I attended a small school with big needs and looking out for all of them was our school librarian, Ms. Kathy. She was the keeper of the wardrobe, the tilter of the planets, the flower in the attic, and the planter of the ferns. She was the only one who would smile knowingly at such strange references and she could, with one small suggestion, change my day and repurpose my year. She was the only adult I knew who seemed to understand that I felt trapped by the school’s doors and needed another way out.
It’s no surprise that as a gifted child in a traditional school I felt drawn to books, but for me it was a literal escape from my world. Books became the only place where I could be challenged, understand how others felt, put words together at a speed which brought me comfort, and experience more than I could have from my small position in life. To say the stories were real to me would be doing a disservice to their role; they were, with no exaggeration, my saving grace. And Ms. Kathy was my angel.
In the morning I would join my class in the library to Daven, a morning prayer said by Jews to start the day. I would choose my least-visited spot and I would hold my prayer book close to my face to hide my real intentions. I would move my lips, trying to mimic the words being sung by the prayer leader, but would not actually read or say them. While my lips moved in empty prayer, I would scan the shelves, memorizing each spine, making a plan to come back later. I think I’ll start with Defoe. No, maybe Cummings. Maybe both. Ms. Kathy, who would sit silently and politely during the prayer, would catch my eye and wink at me. She knew. She always knew.
My mother had to be to work early in the morning so she would drop me and my sisters off at school before most of the students and staff arrived. My sisters would go the normal route and join a couple friends in the lunchroom. I would slink down the darkened hallways and find the spot from the day before. There it was: Defoe.
I would lose myself in Robinson Crusoe.
Just as I was worrying how I’d get my canoe to the water, the sun would start to buzz, Ms. Kathy would say good morning, and I would be startled out of my world. Squinting in the sudden fluorescent sun, I felt a real sadness because it would only be a few moments before the other kids started to arrive and all I could read would be the spine. Ms. Kathy must have understood because she never sent me away.
Those few moments, which were realistically a half hour or more in non-kid time, were a true gift from Ms. Kathy. She would assign me tasks and there was no task I loved more than shelving, organizing card catalogs, or stamping new books. She was slight in frame and had gray hair which she wore pulled tightly back in a bun. She was quiet, as one would expect, and I don’t believe we ever spoke more than a few necessary words to each other. We moved about the library; each of us content to be alone in our quiet world surrounded by thousands of page-people.
When a new book would arrive or when an old book, one I had not yet noticed, needed to be appreciated it would be left out on a table and I’d see it in the morning when I snuck in. When she arrived she would smile and say good morning. I wanted to ask her if she left the book out on purpose but I never did.
In sixth grade I was moved to a new school and I never did see her again. My new school’s library was not quite the same but the path had been set for me and I felt the safe, and the understood, and the all things possible every time I surrounded myself with books. So long as there was a quiet table and the smell of books (yes, they have a smell!), I knew an escape route was possible. For a gifted child, reading is just a verb; but words are much more, they are that which make up the air we breathe, they travel through our body and soul, and when we exhale, they are the pieces of millions of ideas, feelings, and concepts which we hope to share with the world.
As a young child, especially one with my plethora of social and verbal issues, it didn’t even occur to me to learn more about this woman who welcomed me every morning for six years. I never even knew her last name. It really wasn’t until hindsight that I could appreciate all that she did for me and the importance of her welcoming me into her books. I needed an escape from traditional school, from mundane and misunderstood, from feeling abnormal and incapable, and I was going to escape no matter what- I am eternally thankful she gave me such a miraculous door to the world.
Ms. Kathy is today’s Portrait of Gifted for many reasons I can list and for many more I cannot. She represents a critical hub in a school, one which connects every child to a world much bigger than one classroom can contain. For me, as an unidentified and unsupported twice-exceptional gifted child, she gave me hope and option, two things gifted kids need in spades.
I don’t know if the numbers would call her gifted and I don’t care. Sometimes the greatest gift a person embodies is the ability to dedicate years of selfless and thankless service towards the education and support of children. To me, that is the true definition of Character and I’m happy to have Ms. Kathy accompany me when I’m sitting quiet and alone at a table surrounded by my heroes.