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Monday, February 7, 2011

Sometimes Stuff Gets Real

There’s this incredibly precocious 10-year-old girl (I’ll call her Sarah in this post, although that’s not her real name) who visits the library several times a week with her equally precocious younger brother. They are both very charming and smart and funny. I love when they are in the library. However, the other day I had an interaction with Sarah that slightly broke my heart. I’ll try to transcribe our conversation as accurately as possible:

Sarah leaned her elbows on the reference desk and sighed. “I’m bored. I just want to talk.”

“Okay. Everything alright?” I asked.

“Yeah. It’s Chinese New Year.” She looked at me, pointedly.

“Oh, that's right!” I said, unsure of where this was headed.

“I don’t even get to do anything for Chinese New Year. I’m half Chinese. My mom’s the Chinese one.”

I nodded, waiting for her to go on.

“She’s gone. Not, like, dead. Not even divorced. Just gone. She left.”


“I’m sorry, sweetie.” 

Sarah shrugged. She pulled up a chair next to the reference desk.

“I’m going to sit here, okay?”

We chatted for a while about her mom and other things. At one point, Sarah told me that she was nervous about a monologue she had to give for a drama class at school. I asked her if she wanted to practice it, so she retrieved the piece of paper with the monologue written on it from her backpack and recited it, giggling through the whole thing. Afterward, she got serious again:

“I’m nervous about something else."

"What's that?"

"I don’t want to get my period.”


I have no kids of my own yet, so I’ve never had to talk with one about anything birds & bees-related. I didn't want to say the wrong thing and potentially scar Sarah for life. Plus, this isn’t exactly the best conversation to have at the reference desk with a kid you hardly know. But Sarah obviously just wanted to get some female advice. I chose my words carefully.

“Well, you know, it’s nothing to be afraid of. It’s just a part of growing up,” I offered, pathetically.

“Yeah, I know.” Sarah dramatically threw her hands up. “I’m just not ready to become a woman!” I couldn’t help but laugh with her at that. This kid’s going to be in pictures, I tells ya.

We talked some more. Eventually, Sarah's brother came over and the conversation topic changed. Now, I don't pretend to have a huge influence in the lives of these kids. I know that when they go home, many of them have serious issues to deal with - absent parents, for example - and they aren't thinking about the library. But they will come back every day because they know on some level that it's a safe place. It seems that there aren't too many of those left in this city.

I hope my conversation with Sarah helped her in some way, even if it was just to give her someone to talk with who wasn't her brother or father. Interestingly, I feel like talking to her helped me in ways I can't really identify. Kids are pretty wise if you listen carefully enough. Sometimes I'm not so sure I'm ready to be a woman myself.


  1. Hi Rita,

    It sounds like you handled the "woman" talk quite well. Bless that little girl's heart.

    Kids are smart and incredible teachers. I have three, but also work with them. They are always revealing things about myself I wouldn't otherwise recognize. They see things without our "life" filter.

    Cute story and I bet you're a lovely librarian helper to many.

  2. Having three kids must be a daily adventure! That "life filter" does seem to get in the way sometimes, doesn't it? Thank you so much for your kind words.

  3. That's awesome, and I can identify with your worry about "scarring her for life" with bad advice. Still, I'm sure people who do have children struggle with the same concern.

    I want to squeeze Sarah for coming to the library so often with her brother and for pulling up a chair to chat. Seems like an ear might have been all she needed.

    Oh, and I agree. I'm not so sure about being a woman yet, either. :)

  4. Rita, this is great! You have no idea how much you helped this young girl just by listening.

  5. I have a feeling that Sarah will remember that conversation for a long time.

  6. I was a church youth director for 12 years (yeah, total heathen that I am, but that's another story). I can't tell you how many times I found myself in conversations I felt utterly unprepared for, desperate lest I do more harm than good. Most of the time, I felt so useless and awkward.

    But after a while, I learned to do exactly what you did. Sit and listen, offer a little comfort or reassurance perhaps, but mostly just listen.

    It's been ten years since I served, but I still run into my kids from time to time, in a coffee shop or via email. So many times, I've had them thank me for helping them through this or that problem. At the time I'd felt so helpless, but so often what they needed more than anything was a sympathetic ear. Feeling heard can be so important.

    This little interaction may turn out to be a moment Sarah remembers for the rest of her life. A few years from now, I would be a bit surprised if you run into Sarah and she thanks you for being there for her that day.

  7. Edit: a few years from now I WOULDN'T be surprised ...


  8. Rita, stop! You're going to make me leave publishing immediately and run right back to a library!

    Changing lives? Hard to tell. But you will be remembered by many. And how many people can really claim that in their careers?

    (Which actually reminds me of that scene in "You've Got Mail"...where she talks about people remembering her and remembering her mother...am I the only one who knows this scene and I'm totally embarrassing myself?)

  9. I would say you handled the situation quite well. I was an elementary school teacher for a few years after having taught high school, and it was a big change. I had serious talks with my high school students, but they were always about adult stuff. Talking to elementary kids takes some finesse, I discovered. They see things so differently. She'll be back, and she'll appreciate anything you have to offer.

  10. {{{hugs}} You handled it very well. Most of the time, my kids come to me and just want to talk. They don't necessarily expect me to fix the problem, they just want to know someone cares about what they are going through.

    You are making an amazing impact on these kids lives, otherwise Sarah wouldn't have felt comfortable talking to you.:)

  11. "Just listening" is so important! When I was a kid, I remember feeling better (about myself, the situation, etc.) whenever someone treated me as though I mattered.

  12. I was that kid. Not with a missing mom or anything so major. But I was lonely and shy, and the kind-hearted librarian who always greeted me by name and was glad to see me made a world of difference to me. It meant so much to have someone like me who didn't have to (which is the way I saw it at the time). It's her that I hold in my mind when I deal with lonely/needy kids in the library. You never know when your smile is the only thing that kid has to hold on to for the day.

  13. When I was eight my parents divorced and I moved with my mom, sister and brother to a new (much larger) city. The school we attended had after-hours programs for working parents, and though we were supposed to be in classes (gymnastics, painting, what-have-you), I spent almost every single day in the library. Mrs. Green introduced me to Roald Dahl, R.L. Stine, and Louis Sachar. And when I was especially sad, she let me alphabetize returns, taught me how to type, and generally made my world a less unhappy and safer-feeling place. Kids are smarter than adults often understand, and for Sarah to have you (and vice versa) is a great and beautiful thing.

  14. Wow - I think you handled that really well!

  15. Thank you all for your lovely comments and for sharing your stories. It's very encouraging to hear that librarians have had a positive influence on the lives of many people.

  16. Rita, Sarah was one lucky girl to have someone who was as compassionate as you who was willing to listen to her. It wasn't your words that she needed (although your advice was just fine) as much as it was a friendly ear...a safe place to let out her fears. Dealing with so many little ones every day I sometimes get so caught up in "teaching" that I forget to just listen and be in the moment with my children. And in the listening they can break your heart, impress you with their incredible courage, and make you giggle like a school girl. Thanks for being there for all the "Sarah's." You make their lives all that much better. Thanks for sharing your story.

  17. A good book to suggest to Sarah next time she visits your library would be "Our Bodies Ourselves." A great book for any young girl!