I’ll never forget my mom hauling us four kids to the Napa Children’s Library each week. Eagerness made me breathless as I hurried through the alley, lugging the previous week’s pile of books. I’d pause out front and marvel at the library’s cornerstone, which proclaimed the year of the building’s birth in1906. Then I’d enter the stone structure and walk up the echoey stairwell. That felt almost as magical as what waited for me inside.
Just past the librarian’s desk, I discovered the fourteen books about the Land of Oz, which taught me to lose myself in imagination and wonder. (For many years, I had nighttime dreams of flying through the sky on two couches roped together.)
There were the eight volumes of Anne of Green Gables; they ignited me, spinning adventures of a girl who was brilliant, strong, hot-headed, and kind all at once. An entire wall of mysteries taught me to look beyond the obvious, and to be tenacious. The shelf of baseball biographies taught me about Lou Gehrig’s ALS, Mickey Mantle’s bone disease, the Negro Leagues, the racist treatment of Willie Mays, and Jackie Robinson’s courage.
I loved the general biography section, which had maybe seventy-five books from the same series. Within each two-tone cover was a tidy 180-page synopsis of the life of someone in U.S. history. Even though the stories were whitewashed of nuance and omitted perspectives that should have been magnified, I still learned about massacres of Native people and how the U.S. consistently broke treaties. I learned about the enslavement of African-American people, and the oppression of women.
As an adult, I’ve visited one-room libraries, and libraries housed in trailers and vans. In my twenties, I spent my days off hiding in the upstairs stacks at the old Alameda Library, hoping no one below would look up and see me through the translucent ceiling—curled up on the floor, reading all day and nibbling trail mix. In Patzcuaro, Michoacán, a librarian let me borrow an English-language book, trusting my promise that I would mail it back once I got home. Libraries are my hallowed place, my teacher, my haven, my inspiration, my home away from home.
* * *
When I heard about Proud Boys affiliates storming Drag Queen Story Hour last Saturday at the San Lorenzo Library, thoughts whipped through my head:
“Drag Queen event? Hey, that’s pretty progressive for San Lorenzo!”
“I bet some of my former students were in the building.”
That last one hit like a mallet. The school where I taught for the last 27 years of my 32-year career was just a few blocks from the library. It sickened me to think that kids would’ve been there while someone spewed hate. I felt especially awful for any kids there who might be questioning their identity or orientation, or who have LGBTQ parents or grandparents. I retired a year ago, but I still felt a responsibility to children to speak up against bigotry.
So last Tuesday, I drove to the San Lorenzo Library, bringing glittery signs with rainbows and hearts. I set up my Extrovert Chair under a tree, with an empty chair alongside me.
* * *
I can’t estimate how many protests and demonstrations I’ve been to in my life. I was part of a large group arrested at the nuclear weapons testing site in Nevada, and I walked 325 miles across Oregon and Washington to protest nuclear waste in the Columbia River. I’ve marched and yelled and waved signs and handed out flyers and given speeches.
But on Tuesday, all I wanted to do was sit in the shade, hold rainbow signs, and be a friendly face outside the library.
A few people pulled up, parked, and pointedly looked away from me as they headed toward the entrance. But most people looked curious, casting shy smiles my way. A few people nodded at the signs, and then spoke unrelated words.
“What a beautiful afternoon today, huh?”
“You look nice and comfortable.”
“I decided to walk here today instead of drive.”
I nodded in understanding. All of it was code for: I hate what happened here in our library. I’m glad that you hate it, too.
A couple of people asked if they could take my picture, and then a guy in flip-flops and a tank top stopped to chat.
“I’m from the Philippines, and there’s a big LGBTQ community there. Nobody cares. It’s all right with everyone. I don’t understand it here.”
We both fumed and shook our heads, and then he flip-flopped away.
* * *
As I bopped my head to the outdoor music performance (I LOVE LIBRARIES!), I saw a woman walking across the parking lot. No sidelong glance from her; she was coming directly toward me. Her whole face was a smile, and her hands were outstretched, like a conductor urging the orchestra to let it all fly.
“You’re here!” she cried. “I can’t tell you how much this means.”
We hadn’t even exchanged names yet, but both of us were in tears.
She sat in my extra chair, and our words spilled out at a dizzying pace.
I told her that I had taught 27 years at the elementary school just a few blocks away, mostly third grade. Her face changed shape, and she said, “Third grade is nine years old. I came out when I was nine.”
“What? How did you know? What did you understand when you were so young?”
Deb said she’d had crushes on women she’d seen on TV, but didn’t know exactly what that meant. She didn’t have vocabulary; she didn’t know the word lesbian. She just knew what she felt, and had vaguely heard of the word “homosexual.”
So she went to the library.
At age nine, she walked up to the reference librarian, and somehow expressed her desire to learn about herself, to understand.
“I sat there for hours, and she just let me. She placed that big heavy World Book Encyclopedia on the table, and I started reading. Words were cross-referenced, so then I’d get the next World Book and keep reading. When I finally finished, I felt like I understood enough.”
She paused for a beat, then said, “And that’s why I ended up working in libraries.”
I was both floored, and moved. What guts and ingenuity—a pre-internet nine-year-old figuring out how to learn about herself. We all walk in this world in such different ways. My childhood self never had to go to a stranger at a reference desk in a library to figure out foundational things about who I am. And in doing so, Deb was inspired to be a librarian, to help others learn about this big, wide world. I savored her story. We sat together, quiet for a moment.
Then I told Deb about a former student.
“She came out in sixth grade, three years after I taught her. And when I heard, I kept asking myself, “What did I say that year? Was I supportive enough? Which books did I read to the kids? Did I help her know it’s okay?”
That student’s courage and pride made me realize that I shouldn’t have to wonder if I’d said and done the right things. I should learn more about what the right things are, so that I’d never have to wonder again.
I told Deb that, because of that student, I asked LGBTQ friends of mine what they wished they’d heard when they were young. I also asked middle school students at an LGBTQ-and-allies club what they wish their third-grade teachers had said. Deb and I marveled at how simple those things were:
*My friend Andy told me that when he was young, it would have meant EVERYTHING if he had seen TV commercials that featured two dads. “You know, like a commercial about laundry detergent. If I had seen two dads there folding the laundry, that would have meant the world.”
*A seventh-grader said: “Just read books to kids so they know that some people are gay, or whatever.”
*A friend’s sixteen-year-old trans son said, “Maybe read stories to them, or have an LGBTQ high-school student help out in your classroom sometime. Because kids who feel different are always looking at other people wondering, Are you like me? Are you like me?”
The stories flew between Deb and me. Finally, we landed on the importance of seeing oneself reflected in the world.
She said, “Straight and cisgender people never have to think about if they see themselves in the world, because they’re EVERYWHERE. That’s ALL they see. But when you’re gay, you’re always searching, always looking to find a reflection of yourself out there.”
As a straight, white, cisgender person, I can’t ever truly know how isolating that would feel. I’ve never known the loneliness of feeling like the only different one. I’ve rarely even considered it. That’s a luxury that I’ve known for my entire life: the privilege of being in the majority. The privilege of never needing to wonder where I fit in the world.
The privilege of never knowing what it feels like to have bigots storm into my beloved library and hurl hate at me simply for being who I was born to be.
* * *
Our words flowed quickly as we sensed that our time was drawing to an end. We talked about how trauma resides in the body. Deb shared that her advocacy of the library had her meeting and connecting with library workers to help process this moment in time.
“It hasn’t been easy. I’ve been crying for four days. But I need to support them.”
And we talked about how the burden to educate should not be up to those in the minority. Black people shouldn’t have to educate white people about how to be anti-racist. That responsibility should lie with white people. Straight people need to stand up to support gay and lesbian people, and cisgender people need to stand up for trans people.
We rested in the power of our encounter, breathing it in. Then Deb, reluctant, said she needed to get back to work. As we each pulled out our phones, a woman wearing heart-shaped glasses called out, “I’ll take a picture of both of you!” We wiped our eyes, smiled for the camera, and embraced. Then Deb headed into the library, and I leaned back in my chair.
That day, I had come to the library for a terrible reason. But I left with a full heart.
Libraries—my happy place, that day and forever.
* * *
The mission statement and vision of the Alameda County Library (including the San Lorenzo branch) reads as follows:
MISSION: We Grow Learners, Break Barriers, Build Futures
VISION: Kind, Connected Humans
We can’t undo the harm that the bigoted intruders did that day. But we can continue to learn, resolve to break barriers, and commit to help young people build their futures.
And we can hang out at the library. We’ll find some kind, connected humans there.