Terrance Heath

Where Would I Be Without the Library?

Filed By Terrance Heath | February 20, 2013 2:10 PM | comments

Filed in: Living
Tags: future of libraries, libraries are irrelevant, library system

bigstock-Friends-comparing-notes-in-a-s-13579346.jpgSaturday was “Library Day” for our family. Every three weeks, the hubby and I relive an important part of both our childhoods. We take our boys to our neighborhood public library, let them choose books that interest them, and check them out. Those books then become fodder for bedtime reading, or “any-time” reading for the next three weeks. (And, in Parker’s case, they sometimes serve as material for book reports and class projects.)

Libraries have always been important to me. So, it disturbed to read that a best-selling author in Britain says that libraries have “had their day,” “have been around too long,” and are “no longer relevant.”

But before I into that, I have to say something about what libraries have meant to me. First of all, the public library literally saved my life, in several ways.

First, remember that I grew up a skinny, effeminate, non-athletic, black gay boy in the South, during the Reagan era. Let that sink in for a minute.

I survived it relatively unscathed, with a just a few emotional scars, and my sanity relatively intact. Believe me when tell you that public libraries played a big role in my survival.

For starters, the library was my refuge. Even before I came out to myself or anyone else, I was a target because I was not a normal boy. I failed every test of masculinity I was subject to in middle school. I was bullied to the point of becoming suicidal. (And I have the scars to prove it.)

First, the library offered me a shield. I quickly learned that I was vulnerable during recess -- that unstructured time when students weren’t closely supervised; when the adults on duty just couldn’t see everything that happened, and bullies knew it; when a boy like me didn’t want to get caught in some remote corner of the playground, beyond sight and shouting distance of the nearest adult. But if I took a book to recess, and found a quiet shady spot to read (if possible, in close proximity to a teacher or other adult), not only did almost no one bother me, but I became almost invisible.

Then the library offered me a refuge. Sometime around 4th grade, I found out the some students volunteered as “library assistants” during recess. While the other kids were playing outside, the library assistants would work in the library, mostly re-shelving books, or helping the librarian re-decorate a bulletin board or something. I made it my business to become a library assistant. Now I was completely shielded from bullies, and as an added bonus I got to enjoy the air-conditioned setting.

I was the only boy library assistant. the rest were girls. I didn’t care.

It really all began the day I walked into a public library branch and found the book that saved my life.

I retreated into books. I'd always been an avid reader, and I discovered that if I took a book with me everywhere, and buried my nose in it during recess and other times when I might have to interact with my peers, there was a much better chance that I might be left alone. I got in good with the librarian at school, and volunteered as a library assistant. So, during recess, instead of joining the other kids on the playground, I'd spend time in the library, shelving books, helping put up bulletin boards, etc., with the librarian and the other library assistants (who were mostly girls, as I remember). I learned how to use a library, a skill that has served me well for the rest of my life, and would serve me well as I figured out what was happening to me and why I was feeling what I was feeling.

Adolescence and puberty were setting in, and I found myself having other feelings for the boys around me, that were stronger and different from before; and another reason not to go into the locker room. It was clear that I wasn't feeling the attraction to girls that the rest of male peers were - or were claiming to. So, what did I do? There wasn't really anyone I could talk to. Especially my parents, who would just point me to the bible. So, I started reading. By that time I'd been called "faggot" more times than I could count, and I knew what it meant. But at the same time I didn't. I wondered "What does it mean if that's really the way I am?" I went to the public library, this time, took a big breath, and went into the section on homosexuality, once I'd located the subject in the card catalog.

In those shelves, I came across a book that I credit with saving my life. Its title was A Way of Love, A Way of Life: a Young Person's Introduction to What it Means to be Gay, and it was written by Frances Hanckel and John Cunningham; a lesbian and a gay man, I presumed. It was the right book for me at the right time. (Just a year or so ago, I decided I wanted it on my bookshelf at home. It's long out of print, so I searched for it online, and found a copy. It's sitting on my desk as I write this.) It covered everything; history, names for homosexuality (some of which I'd been introduced to already), sex, puberty, meeting other gay people. What I'll always remember is that at the end, there was a chapter telling the stories of a dozen other people who were gay or lesbian. They were old, young, single, coupled, etc., and they were all living happy productive lives. By the time I finished reading it, I knew two things: I wasn't the only one, and a happy life wasn't out of my reach because I was gay. (I also knew that I had to get out-of-town. Augusta, Georgia is a pretty conservative town, and at the time it wasn't a great place to be gay. My big plan was to go away to college and find other gay people there, which I did.)

I went back to school with a little more confidence, because I knew being gay didn't mean I was a freak or some kind of defective. I knew there were others like me, and I knew that there were place and people out there that would be accepting, and that I just had to find them.

It didn’t end there, either. On the same shelf I found The David Kopay Story, and Randy Shillts’ The Mayor of Castro Street: The Life and Times of Harvey Milk.

I didn’t know any more about football then than I do now. Still, David Kopay’s story added to those in A Way of Love, A Way of Life, and gave me even more hope that there was life beyond the narrow box I’d been raised to believe I had to somehow shoehorn my life into.

And Harvey Milk became one of my personal heroes.

I was just nine-years-old when Milk gave this famous speech in 1978.

It was that same year that Milk and mayor George Muscone were assassinated by former city Supervisor Dan White.

It was 1983. I was a 14-year-old skinny, effeminate, non-athletic, black gay boy growing up in the south, during the Reagan era. I'd finally come out to myself, and was beginning to come out to friends at school. But I was kind of like "only gay in the village.". I walked into the Jeff Maxwell branch of the Augusta Library, into the stacks, and found on the shelf a copy of The Mayor of Castro Street.

I was one of those kids Milk was talking about, when he said “You gotta give ‘em hope.” And Milk’s story gave me hope beyond measure.

I was in high school when, once again, the public library was the place where I learned that there were many more ways of looking at the world than what I’d been raised to believe.

I walked to the main branch of the downtown branch of the Augusta Public Library after school one afternoon, to wait for my mom to pick me up after a rehearsal or some other after school activity. I knew my around the library by then, and in my browsing I wandered into the religion section and stumbled on something called the “gnostic gospels.”

I remember being in church once and hearing the choir sing a song titled "God Said It, I Believe It, That Settles It!" I'd have posted them here, but I think it was one of these two.

Needless to say, that ended up not working for me.

It's the kind of belief that I was brought up in, where the bible is treated as though the deity himself leaned down from heaven with quill in hand and penned the whole thing from beginning to end in King James English. It wasn't until my process of coming out caused me to question that belief and I started studying and exploring other beliefs that I learned that the above wasn't the case. It rocked my world when I stumbled across a copy of Elaine Pagels' The Gnostic Gospels that I heard that there were other books that didn't make it into the final version, and started wondering who decided what did make it in and based on what criteria. Who decided that those other writings weren't the "word of god"?

I "stumbled" across The Gnostic Gospels while browsing around the religion section of the public library. I was in high school at the time, and had pretty much come out to myself. (Another book I found at the public library helped me on that journey. So, I'm probably a walking advertisement for why some fundamentalist Christians try to keep certain books out of public libraries. For what it's worth, I found both books amid other books expressing opposing points of view. I even read a couple of those, too.) Trying to fit my sense of who I was into the faith I was born into was a bit like trying to fit myself into shoes that were a size-and-a-half too small.

That was the beginning of the end of any hope of my “gettin’ religion” in the way I expected to, given my upbringing. It was also the beginning of a spiritual seeking that would last until well into my adulthood, when I came across a flyer advertising a series of lectures on Buddhism, and found it to be a far better fit than anything else I’d found.

So, as I wrote above, I am probably a walking advertisement for why some conservatives think books about homosexuality and non-Christian religions should be kept out of public libraries. The reason is obvious. Allowing books like that in public libraries could end up producing more people like, well, me.

But I’m grateful those books and more were there, and free to borrow, because they helped shape who I am, and I don’t know where else I would have come across them or the ideas they contained. I probably wouldn’t have found them in my school library. And I’d never have found them in my parent’s house.

As it was when I was growing up, as a parent I hope it is now even more so for our boys. Opening the doors of our public library opens up world of knowledge far more vast than we could provide at home, with only the amount of books we can afford to purchase and/or have room to store.

I don’ t know where I’d be without the library, but I’m glad I didn’t have to find out.

(School library graphic via Bigstock)


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