Thursday, March 24, 2016

I Heart My Public Library

By: Susan

I got an email last night that I had a hold available at the Cedar Park Library.  So after work and my run with my friend Andrea, I made sure I stopped by to pick up Drum Dream Girl: How One Girl's Courage Changed Music.  It's a picture book with only some thirty pages but it is filled with lush illustrations done by Rafael López and thanks to Margarita Engle, I learned about a Chinese-African-Cuban girl who wanted to play the drums at a time when girls were told that only boys were allowed.  I got on the Internet and looked up the band she played with and listened to their music and in a matter of an hour, my world grew a little more.  That's why I love libraries, this most democratic of institutions where anyone can enter a community of knowledge and learning.  So here is a piece I wrote over ten years ago about one special woman who tried to create such an environment in a place where free thinking and young minds were (and unfortunately, still are) considered a dangerous combination:

My current books on loan from the Cedar Park Library

The Woman Who Took Away the Locks

In 1976, I was an eighth grader living in Tehran, Iran.  The previous year, the Shah, the King of Iran, had put in place a universal mid-morning snack program, where milk, juice and cake or cookies were given out to children at 10:00 a.m. every morning in every school in the country.  My affluent classmates, however, having had a full breakfast, sometimes found other uses for the snack items. Once when a policeman was hit by a milk carton thrown from a second story window, our new assistant principal, Mrs. Momeni came in to give our class a lecture.  She was new to our school and we had not quite figured her out yet.  She didn't shout or insult.  She just told us about the school where she had come from.  It was one in the south side of the city, the poor side, where if a child was absent, his mother would come to collect his snack because that was his only meal for the day.  She suggested that if we did not need the milk or the cake, she would gladly collect them and take them to those children.  I don't know how her message affected the other kids, but for me it was my first encounter with social consciousness.

I guess the school's administration found those remarks too inflammatory.  Next year, Mrs. Momeni got a demotion; she became the librarian.  You have to know about our library to understand why being the librarian was a step down.  The library was on the top floor of the school, where only the upperclassmen had occasion to pass by it.  It was no larger than a medium-sized classroom with bookcases all around and tables and chairs in the middle.The bookcases held old textbooks, some classical books of poetry and used English books, discarded at the end of each year by students who never really learned to read them.  The most notable part of the library was the locks on the glass doors of each bookcase.  The library was where you went if the teacher was absent.  It was where you were sent if you misbehaved.  Sort of a detention hall.  So you see, being the librarian was more like being a monitor, a baby sitter.  I think the administrators were fooled by Mrs. Momeni's small stature and quiet demeanor.  As soon as she got the job, she took off the locks, boxed away the old textbooks and put up a sign for a membership drive:  Bring a book and join the library.  Join the library? My only other attempt to join a library had been in fifth grade when a small one opened in a park near my house and I had to bring permissions from my parents and the school principal to join.  My parents readily agreed, thinking this way they would have some help satisfying my appetite for books.  The elementary school principal, however, thought that such extra-curricular activities would interfere with my academic studies and would not sign the permission slip.  So you can imagine my excitement at the news of being able to join a library by only donating a book.

That year was one of the most memorable years of my life.  My friends and I would hang out at the library every chance we got.  We devoured the new books, got to know new authors, Iranian, European, American.  The best book I read that year was a collection of short stories called When the Fish have Died by an Iranian woman, Zhilah Sazegahr.  The title story was about a fish that was deprived of water so gradually that it got used to living without it.  When it was thrown back into its bowl, it drowned.  But the best part of reading was talking about books with my friends and Mrs. Momeni.  We each had our favorites, and in each book a favorite character.  We talked about them so much, they would become real people in our lives.  At the end of that year, Mrs. Momeni decided to give a prize to those who had read the most books.  I was one of them.  For the prizes, she chose books by Sadegh Hedayat.  Hedayat was an existential Iranian writer who had committed suicide in Paris in the thirties.  Rumor had it that his books were so dark that those who read them would be driven to end their lives.  You can imagine the school's response to the choice of these books as reading awards!  Next year the library was moved to an annex building next to the nurse's office and the janitor's supply room.

That was 1978.  The political situation in the country was getting worse every day.  There were demonstrations in the University across the street from our school.  Banks and cinemas were being burned every week as symbols of the decadent West.  The Shah's secret police was losing its grip on the opposition.  My family left the country in November of that year.  We came to Houston, Texas where I had a cousin.  I started school right away.  One day, the teacher assigned a paper in history class.  Over the weekend, I went to the public library to do the research.  First thing I noticed was that there were not glass doors or locks on the shelves.  Timidly, I asked the lady at the reference desk if I could use the books since I was not a member.  She said: "Of course, you just can't check any out unless you have a library card."  I feasted on rows and rows of Encyclopedias and reference books.  When I was done with my school assignment, I sneaked into the fiction section.  I kept looking over my shoulder, expecting someone to come and ask for my card and not finding one throw me out or worse, report me to the authorities.  But no one came.

Before leaving, I took a chance and asked the librarian what it took to get a library card.  She gave me an application to fill out and it only had space for one signature.  Mine.


  1. I have loved this powerful, moving piece since the first time I read it, and your new introduction is perfect for it.

    1. Thanks, Carolyn. For us book lovers we will never get tired of talking about books and their powers over us.

  2. I have loved this powerful, moving piece since the first time I read it, and your new introduction is perfect for it.

  3. I, too, enjoyed this piece, Susan. I have my own story of public library discovery and how it impacted my life. I think all of us who find comfort among the stacks have that special moment seared into our hearts and minds of when the entire world became accessible...for free!

  4. What a great story, and an even greater reminder of how precious is the freedom to read whatever we want. Another reason to support our libraries--and librarians!

  5. Powerful story Susan-thanks for sharing. I've read and shared Drum Dream Girl-it's a gem!