When I turned sixteen, I decided it was time I needed a job. I had been working every Saturday and Sunday since I was nine helping my father clean his bars, but I wanted to find a job on my own. I promised my father I would still be his main vacuumer, but I needed to spread my wings and explore new avenues. Of course, the first place I applied was the county library. Books have always been my love. I wanted to be around them, even if I wasn’t reading them. I knew if I could just land a job as a page, I could spend twelve to fifteen hours a week in a place of quiet study, and somehow, maybe through osmosis, some of the knowledge in the books I was putting away would get into my head.
The county library job was a very competitive job. In 1986, minimum wage was $3.35 an hour. The library offered pages $4.02. Thus, when I applied I was one of dozens of applicants. I wanted it so badly that I prayed to all of the dead writers to allow me the chance to be able to be in a place that celebrated their greatness. Hemingway, Steinbeck, Lawrence, and Bronte– I wanted to linger in their midst; I needed to amalgamate with their works, assimilate with their musings. They heard, and within a few weeks, I was hired.
My favorite room to work was, of course, the Fiction room, although, I worked the slowest in this room. I would read the backs of books as I put them away, and more than once, I found myself well into the first chapter of some riveting story when my supervisor would walk by and clear her throat. She did not understand that the words would mix in my thoughts and dreams, and that many nights, while I was deep in slumber, I would dream of the apparitions of my favorite authors and they would share secrets of writing.
When I awoke, I always forgot what they said. I would remember Fitzgerald’s smile or Virginia Woolf’s contemplative demeanor, but I would forget their instruction, leaving me, many morning, feeling elusively caught between two worlds: the one I lived and the one I wanted to recall.
I have been thinking a great deal lately about the influence of the written word and these great artists, and I worry that with the new core curriculum, the love I feel for language will die. The core curriculum is requiring that in all subject matter, 70% of the works to be read must be non-fiction. The core curriculum does not have a standard for poetry, seemingly saying that it can and should be omitted as fluff. I worry that the richness of works like The Scarlet Letter and The Great Gatsby, and poems like “The Road Not Taken” and “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” will be forgotten. In this brave new world we are embarking upon, will we be focusing on community, identity, and stability at the cost of identity and creativity? Literature and poetry teach us about people more than any non-fiction piece of work does. Literature and poetry teach us about the human heart and soul. They allow us to feel empathy and sympathy, exaltation and joy.
At night, I still try to conjure conversations with my muses. Last night, I dreamt I was in the forest, near a brook with overgrown weeping willows. Butterflies danced in the sunlit sky. I sat on a blanket basking in the sun when Hawthorne stopped by for a visit. He had a kettle of Earl Grey and two cups. We shared the tea and discussed the inhibitions of the natural world compared to societal demands and pressures.
“What do you think Nathaniel, “I asked, “of the way education is changing. What shall we do?”
He was quiet for a fairly long time. He sipped his tea and seemed to study a bird nestled in the nest of a tree. Finally he spoke. “I will tell you what I told dear Hester. ‘Be true. Be true. Be true!’ ”
Words to live by.