A place belongs forever to whoever claims it hardest, remembers it most obsessively, wrenches it from itself, shapes it, renders it, loves it so radically that he remakes it in his own image.
– Joan Didion
The year was 1993. I would’ve just finished afternoon ballet class with Ms Malen.
If I didn’t feel like hanging out at Gate 7 waiting for the school bus, I could count on this peaceful sanctuary being available. It was way less boring than waiting at, say, the chapel. A good place to hide and think.
In my pink leotards and pink canvas ballet slippers, I would slide across the ceramic tiles, from the ballet room all the way to the other end of the second floor, to my favorite hiding-waiting-thinking place.
The grade school library.
It was a long, narrow room with wood laminate flooring. To the right of the glass door entrance was a table covered in colorful gift wrap and plastic, carefully thumb-tacked to the table’s sides. One of the librarians usually sat here. Her job was to make sure students weren’t sneaking out library books — she painstakingly checked the date stamped on the ‘Return By’ paper slip pasted on the inside back cover of all the books we took out. I don’t think they ever had a problem with book theft though. Outside of D.E.A.R. (“Drop Everything And Read”) time mandated by the principal, the library was almost always empty and quiet.
Next to the table was the checkout desk. I liked to wave at the librarian there whenever I visited. I eventually realized that my visits were more frequent than most when we dropped by as a class for our “first” library visit. The head librarian was meant to explain to us how to use our library cards and fill out the index card in the back pocket — but instead of telling us herself she called on me and asked me to show my classmates. Oh, I remember feeling so proud! I guess I was too young (or naive) to think about its dorky implications.
To the left of the entrance was an area covered with thin blue carpet, bordered with low wooden bookshelves. You were meant to remove your school shoes to enter this area. Pillows were scattered here and there. I think it was meant for the younger students. More surprisingly (on hindsight), there was a two-storey play house complete with working windows and a door right smack in the middle. The carpet inside this small house smelled faintly of feet. Sometimes I would bring a book with me to the second-storey; but older kids liked to hang out and chat there so I eventually stopped. There were better places to hide.
Wooden circular tables with about six chairs each lined the middle of the library. At the center of each table was a goldfish bowl, complete with one shiny orange goldfish. Library card catalogue cabinets stood to the side, with little typewritten cards providing clues to the books’ locations.
On either side of the room, further on, were the books. Tall shelves, waist-high shelves. It held Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys hardcovers, Enid Blyton books, books hardbound in a single drab color (usually red or navy blue), English books with short stories and poems from school libraries in the USA. The US books had the libaries’ names stamped on the top and side margins. They also smelled different… in a nice, balikbayan-box way.
Sometimes I ran my fingers along the books’ spines and picked one out at random. If I lucked out, I would come across a book that hadn’t been borrowed in decades, its pages brown and crisp at the edges. It cracked when I turned a leaf.
I fondly remember discovering Nick Joaquin’s beautifully-illustrated “Pop Stories for Groovy Kids” series in that library. My favorites were ‘Sarimanok Vs. Ibong Adarna,’ a story about schoolgirls and their mythical pets, and ‘Lilit Bulilit,’ Joaquin’s modern take on the Philippine aswang, shape-shifting monsters that eat unborn fetuses and small children. Recently I tried to find copies of these books on Amazon to share with my own kids someday, without any success.
I knew the library so well I would hide Goosebumps books which I found sporadically (they were never where the card catalogue told me to look!) in secret nooks and crannies, so I could borrow it whenever I was ready.
At the end of the room was a folding brown screen. Audio visual rooms lay beyond, but the picture is hazy in my mind. My class watched a video there once.
This library is long gone. It has since been renovated. But I summon its image from the hazy recesses of my memory from time to time, and it remains one of my favorite places.