Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Today I made a young girl cry at the library

I should probably provide some context.

There's a young girl who comes fairly often to the library—let's call her Mary. Mary is ten years old, very talkative, very sociable, and home-schooled. She's also pretty sharp-tongued for a ten-year-old and is not afraid to tell me exactly what she's thinking. (Older, stricter adults may classify this as 'sass' or 'backtalk;' I prefer to think of it as 'conversational spice.') She visited more often last fall, sometimes once a week or more, but disappeared over the winter months; today was the first time I'd seen her in several weeks. She's also a voracious reader, currently working her way through every Nancy Drew book, in order.

Mary also has a couple of attributes that make me extremely frustrated when she comes to the library. I mentioned she's home-schooled; unfortunately, hers is the kind of education in which the answer to every question in the textbook can be summed up as 'Jesus.' Moreover, she comes to me to help her with her homework, but the kind of help she expects is, essentially, for me to write her essays for her. Lastly, she has an incredibly short attention span. I really hesitate to diagnose children with mental issues—especially after reading the first few chapters of the excellent Raised on Ritalin by Xeric-grant-winning Minnesota-based comics superstar Tyler Page—but Mary is the poster child for ADD. She'll ask me a question, get bored with my answer halfway through it, ask me a completely unrelated question, get bored with that answer, then get frustrated with me for getting off-track from her original question. Essentially, she wanted me to do her work for her, but didn't have the attention span to actually let me do it.

Like I said, today was the first time in a while she's come by, and today she had to write a page-long essay about Zeus, comparing him to the Christian God. I found her a couple books on Greek mythology appropriate for her age level, but she wanted me to just tell her what to write. I was able to give her a few sentences after much struggling and frustration ("Did you know four of the first five presidents were born in Virginia? What's the next Nancy Drew book in the series? Why aren't you helping me with my essay?"). When she left, I called her home and spoke to her mother. Now, I was extremely hesitant about taking this step, because it's crossing a line, and the last thing I wanted was for a parent to rail at me for telling them how to raise their child. Fortunately, Mary's mother was very understanding about the situation. I made sure to stress that I wasn't frustrated at Mary for being in the library, or for asking me for help, but that I simply could not be her teacher. I also suggested, as delicately as possible, that she might want to have her daughter see a child psychologist and be tested for ADD.

Half an hour later, Mary came back to the library with her father, and started crying before she could even stammer out an apology to me. I wanted nothing more than to give that sad little girl a hug, but as an adult male who chooses to spend his entire day with small children and openly admits to liking the show My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, I'm already pretty suspect and didn't want to add fuel to that particular fire. Mary had clearly already been crying; her parents had doubtless given her a stern talking-to and made her feel terrible about making Mister Ted at the library angry for wasting his time on her. I did my best to make it clear that I wasn't angry and that I didn't want her to stop coming to the library, though I don't know how much good I did with her father at her side, apologizing for her lack of respect towards an adult and authority figure.

I feel terrible about getting Mary in trouble with her parents, but I had to make it clear to her that I couldn't provide the kind of help she was looking for, and if she wouldn't listen to me, she would have to listen to her parents. The last thing I wanted was to scare her away from the library; in a town as small as Glenwood, the library is one of the only third places available to children and teens, and I want to make sure it stays an open and inviting place for them. Calling the parent(s) or guardian is the "nuclear option," which I've only had to use once before, and in both that case and Mary's, I wish I'd thought of something else before resorting to it; doing so signals to the child(ren) that not even the library is safe from their parents' (seemingly) overly strict rules. It seemed like my only option at the time, and it might even prove to have been the right choice in Mary's case, but in the meantime, well ... I made a young girl cry at the library. In my library.

I'm not going to feel okay with myself for a while.

1 comment:

  1. I don't think I can say anything to magically make you feel better -- but don't beat yourself up. Sometimes these things happen. And they seem to happen more often with prepubescent & teenaged kids from non-typical environments. You did what you could. It's OK.