You should support your local library. Speaking as someone with a pathological need to consume facts, stories and even how-to guides for things I’m never going to do (there is no reason for me to have read a book on French cooking when my main culinary influence is Chef Boyardee), the library is a great alternative to spending a week’s pay on Garfield comics.
I did not always feel that way about the library though.
Last week was National Library Week, an event which prompted many on social media to trumpet what a big influence the library and librarians had on them when they were younger. They were overwhelmingly positive, which is why I held this story back a week.
As a 5th grader, I was very similar to the way I am now, only tinier, sicklier and slightly more bug eyed. However, rooted deep in my frail, mucus filled chest was the belief that if I’m going to do something, I need to do it right, no punches pulled. That’s not to say I don’t take shortcuts—I’ve stayed up many a night haunted by the idea that I’ve taken the long road to a solution—but the final product should be something I can put my name on without reservation.
That attitude brought about an adversarial relationship with the school library. School libraries are the definition of pulling punches. They keep all the good books for themselves and throw down a few scraps of “age appropriate” reading material to keep you off the scent. You know why kids don’t read? The fucking Hardy Boys, that’s why kids don’t read.
Anyway, at my school they assumed the reason kids didn’t read was that they didn’t know how the library worked, so we had mandatory library classes where we took quizzes on the Dewey Decimal system. One of our assignments was to write a parody of a popular song featuring lyrics about the Dewey Decimal system, because the best way to spur children’s interest in something is to teach them how to organize it then make them sing a song about it.
I had already made the teacher’s—let’s call her Ms. Library—list by setting my parody to the tune of Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man”, a song she felt was wildly inappropriate despite the fact that she had never heard it before. Granted, I probably gave her a little attitude when she asked “how does that even go?”, but it’s not like she was a teenager during the Jazz age; 1972 was right inside her wheelhouse.
But the real problem came around October, when Ms. Library had us write and illustrate scary stories we could tell to the class. We were teamed up with random partners, under the assumption that one would write and one would illustrate. However, having been burned on a similar project the previous year, I took over the entire project, promising my partner that his silence would get him an “A” and possibly a publishing deal. With the logistics squared away and the contracts drawn up, I was free to explore the depths of my mind for the most frightening story ever told.
I’d always been scared of possession, so much so that I used to cover my ears during the “There is no Dana, only Zuul” part of Ghostbusters. The first movie to break me of this was Jason Goes to Hell, a movie where ordinary people are compelled to eat Jason Voorhees’ heart and become Jason-possessed killing machines (it’s not as good as it sounds). The rules of the possession were murky, but one thing was very clear: those rules put unnecessary downtime between infection and decapitation. What if–similar to the way Jason’s mother’s head floated around in the NES Friday the 13th game–there was a head that floated around headbutting people’s heads off of their bodies so it could attach itself to their neck stumps and use their remains as a vehicle for a city wide killing spree?
Having typed that out, I now realize that a 5th grader writing that story today would get the death penalty, but at the time the only sentence I had to face was written in red correction pen on the back of my first draft. It was this:
“Don’t use the word ‘decapitate’”
Given that my plot was essentially “Five decapitations happen”, this was a problem.
“Anyone have any questions?” Ms. Library asked, after we’d all had a chance to look at our corrected drafts.
I raised my hand. “How come I can’t use ‘decapitate’?”
“It’s disgusting. Pick something cleaner.”
An informal survey of the class showed that most of them weren’t even sure what ‘decapitate’ meant, let alone were they offended by it. Of course, if they didn’t know what it was, they wouldn’t be scared by it either and I was determined to give everyone nightmares. So, I asked Ms. Library for suggestions.
“I don’t know, just write ‘left them with no head’” she offered. I took it, because it sounded much, much worse.
When we eventually read our stories out loud, mine hit the room with a thud, which I have to assume was a “pearls before swine” situation. However, after I finished reading it, Ms. Library looked me in the eyes and said “That was sick. You are a sick individual.” When I started writing this piece, I had planned on using that moment to condemn her for asking for a scary story then reprimanding me for not writing about a teddy bear picnic. But I suppose, in some strange way, she really did support my writing. It’s because of her that I’m not writing this in rat turds on a scrap of used toilet paper while I waste away my days in solitary confinement.
So, thank you, Ms. Library. Wherever you are.