We know that children’s books change lives. They show us that apologies and forgiveness can be hard; that everyone deserves a second chance; that sometimes it takes an adventure or two to wind up right back where we always belonged; and that it’s better to be kind than to be right.
My story begins with a confession. For the past few days, I’ve ignored a woman sitting at my subway station, holding a baby and a cardboard sign. The first time I saw her my jaded New York filters kicked in: she’s a scammer, I thought. She looks too young, too clean. She’s one of those charlatans preying upon people’s kinder natures. Or maybe she’s a sociology student working on a project for her graduate thesis; pretending to be homeless and gathering statistics on reactions from cold-hearted urbanites. She’s not really a homeless woman with a very young child, sitting on the dirty subway steps, waiting for help. Watching wordlessly as well-heeled Upper East Siders walk passed, around, and over her. That pink-cheeked infant sleeping in her arms couldn’t possibly need my help. And even if they are for real, what can I do?
In our line of work we help people every day. Being a librarian, particularly a public librarian, we employ our empathy and compassion in so many of our interactions with children and adults. We try to figure out what it is they are asking, what it is they need, how we can guide them to the right source, the right tool, the best book. We rely on body language, tone of voice, and facial expressions as much as we do on the words they say. Each reference interview can be a mini-lesson in social psychology. We serve our users and we give a lot of ourselves in that service. I’ve heard coworkers joke that at the end of a long day on a public desk they feel “all out of nice.” The idea is that we expend so much of our empathy, our patience, and our understanding during our 9-5 that by the time we leave the library, we may feel a little tapped out. I’ll admit it- there have been days when I, too, felt “all out of nice.”
Today I saw the young woman and her baby again on my subway steps. I started to walk on by. In fact, I did. Walked passed her and her baby who was looking up in joy and wonder at the shadows cast on the bright white tiles by the fast-moving commuters. There was a little voice inside telling me to stop, to help. And if it were not for one twelve-year-old orphan boy from Pine Swamp, Maine, I may have ignored that little voice. Some of you may know this intrepid young man. His name is Homer P. Figg.
I happened to be listening to the audio version of The Mostly True Adventures of Homer P. Figg by Rodman Philbrick. I was at the part of the story when Homer meets Mr. Brewster, a Quaker helping escaped slaves on the Underground Railroad. Homer is in a tough spot. He wants to help Mr. Brewster and the hiding families, but he doesn’t know if he can. Mr. Brewster tells Homer,
“It all boils down to this: A person has only two options in life, to do something, or to do nothing.”
It doesn’t take Homer long to realize, “I can’t do nothing. Nothing is not an option.”
Boy, did that stop me in my tracks. I pulled out my earbuds and stood on the sidewalk feeling shamed. Homer and Mr. Brewster would have some words for me. I knew what I needed to do. Or, at least, I knew that doing nothing was simply not an option. I turned around and walked back down into the subway station.
I didn’t have a lot of money to give the young woman but I did chat with her for a while. I found out about her situation and talked about her baby. I told her about the amazing places where she could find resources for herself and her baby, attend classes, meet other moms, and read- all for free. I gave her my card and wrote down the names of local libraries on the back. It’s not as much as I would have wanted to do. I wish I could have done more. But at least it was something.
I think Homer would have agreed with another icon of children’s literature who said,
“A little consideration, a little thought for others, makes all the difference.”