Snapshot: me, sitting cross-legged on a hardwood floor. Surrounded by shelves of books. One open in my hand. I’m so absorbed in it I forget who I am, where I am, what time it is. When the bell rings, I close the book and jump up, limp-hopping because my leg’s dead-wood asleep. I’ve got to get to the checkout desk, fast, so I can take this precious book with me as I racewalk to my next class.
It’s 1969. I am 12 years old. The corner of the Nathan Eckstein Junior High School library where I hang out is the corner where the biographies and autobiographies are shelved. And the memoirs, although I don’t remember knowing or using that word then.
The biography section runs on low shelves along the short, east wall to the corner of the long, curved north wall, with its sweeping bank of glass-block windows that work hard all day to capture, refract, diffuse whatever north Seattle light they can find. If you planned to spend some time there, as I usually did, sitting cross-legged on the floor with your skirt fanned from knee to knee was more modest and more comfortable than squatting. Sitting on the floor also dropped me right out of sight behind the interior forest of taller bookcases. For as long as I sat there, I was alone. I was free. No older girls, no cool girls. No cute boys, no scary boys. Just me and real stories of real people, most of whom lived long before junior high school existed. Before glasses, braces and a bad case of adolescent shyness could turn this place called Eckstein into a fortress full of hidden dangers that had to be navigated every single day.
My library corner was my refuge.
Many of the biographies I found and read in that corner have faded from memory. There were the nurses—Clara Barton and Florence Nightingale—and the writers: Louisa May Alcott, Charlotte Bronte. There was Juliette Gordon Low, founder the Girl Scouts. Marie Curie. Helen Keller. Anne Frank. It wasn’t that I wasn’t curious about men. It’s just that during those junior high years, I needed stories of strong women the way lungs need oxygen.
One day, I pulled a memoir off the shelf called All But My Life by Gerda Weissmann Klein. Her story begins on September 3, 1939, a date she remembers with far more clarity than I can recall my Eckstein library corner. It was the day the Nazis invaded her Polish town. She remembers her brother, stepping outside to let the cat in. When he closed the door, he had a bullet hole in his trousers.
When I got home after school, I sat down on the floor of my bedroom and kept reading Gerda’s story: page after page of forced marches, cattle cars, work camps, death camps, and, against all odds, survival. This was not Anne Frank’s diary of hiding from the horror. This was the horror. Gerda Weissmann Klein taught me real history, stripped of all euphemism. She taught me the power of one person’s story. And she put the traumas of my little life—the glasses, the braces, the mean girls, my parents’ divorce—in perspective. Real history, stripped of euphemism, will do that.
This week is the American Library Association’s annual national library week, and this year’s theme is “Lives change @ your library.” My life changed every time I sat down in that secret, sunny corner. What about yours?