Thursday, March 20, 2014

When I Was the Library Lady

Yesterday I had coffee with a friend who is a teacher. She told me a story I can't quit thinking about, but I also can't tell you, because it concerns a child and because I can't think of any way of adequately disguising it while also telling enough of the truth to make it worthwhile.

So I'm going to tell you about the Janie Hammitt girls instead. It's probably a long story, and it's a little weird at first. Bear with me.

I knew that the building up far from the road, after the train tracks but before the old Douglass school, was the Janie Hammitt Home, but I didn't have any real understanding of what that was. I knew there were girls living there, but not what girls, or how many, or why. I passed the building at least 4 times a day, on the way back and forth to take and pick up my children from school, and I never thought about it until one day, when I was driving, God said to me, very clearly, You need to put a library in the Janie Hammitt Home.

That's the weird part, God talking, etc. I promise, it's over. Except that it seemed so strange to me, and yet absolutely something I had to do. So I looked the number up in the phone book (this was years ago) and I called the JHH, and told them I needed to come in to talk to them about giving them a library. (I didn't tell them the God bit; I never mentioned that to anyone, except, probably, my husband.) (I'm still a little shy about talking about it, but it's true.)

They sort of said O-k-ayy. I came in carrying two books, both hardcovers, my own For Freedom and another I don't remember, except that it was probably something I'd bought and read on my own, but was YA. I handed the books to the woman in charge of the place, and she looked at them and said, "OH," in a way that made me realize she'd thought of children's books as picture books only. "Yes," I said. "Not bunny books. These."

She told me to go ahead.

The Janie Hammitt Home housed up to 18 girls between the ages of 13 and 18 who were unplaced in foster care. They'd been removed from their families but no one else would take them. Some of them stayed for days, until an appropriate placement came along; some stayed for years. Until I got there, all they had to read was 2 ancient hardbound copies of Reader's Digest Condensed Books and an encyclopedia from the 1980s. They couldn't use the public library, because our library requires anyone under 18 to have an adult sign the card, and no one working at the Home would sign for them for fear they would steal books.

I bought a bookcase and put it in the corner of their living room. I solicited donations, from my editors, the phenomenal woman from Kirkus, Karen Block Breen, from my friends, from my mother's book club (one does not charge for speaking at one's mother's book club; one can, however, beg for donations for the pet project of one's choice). I started out trying to put in a checkout system like a real library, but I gave that up; it was too much work. I stuck the books in the shelves. Sometimes I alphabetized them. The girls watched warily at first. I didn't explain, other that to say that they were books to read. I included some picture books, my favorites. I had YA drama and self-help books and later, at the girls' request, a lot of true crime.

Sometimes I took them pizza. Sometimes I handed out certificates worth a free book of their choice, and I was amazed by how quickly they would write down the name of the book they wanted, and hand it back to me. I told them my name, but they all called me Library Lady.

Sometimes they stole books. Actually, quite often they stole books. When I stopped by girls would tell me that such-and-such title was gone, could we get another copy? Usually this was right after someone had left the house for good. The managers were greatly distressed; they assured me that they searched the girls' luggage before they left, but in truth it was easy to slip some books into their high school or middle school lockers. Bristol, VA, has only one high and one middle school, so wherever the girls were living they'd stay in the same school. I could never convince the managers that I didn't care when books disappeared. If a girl needed a book she should have it. The books on the library shelves couldn't be bought at Wal-Mart, which was the only place these girls were ever taken to shop.

Once in the summer a girl who'd never spoken to me before looked up from the book she was reading and said, "You have no idea how much trouble you're keeping me out of. You have no idea." Once a girl promised me that nothing in any book could be overly traumatic for any girl at the JHH because, "whatever anybody can do, we've already had it done."

Once--my favorite moment ever--I got out of the car and before I'd rung the doorbell a girl came flying out, yelling, "Did you bring Harry Potter Seven?" It was a day or so after its release date, and I had the book in my hand. I held it out to her, and she ran back inside, waving it over her head and yelling, "She brought it! She brought it! DIBS!"

Many people take on foster children for altruistic reasons. Many others, particularly those willing to house difficult teenagers, do it for money. When the economy tanked and jobs in Bristol vanished, suddenly there were no girls unplaced in foster care. The Janie Hammitt Home closed. It remains closed. I don't know what happened to the books, but I like to think that the girls stole them all, cleaned out the shelves on their way out the door.