Safe Space

As a child, the transition from elementary to middle school was marginally traumatic. At Tappahannock Elementary School, my formative alma mater, our days were filled with uncompromising structure and a comfort in knowing that someone was directing us where to go and when to be there. In middle school, it felt as though we were left to forge pathways down foreign halls, prepubescent bodies, and advanced expectations with very little guidance.

Growing up in a small town, my peer group was largely unchanged. With a few rare exceptions, those of us who started kindergarten together would ultimately graduate high school together. But in middle school, even they started to change. Seemingly overnight, the familiar faces I’d played tag with on the playground were now transformed with braces and glasses and the beginning stages of acne. In middle school, it felt like everything and everyone was evolving too rapidly, so to find any space that felt safe and stable was an oasis in an otherwise hormonally-driven desert of drama and uncertainty.

Libraries have always been a holy place, a sanctuary of sorts, for me. They have always been a place where I can just be, free to explore and to be honest with myself. Because within those walls, a million new people are waiting to meet me, and I discover places and ideas that I never even dreamed of. Even if it is just in my imagination, I get to choose who I want to be and where I want to go when I walk a library’s aisles—a freedom we so seldom experience as we grow more into ourselves.

More importantly, libraries have always been safe for me. Regardless of the space or place, I know how to navigate the spines and stacks with nothing more than my curiosity as my compass. Libraries cocoon me in their potential for wonder, and I am convinced there is magic in the dust that floats up from the shelves of a well-tended one. The endless possibilities, places, and people I can encounter without ever leaving home is nothing short of miraculous.

Yet behind every stack, peering down the ledge of a check-out counter, there is always the right person who is there to quietly guide us in a direction we didn’t know we were destined to follow. They are the fairy godmothers of the folios, handing over hard copies and paperbacks, dog-eared and waiting-to-be-cracked-open stories that transport us somewhere new, somewhere fantastic, somewhere safe when we feel lost in the shuffle.

I don’t remember the first time I walked into Essex Intermediate School’s library, but I can honestly say that so many of my memories from those better-left-forgotten days involve those walls and the people I shared them with. In many ways, my elementary school’s library had been a second home for me, but here, familiar picture books faded away into stories and ideas far more complicated than the thin-backed Caldecott winners I’d come to know as intimately as any friend. It was in this middle school library that I discovered my passion for science, my love-hate relationships with dystopias, and the foundation of my own unique perspective on the world.

Last summer, I had the chance to visit my former middle school. The buildings have undergone significant renovations and additions since my time, but there was something eerily familiar about it all. I felt as though if I listened carefully enough, I could hear the echoes of my friends and our chatter whispering out from the sidewalks and window panes. The fact that my tour guide was one of those middle school friends probably contributed to that overall sense of familiarity; however, the air seemed to carry on its breezes the secret hopes and dreams of a group of kids from over thirty years ago.

As we walked through the gym, past the old 7th grade wing, Niki warned me that the library was no longer in the spot I remembered, that it had been moved to a part of the building we’d once had classes in. It felt somehow wrong to not turn left at the main entrance or to not find Laverne behind the hidden counter, a book she’d reserved just for me waiting on the shelf below.

Nothing was the same in the library of my memories. The shelves were far lower to the ground than I remembered, and there seemed to be more light drifting in than I recalled. Niki introduced me to the current librarian, Ms. Weeden, and we spent time mulling over the need for more resources in a rural school district, her integration of technology into information literacy, and my own experiences as a former patron.

As I looked around, I was struck by how even though so much had changed, there were some things that had remained the same: the smell of the books, the invitation to explore, and the smiling guardian were all still there, welcoming in the next child who was looking to be found.

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