into the stacks

Children spend years of their lives wondering, planning, dreaming of this moment. Adults ask the question before children are barely out of diapers: So, sonny, what do you want to be when you grow up? The adults find the answers cute, charming, and endlessly entertaining.My classmates and I were asked this question, once; our answers are printed in a sixth-grade yearbook that NONE OF YOU WILL EVER SEE. Well, maybe, if I like you; it's not that I'm ashamed, but it was the year of buck teeth and really bad hair, and if I get a choice in the matter I'm going to cheerfully request that your memories of me consist solely of what I was like AFTER I learned how to match my socks, ok?

If you want to understand the true gulf of dorkitude between the Normal Kids and the Genius Kids, all you have to do is look at that list. There are twenty-something kids on that page, all growing into various shades of awkward, and their dreams are as simple and as tactile as a toddler's grip on a mother's finger.

Fireman.
Police officer.
Teacher.
Race car driver.

Children are idealistic, excitable creatures. They haven't mastered the shady art of materialism yet; they gravitate toward the safety and comfort of helpful professions (teacher, fireman) or they long for the simple, pure glamour of rock stars and sports champions. Sixth-graders don't aspire to middle management, and they don't dream about becoming stockbrokers.

Sandwiched among the race car drivers, the firemen, and the teachers, I was the middle-1980s sixth-grader who, in a fit of rare honesty, put down "computer analyst." It was a pretty honest answer, given that I'd discovered years before that computers didn't care if you were the class dork. They cared about syntax, and cared that you didn't mistake your PEEKs for your POKEs. While I might not have completely understood everything that a computer analyst did, I remember feeling a decent shade of rightness about my answer after I wrote it.

The rest of my classmates, I might add, had the predictable response to the smart kid saying something completely snobbish like that. I'm sure I got ignored on the playground for at least a day. Then, the next day, some kid in some classroom did some Amazingly Awful Thing and suddenly the world was going to end after recess, that is, if he didn't get paddled first, and my tiny little moment would be swept along the tide of childhood and, like most moments, forgotten.

* * * * *

This afternoon was spent in a determined haze of jet lag as I jumped from project to project. Our trip to Florida took us away for a week, and a week's worth of undone website-tending can't be finished in a single morning. After calls regarding a slightly-borked software upgrade, I flipped through my notebook and found a set of ISBN numbers I'd scrawled from a morning's lazy magazine-reading at Gareth's.

As I keyed one of them in, I received a taunting little love note from one of the books. "I'm in the 300s," it said. "You know you want me. Come find me."

Not having taken my break that afternoon, I grabbed my keys and headed downstairs. It wouldn't take but a moment; I could stop by the Adult Services desk to check the book out and I wouldn't even have to bother the Circulation folks on the first floor.

Except for those pesky kids. I work on the third floor, and the third floor is the top floor—why was this group of seven-odd teenage boys trying to go up higher than the third floor? I kept an eye on them while my book got its just reward for taunting me—a stern and quick check-out—and came back across because something was wrong.

I could hear fate rushing around me, blowing little taunting breezes into my ear. Sensible blue skirt, loafers, Icelandic sweater, simple hairstyle, little glasses, it said.

My walking toward the boys caused a ripple in their arrangement. Whatever they were doing, they didn't want to be doing it near me. I caught up with them right as they tried to duck into the International Center (no books in English, translation: teenagers don't go there) and said, "Is there something I can help you with?" knowing full well that what I said, and what they heard, was "Just what are you up to, you miscreant little punks?"

"No Thanks We're Just Trying To Find A Place To Sit" and six of his closest friends slipped through my fingers as I finished saying, "Well, that's interesting, because you just walked past and ignored the study room." They vanished, making a beeline from No Teenagers Part I (aka the International Room) to No Teenagers Part II (otherwise known as the genealogy section).

I motioned to one of my fellow employees and said, "Keep an eye on them. I don't know what they're doing, but it's not what they're supposed to be doing."

* * * * *

I was halfway back up the stairs to the third floor when the memory struck me: of me, seventeen and long-haired, chasing a boy I barely knew through the stacks of an academic library, seeking the most clandestine, deeply hidden set of stacks so that we could steal a kiss sight unseen. We found them; at sixteen you are nimble and fast, and the books build impenetrable fences one word at a time, shielding you from the glances of all but the most persistently nosy of librarians.

I got my kiss.

The boy faded away, the passage of words and time obscuring him from view and relegating him to the status of occasional, fond memory; and I, some thirteen years later, through the magic of computers and a slight stretch of imagination, became a librarian.

As a postscript: one of the beauties of my job is that it allows me to claim the best of both worlds. I am a full-fledged coder, yes; as a webmaster, that is undeniable. It is, however, equally difficult to ignore the specific details inherent in the place of my employment; I might be coding, but in the end, it's all about the books. Somewhere, the Fates are kicking back a colossal set of cold ones and having one hell of a belly laugh.

Here's to taking the roundabout route, and to growing up into the people we were meant to be all along.

October 11, 2006