a lesson

Circumstances today led me to describe, in the glowing terms with which I always want to invest this description, the literacy room at LAPL’s Main Library. But there is another, connected memory I have of that department’s work and place that had no place in my worktime conversation today but which glows in my memory even more than that well-designed room within the building.

A couple of years ago, I arrived at LAPL Main very early one morning, a few minutes before 8 am. I was scheduled to teach in the lab that day and, as is my usual wont, had erred on the side of arriving early instead of even a couple of minutes late. The Central library there is in LA’s true downtown, set off on a couple of sides by a plaza that includes some water pools and benches, as well as well maintained plants. The setting is pure 1930’s and that day’s blue sky made the post-war smog a forgettable problem.

It was a pretty, warm, clear spring day, an easy time to sit on a bench and just enjoy the kind of weather that must have attracted Midwesterners to Southern California nearly 100 years ago. And so I simply sat.

And then I noticed that a little further on, seated on a bench just a bit closer to the door of the building, were two well dressed adults, a man in a business suit and a younger man in dress slacks and a long sleeved Oxford shirt, tieless and jacketless. They were considering a book propped between them and I was just close enough that, after a bit, I could gather that what was happening there and then was an adult literacy tutoring session.

I don’t think either man knew anyone else was about and I don’t think they could have cared, so deeply engrossed were they in the work at hand. In a way, it felt a bit like being present during a birth.

And the images–as well as the sensibility–of that morning have stuck with me since, not only when I cross the plaza behind LAPL, but almost every time I am engaged in a discussion of adult literacy program at public libraries anywhere.

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2 Responses to “a lesson”

  1. Jackie Says:

    When I was a baby librarian, at my first library in Zion, IL, there was an active literacy program.
    One of the tutors there was an older man, a very nice person. He and his wife were both tutors, they were very short and very sweet.
    Anyway, one night I was sitting at the reference desk and the man and his student, another short, older man, very shy and deferential, came out of the office that they had been working in.
    They walked up to the dictionary stand behind the desk and started looking through whatever very large dictionary was on the stand. The tutor was explaining that the words were in alphabetical order and that is how you would find the words. Suddenly the student interupted and said “all the words are in there? And I can just come and look at them anytime I want?”. I completely burst into tears.

    Some time later the tutor saw a squirrel tangled in a net in his backyard. He went out to untangle the squirrel which was, of course, quite panicky. The squirrel bit him badly, the bites infected and the man died. I’m sure there is a message in that but I have carefully avoided recognizing it for all these years and I will continue on.

    Everytime I tell someone about the two men and the dictionary, I still cry.

  2. Eric Says:

    There is no lesson in the squirrel bite.

    Not every word is in the dictionary.

    Dictionary definitions do not explain words.

    But it is still a *good* story.

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