just a giant pain in my teachers’ asses. I talked too much. I couldn’t sit still. Year after year, parent teacher conferences were predictable joy.
Jennifer’s smart, but she doesn’t apply herself, they slid my grades across the desk with varying levels of compassion. She excels at reading, but she’s a disruption to other students.
In class, Reading meant sentence formation and synonyms. At home it meant secret gardens and peaches and James and Meg and tesseracts and the quiet refuge of someone else’s story.
But this isn’t a sob story. I had a magically delicious childhood with pink hearts, yellow moons, green clovers, loving family, lots of friends, birthday parties, vacations, Cabbage Patch dolls, doting grandparents, and blue diamonds.
I’m just trying to convey I always felt slightly . . . askew.
But God was about to nudge me.
One day in fifth grade, our teacher sat before us with a chapter book. Being read to was a luxury at this late stage in my elementary education and I remember feeling very fortunate to have front row advantage where they could keep an eye on me. But anyway she started reading. I put my head down and closed my eyes, all UP in that story when she finished the chapter.
“We’ll read more later.” She closed the book, and the classroom swirled back. But I wasn’t falling for it.
“Can we see the cover?” I raised my hand. Because here was another book I’d have to find and finish my damn self. She waved the cover slowly back and forth, then told us the author sometimes volunteered at the public library.
I froze in pleasant paralysis.
God Winks are when your soul remembers something from a long time ago. It is (momentary) pure awareness with a dash of well-being, sometimes accompanied by an idiot expression.
It is rare.
It is a gift.
It is the Almighty saying PAY ATTENTION.
I didn’t know I’d grow up to be a writer. But in that exact moment, my 11-year-old body bristled with an all-consuming, solitary thought.
She writes children’s books AND gets to work in a library?!
This was my pure, crystalline, body-wide reaction. I could imagine no better life. Why, besides Linda McCartney, she was the luckiest woman in the entire universe ever! And forget paying attention the rest of class. I had to get to the library. I had to meet this lady and get my hands on her book.
“Which library?” My grandfather picked me up that Saturday, sipping a cup of McDonald’s coffee.
We drove to the nearest branch.
“Which author?” the librarian asked, amused.
“Something Lowery,” I answered, peering around her. Was she behind the desk? In the back offices? I couldn’t wait to talk to her about books!
“Mmhm,” I nodded, looking around. It occurred to me I had no idea what this woman looked like. But I did assume she’d have a special desk with a golden nameplate or something.
Oh, the unspoken eye language between adults.
“She’s not here,” she winked at my grandfather. “But we do have her books.”
“Why don’t you grab some while we’re here?” Grandpa suggested, so I did.
And maybe a chef feels the same in a fully stocked kitchen in the south of France. But peace oozed over me, there in stacks. Like a tranquil overtaking. I sank to the floor between shelves and perused titles, commanded to happy, reverent silence.
I feel the exact same in old forests these days. No coincidence since books are made of trees, but I digress. This wasn’t (and isn’t) about ‘liking’ books. It’s my visceral connection to words and paper and imagination and all those other left-brain attributes that cradled my burgeoning, um . . . sensitivities.
It was connection to PURPOSE.
I just didn’t know it yet.
But I knew running my fingers along those smooth plastic spines felt delicious. I slid titles from tightly packed neighbors, enjoying that gentle croak of binding, turning to page one. A relief sigh for being opened, perhaps. ❤
I pushed my books to the librarian.
“We’ll try another branch next time,” Grandpa promised, getting me my first library card.
And so we continued, chasing Lois Lowry around the Houston Public Library System. I never found her, obviously. Because she was up north somewhere churning out literary awesomeness, unaware of her accidental role in this young reader’s life.
But I did check out 7 books every 2 weeks for years and years, enjoying precious time with my grandfather, never once considering any librarian at any time could’ve stopped this ritual with an easily researched fact.
Thank God they didn’t.
31 year later (or 4 year ago, whichever you prefer) I obeyed a loud intuitive nudge to apply at my local library. I wanted to reference the Lowry chase in my cover letter, but were my facts straight? Had she actually worked at the library or did I somehow invent this scenario?
I called the Houston Public Library (central branch) to triple-check my memories and got transferred to the reference librarian, to whom I apologized and repeated my story, not realizing librarians absolutely delight in such queries.
She cheerfully agreed to research and called back the very next day, laughing that multiple branches got involved as they located the few remaining 30 year veterans and asked Did anyone recall a children’s author volunteering at one of the Houston branches in the 80s?
Why yes, someone did.
Joan Lowery Nixon volunteered at the very same library Grandpa took me to that VERY FIRST time. Why that initial librarian didn’t connect the dots I don’t know. Or maybe she did and didn’t want to crush a little girl’s hopes.
It really doesn’t matter.
Today, against all odds, I find myself a children’s author who gets to work at the library.
And the lady who hired me?
Her name is Lois, a ‘coincidence’ I didn’t realize until writing this entry.
And this I know for sure:
God’s promises lie dormant in protected silvery place until passion wakes them up.
We know very early on what feels RIGHT, and adversely what grates against the soul. Our weirdo gifts and proclivities are blueprints for joyful purpose, so trust your invisible compass. Fear and other people’s expectations may complicate things, but you do YOU because Happily Ever After looks different for everyone.
Now go read a banned book.