Friday, July 11, 2014

2014 Summer Library Series: Card Catalog by Stephanie Noll

Welcome back to Friday! From Butte, Montana to Detroit, Michigan, the Summer Library Series now travels east to Claymont, Delaware and the two important libraries from the childhood of writer Stephanie Noll.  Enjoy!


Card Catalog
by Stephanie Noll

from getty images/
My elementary school experience was unfortunate, and not just because I was the fattest kid in class, always, though that didn’t help. My early reading abilities attracted the attention of my first grade teacher, who suggested that I take a test to determine if I was gifted and talented. I didn’t understand the meaning of those words, but I knew that such a designation came with privileges. In the small working-class town of Claymont, Delaware, the gifted and talented children rode a bus to a school in a nicer neighborhood. I wanted to ride that bus. I wanted to be around kids who were never without a book and who didn’t stumble over words when asked to read out loud. I imagined that in the kingdom of “Gifted and Talented,” I would not be called on by the teacher to tutor a classmate; I would not be bullied for my weight or for my excitement to answer any question the teacher posed.

But here’s the thing: I didn’t pass the test. In a solemn meeting of which I remember fragments, my teacher told me and my mother that I’d missed by one question. “One question!” she shouted, angry with the system, I knew, and not me. “If they would sit and talk with her, they’d know,” she said.

We did not fight the decision. I’m not sure what could have been done. But the school had a plan: they would allow me to take English and language arts classes with students in a grade above me, but I would stay with my class for math and science, social studies, art, music, gym. No one saw any problems with this solution; no one considered that the older kids might not accept me into their reading circles; no one imagined that I might have to miss recess or art or gym with my own class so that I could read from the Skylights basal. One correct answer shy of gifted and talented felt like a punishment.

One day, I left my 4th grade reading class, and when I returned to my 3rd grade class, the door was locked. I considered all the places where the class might be, but none of the usual suspects fit. I started to cry in the hallway, feeling untethered and lost and resentful. The only place I could think to go was the library.

The school librarian was an old lady with huge framed eyeglasses holding thick lenses. She hardly looked up from her crossword puzzle when I entered, and such is my first recollection of the independence and safety that I would associate with a library. From the shelves I pulled favorites like Harriet the Spy and Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing. I sat at a small wooden table, books stacked like bricks all around me. I sat and read until the day’s end, and when my mom picked me up, I told her what happened.

from getty images/#181894596 /
The next day she arranged for me to re-take the gifted and talented test, and this time, I passed. After the first day of fifth grade in a new school in the nicer part of town, I came home, excited and satisfied. “The
kids,” I told my mom, “are just like me.” I fell in love with school and became aware of how much I didn’t know, aware that I wasn’t the smartest kid in the room. Early in the year, we were assigned a research project: write a report on an aspect of ancient Roman culture, such as education, mythology, social structure, food. We were required to consult several sources and encouraged to go to THE library. Not the one at the school, not the one in our classroom, but the county library on Concord Pike. A place with two floors and a card catalog. Beautiful wooden tables and chairs where you could (and I would, for all my secondary years) sit for hours and read and study and daydream and imagine yourself a scholar. Just being there made me feel older and smarter but also aware of a disconnect from my peers—I wasn’t sure that even my gifted and talented classmates would be so jazzed to spend an afternoon with a stack of notecards and a new Bic pen.

When I didn’t have assigned research projects, I’d make some up for myself: for awhile I read all I could about Impressionist painters; I studied the life and work of Jane Goodall; in my later years, I cut school to go to the library where I read every book Jack Kerouac ever wrote and everything written about him. In college I’d get lost in the stacks, intending to check out books about whatever subject I was supposed to be pursuing but pulling books at random just because their titles intrigued. The library has always been a place to escape, to daydream, to remind myself that there is so much to learn, especially for a kid like me, someone whose gifts and talents were really just her desire to know more.

Stephanie Noll lives in Austin, Texas and teaches writing, literature, and education courses at Texas State University-San Marcos. Formerly the editor of Badgerdog Press, she takes part in marathons and triathlons, tells stories as part of fundraisers for the Austin Bat Cave, moderates panels on women writers at the Austin Film Festival, and raises her two sons with her husband Michael.  To read more of her writing, check out her flash fiction, "Me" in The Owls and her articles over at Copper Apple.  She is at work on a memoir.