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Card Catalog

In early summer 1970, I landed in the small town of Mansfield, Louisiana, with no job, no housing, a toddler, a baby and a sick, unemployable husband. George’s non-stop coughing had driven us east from smog-ridden California to find a place, any place at all, where the air was clean enough that George could breathe. Mansfield was the very first spot where he had some relief, and no wonder. County seat of De Soto parish, it was a town of about 3,500 people, with two high schools (one all black, one all white) drawing students from the entire parish, two doctors, one dentist, a public library and precious little else. No industry. No smoke. No interest or investment in factories and “progress.” Most of the Caucasians (just 11 per cent of the parish’s population) lived in town; most of what we now call the African-Americans lived in the country. So did we, in a small trailer on the one bulldozed patch of our dirt-cheap fifteen-acre chunk of pine forest.

Since I was clearly going to be the breadwinner for the foreseeable future, I got a summer job as a fill-in for the regular librarian, and then was hired on as the school librarian and only white face in evidence at De Soto Jr.-Sr. High School. Degree in library science? Teaching certificate? Not required out here in the boonies. At least not in this all-black school. I at least had a Master’s degree in linguistics, a knowledge and love of books, and years of student work-study program experience in libraries. That made me super-qualified on the local scale. I could read publishers’ brochures, correctly catalog incoming books and assign Dewey Decimal System numbers; prepare, shelve and repair books; type up catalog cards; and keep order in the card catalog itself, those huge, unwieldy banks of indexed cards that pointed readers to books.

I was thrilled to have a job doing something I loved. I had no idea what I was really in for as the only Caucasian in this forcibly desegregated, then after 18 months quietly re-segregated stepchild of a school.

Many of you reading this have heard a tale or two from my adventures in the two-year process of winning over and helping excavate the buried potential of 1,500 school-hating, riotous and untutored kids, and their misplaced, unmotivated and largely unqualified babysitters—uh, teachers. About my school-board-thwarted efforts to help teachers teach what they enjoyed and knew well, so those kids could actually learn something and have fun doing it. About my own education in being a minority of one, set firmly on the other side of a color barrier. About country life with rabbits (domesticated) and rattlesnakes (not). About our family’s two a.m. visitation from the very active local KKK, drunk, armed and shootin’ mad because we were “fraternizing” with our neighbors and my colleagues. While not fun at the time, in retrospect these efforts and encounters make good tales, even instructive ones. But it was the card catalog, that looming, haunting presence in “my” library, that changed my life.

It loomed because it was enormous for a school library: five massive cabinets taller than I was, each cabinet five drawers across and six down, those 150 drawers crammed with, I estimated, over 50,000 cards strung on the long horizontal rods that held them in what was supposed to be order. And it haunted me because most of those cards referred to books that no longer existed in the library. What did NOT show up was reference data for at least three-quarters of the books that were actually on the shelves. Nor, of course, were the cards in anything like alphabetical order…

Having discovered this horrifying state of affairs in my first week as school librarian, I asked why. It turned out the school had not had an even semi-qualified librarian since 1949. For the past 21 years, part-timers such as the late principal’s wife had merrily ordered a mishmash of unsuitable books, mostly ancient classics completely beyond the grasp of our students. They had apparently trashed any accompanying pre-printed catalog cards and shelved the un-numbered, unalphabetized books at random. Only books acquired before 1949 were represented in the card catalog.

We had well over 10,000 books in that little high school library. Of the give-or-take 50,000 cards in the card catalog, perhaps a thousand of those cards actually corresponded to existing books. No wonder teachers dispatched rioting classes to the library for rest (the teacher’s) rather than research! (Let it be said, though, that by the end of my two-year tenure, fully ninety-seven percent of those kids had metamorphosed from determined enemies into delightful allies. But that’s a different story. Back to the card catalog.)

In Week Two of my sojourn at De Soto High I began the enormous task of sorting everything out, ordering books and reference materials that would both meet our students’ abysmal reading levels and attract their interest—by some forgotten miracle we had a nice hefty book budget—and weeding out the useless tomes crowding the shelves. About six weeks in, it was time to rearrange what remained and tackle the card catalog: to prepare and file correct catalog cards for both incoming newbies and the old books that passed muster.

In case you’ve never had to consult an old-style card catalog, that meant three to five printed or typed cards per book, filed alphabetically by title, author, and various subject-matter headings. The cataloger would skim publisher’s blurbs or table of contents, then consult huge Library of Congress classification books that listed subject categories and (for nonfiction) the Dewey Decimal System or Library of Congress numbers for all possible subject types and their sub-classes. It was a long, nitpicky operation to catalog even a single book by hand, then type the cards.

I loved it. There’s something about bringing order out of chaos that gladdens my very soul. I hear echoes of the first song of creation itself, and this particular operation reminded me of the legend about God parading all the animals (and plants?) before Adam so he could name them. In creating those cards, I was Adam—well, maybe Eve—naming all these beautiful books, helping them claim their identity. I might not have given birth to their contents, but in that school I was their godparent.

The naming-and-ordering project took two whole school years. Meanwhile, for ease of operation, I had taken the rods out of the catalog drawers and allowed students to consult them only under my eagle-eyed supervision. (Not that the kids really suffered from this restriction; before I arrived, they’d never been taught to use a catalog. Research was not required in any of their classes. In the early months, when forced—or under my regime enticed—to read a book, they would hie themselves to the nearest bookshelf and grab a book at random. Later, that changed; but again, that’s another story.) By mid-May, 1972, all but a handful of the cards were safely (I thought) in their assigned catalog drawers. All that remained was to type up the few remaining cards, file the lovely pre-printed ones that had arrived with my latest batch of new book acquisitions, and I would be able to lock those rods back in their drawers and bask in my own praise.

And then the life-changing event occurred. On Wednesday evening, May 17, vandals broke into De Soto High School. Thursday morning the principal, Mr. Jackson—a man I deeply respected and admired for his mostly ill-fated attempts to improve the lot of our young people—intercepted me at the school door.

“I have bad news,” he said. “Some kids broke into the school last night and did some damage in the library. I wanted to warn you before you went in.”

He ushered me solemnly to the library door. I steeled myself and peeked in. The shelves were still upright—no surprise there; they were old, wooden, immovable. And the books still seemed to be on the shelves. What… OHH, no. No!

Yes. All 150 rod-less wooden drawers had been pulled out of the catalog, upended and thrown to one side. And all the cards, my precious, precious cards, had been dumped, scattered, stirred and mixed in one enormous, unbelievable pile of incoherent, useless data. Order into chaos in what police estimated was about 20 minutes’ work.

The intruders had apparently headed straight for the library, and except for upending the biology fish tank just for fun along the way, had left all else untouched. This was a targeted attack, chosen for its sheer nuisance value. Those kids—for we were sure they were among the disaffected three percent or so who preferred the old school-as-inept-babysitter, library-as-riotous-playground model—knew exactly what would hurt me most. What they—and I—did not know was that this piece of malicious mischief would instead provide one of my life’s great, blessed turning points.

For as Mr. Jackson hurried out and I stood in shocked silence over that immense pile of apparent destruction, I heard my own voice saying aloud, “Well, this sure wasn’t my fault. But it sure IS my responsibility. My library, my cards. And my responsibility to clean up this mess. I’d better get to work.” And so I did.

And as I sorted—I could sort catalog cards in my sleep by then—I thought about the difference between “my fault” and “my responsibility.” Between blame, which disempowers the blamer because it throws away ownership, and acknowledgement, which simply observes that I am here now and the mess is here too, in my inner or outer space. Whatever did or didn’t happen to create this mess, I am the one who now “owns” the space where the mess showed up. My library, my cards; my responsibility. And this means I am the one with the power to clean it up. The power to heal, to transform, to create or restore order, beauty, meaning.

I welcomed these thoughts with unaccustomed joy, feeling some unnamed freedom seeping in, melting unrecognized walls between “me” and “them,” “self” and “other,” “good” and “bad.” And that moment of clarity stopped me short and turned my feet onto a new path. Not a wide turn, just a small vector change that, multiplied over the years and decades, has brought me to the completely different inner territory I inhabit now.

For in that moment I realized that to accept responsibility is not the same as to accept or assign blame. Some time later, I began to realize that all blame is toxic and unproductive, including self-blame. I gradually learned that blaming others is throwing my own power and presence away into space: “YOU over there, YOU did this! YOU do something about it, or at least suffer for it! I’m going to stay with you, tied to you by my outrage at what you did, till this gets fixed!” Still later, I discovered that blaming myself is throwing my power and presence away into time: “YOU, my earlier self, did this, and I hate you for it! I want you to suffer, and suffer, and suffer for what you did! And I’m going to stay back here with you and make sure you do so!” Other-blame dumps me out of my own space; self-blame dumps me out of my own time. I am there, not here; then, not now. And healing, mending, creation and re-creation can happen only here, only now. Who really cares about fault? My library, my cards. My planet, my life. My responsibility to stay here, now, and clean up whatever part of the mess is mine to clear.

In that long-ago moment of stillness in the face of chaos, I had taken only one tiny step on this new path that would shape and illuminate all my days to come. I believe now that this first awakening to the distinction between blame/fault and responsibility to act was the greatest gift De Soto High School could possibly have bestowed on me. And it came right out of left field, from a deliberate attempt at destruction. Pure Grace, making no distinctions between worthy and unworthy carriers of her power to transform.

The rehabilitation of the card catalog, by the way, was remarkably swift. It turned out that there were very few torn or crumpled cards; most were simply very, very mixed up. (And how often has that been true since? That the inner or outer resources I at first imagined were torn, crumpled, destroyed beyond all possibility of repair, were in reality nearly all whole, nearly all present, just a bit mixed up and inaccessible till I sorted things out?) And, because I still loved the work, it went quickly. I did stay one extra week after classes ended in June, but that was all the time I needed to finish the job.

It was also all the time I had, for the Louisiana’s new Secretary of Education had decided that from now on proper subject qualifications and teaching certification would be required for all teachers, including school librarians. A laudable goal, certainly, but a bit suddenly implemented. I did wonder, as I duly departed after my two-year stint, just how said qualified replacements would all be found over the few weeks of summer… Not my business, though. I had new adventures awaiting. So depart I did, carrying in heart and mind my parting gift: the barely-sensed beginnings of the joyfully passionate life that was beckoning me as I stepped away from blame into the power of self-responsibility.

I learned much in my years in Louisiana. Thank you, De Soto High and Mansfield and rabbits and rattlesnakes and vandals and, yes, even the KKK! But above all, thank you, card catalog! My gift to you of love and renewal has been returned a thousandfold.

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