I was ten when my family moved to New York City. We came from a tropical country where revolution and political violence had ravaged our nation for an entire year. Throughout my childhood there, I remember our family owning only two or three books. My favorite memory is of a book of fairy tales from which my mother would read to us. We would gather around her on the floor and she would select a story to read. She read wonderfully, modulating her voice, getting up occasionally to act out the part of the wicked stepmother or the big bad wolf.
Imagine being transported right into the middle of crowded, bustling Manhattan from a place where greenery abounds and children played barefoot all year round. It was frightening and overwhelming, to say the least. My father was able to find work that he enjoyed, at a salary that to us seemed unimaginably generous, but was not enough to support a family of five in New York City. We ended up living on the thirteenth floor of a government subsidized building in “The Projects,” next door to the local Con Edison substation. Every morning at 6:00 a.m. the substation would clear its smokestacks with a loud “boom” that served as our alarm clock, and I would begin to get ready for classes at the neighborhood school just down the street.
School was very difficult for me since I spoke little English; history class was a blur of foreign words. I remember the time when my teacher asked me to bring lettuce for our class pet, how the entire class roared in laughter because I didn’t know what “lettuce” was.
One day our class went on a field trip to our local public library, where every wall was stacked from floor to ceiling with rows and rows of books. What I remember most clearly about that field trip is the repetitive chatter in my mind: “It’s free! I can borrow any books I want and bring them back and take out some more and bring them back and it’s free, it’s free, it’s free…” All my classmates gathered around the books for our age group. Knowing that I was not ready for those, I put my pride aside and sat in the section where the absolute easiest books were kept. Not knowing how to select a book, I decided to just take the first few. I ran home after school that day and told my mother all about this amazing place. She didn’t believe me, so I dragged her there, where I showed her how to get her very own library card.
I returned to the library as soon as I had read all the books I borrowed. I took home the next six books on the shelf, then the next, and so on, until I had worked my way up to my age group. I remember how proud I felt when I finally was able to read books my classmates were reading. Within a month of my first library visit, after reading countless “This is Jane” and “Run Spot Run,” I surprised everyone, myself most of all, by winning the school spelling bee. Sensing my potential, my teacher helped me gain acceptance into one of the most prestigious academic high schools in New York, from which admission to college was virtually guaranteed. There, I learned how to use the library for much more than just recreational reading.
Throughout my life I have been blessed with good fortune. But without the library, I would not have had the educational opportunities that have led me to where I am today. I now teach at a local community college, where I hope to help my students succeed academically.
And my mom? She walks to the library two or three times a week. Whenever I want to know about anything, be it a health problem, or some international crisis, or some scientific discovery, she happily sits in the reference section and researches the topic. Within a week she will have sent me all the information she could find on the subject. And yes, she has also learned how to use the internet, in the library.
As a little girl, my heart, mind, spirit (and vocabulary) were challenged by the library books I read. As an adult, I'm still challenged in all those ways and more through my local library.