Led to Lead

“If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.”
-John Quincy Adams

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We were newly married, Mark and I, and shopping with seven-year-old Matt at Twin Fair, the prototype of supermarket/department store combos. This was a Friday night, and the store was busy. There were many, many tired, unhappy children shopping with long-suffering parents.

One parent in particular gave us pause, though.

A stout little blond boy, red cheeked with tired eyes, turned sudddenly and gave his tiny toddler sister a whack on her snow-suited back. She began to wail, and the mother wheeled around, already swinging.

She started to hit that little guy, hard, over and over.

“I’ll teach you to hit your sister!” she snarled.

And Mark said to her, “That’s exactly what you’re teaching him.”

And she spun around and directed her venom at Mark, but at least she stopped hitting the burly, overheated boy.

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That little guy would be around 40 years old now, and I wonder what leadership lessons he learned in his growing up years. I hope that was just one bad night, and that he learned that it’s okay for leaders to say, and mean, that they’re sorry: they’ve made a mistake.

I hope, too, if the mama was a usually angry person, that there were other grown-ups who modeled calm and thoughtfulness, patience and perseverance. I hope he had  a big person who listened to him, quiet and patient, deep and true.

I hope his teachers and bosses showed him how good leaders live in this world, and I hope he incorporated those lessons into his own life.

It’s something I’ve been thinking about—how we learn to be leaders. We learn from our most basic, intrinsic models, of course. We learn because we want to lead, and we want to learn to do it well. And some lucky people have the opportunity to study leadership—study it in a more formal kind of way and put it into practice. Ten or so people I connected with who had that opportunity stunned me with their thoughtfulness and generosity, and with the leadership roles they’ve embraced as adults.

Maybe, I’m thinking, we should be teaching leadership in all of our schools…

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Of course, our first leadership teachers are our parents. In fact, I typed ‘parents as leaders’ into Google, and got 652,000,000 hits. In the first hit, Brighthorizon.com offered, “Parenting Skills: What Makes a Good Leader.” It pointed out that every situation and every person is different, and that different reactions might be required of parents.

“In every situation, you remember that you are the leader, capable of providing guidance, training, and encouragement,” the article notes, and it goes on to say that trust is the number one ingredient in the successful parent-child relationship.

I can remember, as a shy, shy child, visiting a friend whose house was loud and raucous. The mom in that house often yelled things like, “Who the HELL took my pen?” and stomped around the kitchen.

I was terrified at first, until I learned that family’s culture: they were noisy, loving people, and there was no violence in their noisiness. The kids would yell right back, and in minutes, they would all be laughing.

I had other friends whose homes were quieter, quieter than I was used to, where the rules were very clear, but that sense of love still simmered. Very different kinds of parenting: very different models of leadership. But all of the people in all of those homes trusted each other to be there in need.

“My parents were good leaders,” Liza writes. “They taught me to work by modelling that behavior.”

As she thought about parent leaders further, Liza added, “I think moms historically are the more influential parent as they manage it ALL. It is enormous the amount of leadership qualities mothers have to possess just to keep the world running.”

Things are changing, though, she adds. “Dads these days are stepping in more in the running of the family household…”

My mother used to tell me, “DO as I say, not as I DO.” She was jokingly referring to an important truth: as children we model the behaviors our parents demonstrate way more than we listen to the words that they say…a truth I learned more deeply as a parent myself.

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Other family members are important leadership role models, too. Janet noted that her two grandfathers were professional nurturers of people and potential. “One was a minister in Long Beach, California,” she writes, “and the other served as superintendent of schools in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.”

Her minister grandpa built a church; her educator grandpa built a school. Janet is a retired educator who served on her school board and who fills many leadership positions at her church. The lessons she learned from her grandfathers, and the admiration she had for them, shaped her life’s roles.

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And then our families, fully believing in the beneficence of the system, launch us.

We go to school, where we have teachers who model leadership in many shapes and forms. There are leadership roles there—in the classroom, on the playground, in clubs and organizations and student government—that give many kids a chance to learn about the challenges of leading and about themselves as leaders.

We go to churches, some of us, and look at leadership through a spiritual lens.

We go to work, and we learn from bosses.

“My last boss,” writes Brian, “definitely had her flaws. But she was no-ego in the sense of digging down and pitching in. She would dive into the dirtiest, sweatiest areas of the restaurant when something needed to be done with no complaints. It was inspiring.  She felt that when you accepted a job, you accepted it with all its warts intact.”

As Tracey notes, we learn from bosses both good and bad.

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Life thrusts us, at all ages, and often kicking and screaming, into certain leadership roles, and we learn by doing.

Sometimes, we learn by failing.

What we don’t always have are formal chances to learn leadership—classroom training. And when I thought that, I thought of my young colleague, Bob Mead-Colegrove, at SUNY Fredonia in the 1990’s. Bob came in and took over and enriched and enhanced the Leadership Development Program (LDP) there.

Since then, I have taught at some colleges who once had leadership programs for their students; changing times and pressures to trim credits and the ever-present budget concerns crept into play, and those leadership programs disappeared.

I got on SUNY Fredonia’s website and saw that, although Bob now has a position (a leadership position, I might note) at a college in Buffalo, New York, Fredonia’s LDP is going strong.

I messaged Bob to see if he thought college leadership programs were dwindling.

“I don’t know if the leadership program trends have decreased in recent years,” Bob replied. “But I can say I have seen a trend of the interdisciplinary leadership programs being taken in by academic departments. I find this concerning as I truly believe in the interdisciplinary approach to leadership programs. You get the diversity of thought and academic differences more when it is an interdisciplinary program. My proudest moment was when I was able to get the Interdisciplinary Leadership Studies minor approved at Fredonia.”

Then Bob asked if I’d like him to see if any LDP alums from Fredonia would be interested in discussing leadership learning.

SURE, I said, thinking how great it would be if one or two of Bob’s former students responded.

Ha. The response blew me away.

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Several students—now established professionals—who responded all had different reasons for getting involved in a college leadership program. Some had no idea what a leadership program was, but a faculty member nominated them, so they figured, “Why not?” They thought it might look good on a resume or something.

“I guess I took it because I was nominated,” writes Jeremiah. “It seemed like a good opportunity not offered to everyone, so why waste an opportunity? I wish I could say there was more thought into it, but that was it. I always volunteer and try to help so, it was easy to say yes.”

Dave notes, “I was ‘selected’ because I showed leadership qualities in other classes, and it probably played into my vanity at the time.”  

Kate writes, “I knew my leadership skills were something I wanted to develop, and I wanted to be able to lead my peers and possibly supervise one day.” (Kate is now assistant director for residential life at a major SUNY school.) She adds, “I was also very passive and needed to learn some better assertiveness skills that I seriously lacked when I started college.”   

Jason was nominated by an advisor, and he had a work-study job in the student government office, which was right next door to the leadership program. His best friends had signed up for leadership; the people involved looked nice; he thought he’d sign up, too. Jason now is also a student life leader at a SUNY school.

And Ryan Barone freely admits that the only reason he got involved in the leadership program is because he was in trouble. He was sanctioned for underage drinking, and one of his options for getting back into the school’s good graces was to enroll in the leadership program. So, what the heck, he figured, and he applied.

Ryan is now an assistant vice president for student success at Colorado State College.

Some students self-nominated, mindfully seeking out leadership training.

Whatever route they took to the program, their reflections on how it helped them grow were thought-provoking.

Clay writes, “One could write books on [the topic of what he learned]. I learned tolerance. I learned real skills to apply to working with groups of people. I learned how to listen.” He adds, “That last one being the most important.” [Clay is now, by the way, a Vice President of Strategic Initiatives at a $1.6 billion federal contractor, managing large projects involving government bids.]

Holly, who, as an MSW, oversees 50 staff members in a Child Protective Services agency, writes, “I kept very few things from college; however, one thing I kept was my leadership development book.” She attached a photo to prove it, and noted that, as she moved into challenging roles in graduate school and professionally, she has referred to the binder time and again. Jason also mentioned using the binder in his professional life.

Holly also notes that the public speaking exercises she did in the leadership program, among many other real-life skills, have served her well in her career.

Dave agrees the public speaking was a key learning component. He also mentioned learning how to dine formally…a skill he uses in his current federal position.

Ryan A. says, “Oh my gosh, what DIDN’T I learn? I fully believe that being a part of Leadership changed my life. I learned that you don’t have to be extroverted to be a leader…I learned how to work with people, especially how to work with people as a TEAM.”

Ryan Barone mentions gaining the ability and space to clarify his values. The teaching and advising that he received in the program laid a foundation that he has continued to build on in his professional life.

Kristine writes that she learned that there’s a lot more to leadership than “being in charge and making decisions.” She learned teamwork, collaboration, how to foster decision-making to reach a goal, and how to let others participate rather than doing everything herself.

And Kate notes that servant leadership, which she first learned about at SUNY Fredonia, has informed her life. “To me,” she writes, “serving the needs of the group helps move the end results forward.”

Several of the students (errr, sorry: several of these professional, civic, and personal leaders who I can’t help but think of as students still) talked about learning the concept of time management. Many of them shared a mantra Bob taught them: Early is on time, on time is late, and late is unacceptable.

Every one of the alumnae of the Leadership Development Program is in a leadership role, and each of them said the LDP gave them skills and confidence that helped them reached their current pinnacle. One of the many things that impressed me about this diverse group of respondents is that they didn’t complete the program, call it done, and smugly walk off looking to lead.

They all knew they had skills and potential, but they continued to read, seek, practice, and grow.

They talked about using Meyers-Briggs with their staff to foster understanding; they talked about learning to build morale.

They talked about how important it is for people to have leaders who look like they do…so that a leadership program must reach out to a diverse range of people and help them develop their potentials. (And that’s a subject for a further post…)

They talked about insuring the people they work with have the support they need.

They talked about having developed the ability to hear and absorb criticism.

What they learned in the leadership program applies in all aspects of life, not just on the job. “Currently,” writes Kristen, “I’m a stay-at-home mom. I think the things I learned from [the leadership programs at SUNY Fredonia] have always applied to my life. It doesn’t matter if I’m working as a professional or volunteering at my kids’ school. What I learned in those programs is immeasurable.”

“It did get me on a path of leadership roles in my life, though,” says Jeremiah, “and a quest for knowledge on how to be better at leading. I’ve read books and been to countless trainings since college in various fields to better myself as a leader.”

And Ryan A. states, “Leadership taught me that continued personal growth and learning are very important in order to continue being the best version of myself.”

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There is more to share, more that these thoughtful young professionals, parents, and leaders had to say, more thoughts for another post. But tonight I am left with this: leadership IS taught, negatively and positively, by the models woven into our lives. But we are not doomed to only try to repeat those leaders’ triumphs or to succumb to their failures; self-knowledge, encouragement, and opportunities can help us become ever better at the challenge of leading.

And leading can be taught, mindfully, with proven success, to a whole range of receptive people.

And it should be taught. Leadership and maximizing potential should be lessons every child, teen, and young adult have the chance to learn. I wonder how, without adding another task to already over-burdened teachers, we could make that happen.

Rugs and Work and Things That Last

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I changed the upstairs bathroom rugs last night, rolling up the long, multi-colored rag rug that provides a path away from the tub; grabbing, too, the shaggy little white rug that cradles the toes of shavers and make-up appliers leaning toward the mirror at the sink. I bundled them down the laundry chute and swiffered up the haze of baby powder that always descends upon the black tile. I pulled out a fresh set of rugs, the blue ones, the long one for the tub path, the short guy for the sink.

The blue rugs are my favorites, hand-woven from old blue jeans by Betty Lou and her church lady friends.  Almost fifteen years old, they seem indestructible–I have thrown them in the washer hundreds of times, maybe thousands; I have hung them over rope lines or draped them over pipes to dry. Umpteen sets of store-bought rugs have shed their rubbery backing and been tossed; my blue denim rugs last and last.

I use them, as I often use beloved items, thoughtlessly, taking their beautiful utility for granted.  But last night, for whatever reason, the act of spreading those rugs on the bathroom floor made me think of Betty Lou and Roscoe Village. We had moved to a new town after Mark finished law school, I was in-between full-time jobs, and I worked, for a year or two, as a historical interpreter at the little restored canal village.  I have been blessed with wonderful and challenging jobs in my working years, but never have I had another job so filled with fun and joy as working at Roscoe Village. And seldom have I met people so hard working and sincere.

I learned the real definition, at Roscoe, of “salt of the earth.”

There was Dick Hoover, a retired preacher, who taught me about the printer’s trade and about being a school marm in 1850’s Ohio.  Charley, a cabinet maker, shared secrets of the cooper’s craft, and showed me how one makes a round container from what I’d always figured to be unyielding wood.  Mary, who was 80 when I worked with her at Roscoe, had been there over 40 years; her picture as a beautiful young interpreter was printed and re-printed, to her delight, in the Village literature. And there was Betty Lou, ten years younger than Mary, who taught me the ins and the outs of 1850’s housewifery in a sleepy Ohio canal town.

I trained with college students; I was in my late forties.  I worried about finding comfortable shoes to wear that looked authentic; I worried about bundling my ornery hair into something resembling true frontier style.  The students worried about covering their new tattoos with the lacy cuffs of their gingham dresses, and whether their piercings–studs discreetly removed during work hours–would be evident to Village visitors.  They were lovely young people, hard-working, kind, and creative,but I grew closer to the elders, Dick, Charley, Mary, and especially Betty Lou.

Things were busy at the Village in the summer months; tours came through every thirty minutes, and we ushered one group out the back door as another entered the front.  Betty Lou was usually the upstairs guide in Dr. Johnson’s house; she told people about the wonder of the Doctor’s family having real, imported wallpaper, showed them how the flycatcher worked, boasted about the Johnson’s fine china, shipped all the way from Europe at quite a pretty penny.  Downstairs, I was the cook; Betty Lou would send the visitors down the steep cellar stairs to where I had a trussed chicken spinning above the open fire on a string; fat would fall into the fire; flames would hiss and spit.  The chicken’s skin crisped and crackled, and people begged to try it, but health laws forbade that.  We could share, however, the corn bread and cakes we baked in a covered cast iron dutch oven set amidst the coals.

I learn to pile coals on top to insure even baking; Betty Lou could judge temperatures and baking times if she knew the type of wood we were using.

The days flew by, and so did the summer; before we knew it, the college kids were heading back to campus, and the park slowed down.  Tours were by appointment in the fall.  The breaks in between gave us time to clean and organize, and time to talk.

I learned that Betty Lou was a skilled weaver; there was a vintage loom in the village and her deft hands worked it swiftly.  She knew how to set the woof and weave the rag strips into the warp; she fringed the ends and sent the final product to the administration building store where shoppers scarfed them up at fifteen dollars a pop.  Outside of work, though, Betty Lou and her church lady friends had their own looms.  They crafted rugs from strips of old blue jeans.  These they sold for a pittance; I bought three rugs from them for less than the cost of one rug at the store.

Betty Lou was in no danger of her hands becoming the devil’s workshop; she was always busy, at work and at home, where she sewed and gardened and canned.  She worked at the village for extras; that year she was saving for a new living room suite.  She was never idle; in the free moments, she showed me how to cradle and wash that splendid china, how to coax the dust and grit up from between the polished floor boards of the Doctor’s house, and how to oil and wrap some of the antique tools in the downstairs work room.

She was a kind, clear, patient teacher; I liked working with her, and I diligently tried to keep up with her seasoned efficiency.  We talked as we worked, and I learned about Betty Lou’s life.

Her husband had been a miner in West Virginia, as had the men on both sides of their families.  Many died young of the black lung; some were lost in explosions and nightmarish cave-ins.  They decided, early on, it was no life for their boys, and they vowed, early on, to get clear of the mining life.  Their house was owned by the mine; the store in town was, too. If a family bought all their stuff from the store, there was never quite enough money; they fell into debt to their employers, and each year’s passage indebted them a little bit more.

Betty Lou’s husband was handy; he fixed up an old truck that someone gave him for a song, and they drove into the city to buy their groceries.  They only bought what they couldn’t grow or raise or catch themselves.  Her husband got permission to run plumbing to their house; they were the first in their coal-mining village to have indoor plumbing and hot water in a claw foot tub, a luxury for which their neighbors envied them no end.

But the thing that really incited envy was their television set, which they scrimped and saved to buy.  Betty Lou’s man ran the wiring and fixed the antenna, and they were so proud to be able to offer Betty Lou’s aging mother the treat of watching TV.  Betty Lou’s mama always watched the fights on Friday nights; she loved a good fight.  The family would gather round the television, and prickles would run up and down their backs.  We’re being watched, Betty Lou would think, and sure enough, when she turned around, she would see faces at every window, avidly watching the flickering screen.

Despite such luxuries, they lived very frugally, and before the children came of working age, they had moved to Ohio. Betty Lou’s husband got work, and the kids were enrolled in school.  They all graduated high school, Betty Lou said, something that would not have happened in their mining town back home.

Sometimes we would talk as we worked, sometimes as we took our lunch in the ‘modern’ kitchen.  The doctor’s house had been a residence until the sixties; a main floor kitchen had been added.  When the Foundation acquired the house, it made no changes. The kitchen table with its tubular metal legs, the vinyl covered chairs, and the stove and refrigerator, were splendid in their 1950’s glory.  A microwave had been added for employee convenience, but everything else,–the speckled linoleum, the cabinets with their wooden cutout trim,–was just as it had been went the last tenants left.

There was a feel about the doctor’s house, a depth, a layer,–something that made goose bumps prickle, especially when I was upstairs alone.  The doctor and his wife had been abolitionists, and their home was a well-known stop on the Underground Railroad.  There was a story of an escaped mother with a sick baby; some people said the baby died in the mother’s arms while they were hidden. To cry out would have been to reveal them both, along with the people who sheltered them, and so the grieving mother held the body of her dead infant while searchers trod the floors above her.  The doctor, the story went, was inconsolable over the loss, over the fact that he couldn’t save that baby.  The baby’s mother could not be comforted.  The tiny body could not even have a proper burial without risking exposure.

Sometimes it seemed I would hear things there; sometimes there were furtive movements–mice, maybe?–glimpsed from the corner of my eye. One day I confessed to Betty Lou that the place spooked me, just a little, and she said they’d all felt it.  It was real, she said; and she said, too, that sorrow was hard to purge.

She told me then about her own sorrow.  After saving and sacrificing so they could move north, move away from the danger of early death for their boys, Betty Lou lost her daughter, who would have been just about my age, in a senseless crash.  It was in the last days of the girl’s senior year of high school; she’d forgotten something she needed at home and got permission, at about ten in the morning, to drive home and get it. She was a careful driver, she had a friend with her; they were not distracted or flighty or under any kind of influence.  But a semi truck swerved, crossed into their lane; the girls, just like that, were gone.

“Oh,” I said, helplessly, “oh, Betty Lou,” and I couldn’t think of anything to add. We sat, eyes welling, for a moment, and then she said, Well, it couldn’t be helped. She talked a little about the kindness of friends, family, and strangers, and then another tour group came in the door and we sprang to our stations, resumed our personnas. The subject never again emerged.

Betty Lou enjoyed life, worked hard, and gave substantially, and it would not be an exaggeration to admit that I revered her.  Life moved on; another job beckoned, and I left the employ–and the joy–of the Village.  I tried to go back at least once a year, though, taking visitors to see the old canal town, reconnecting with Dick, Mary, Charley, and Betty Lou.

And then another move took us seventy further miles away; the trip to the village was no longer an easy indulgence.  Life filled up; time went on, and suddenly my time at Roscoe was five, and then seven, years ago.

I saw Dick at an event, and asked about my old colleagues.  He told me with great sadness that he’d buried Charley just that past winter.

That chance meeting was five years ago, and I am a little afraid, now, to go back and inquire. Mary–she’d be 92 or so, I think; Betty Lou, in her eighties.  Should I ask the questions whose answers I don’t want to hear? I push away that thought and plunge into the busyness of daily life, until a moment like last night’s, when a touch, an action, bring lovely memories back.

Someone remarked, the other day at work, that we spend more time with our colleagues than we do with our families. Work has become our new neighborhood; it’s where we find our friends, get our support.  I am lucky now, and I have been lucky in the past, to work with wonderful caring people, people of integrity and creativity, passion and compassion–people who have visions of making things better and who believe our small contributions can help.  I have had wonderful mentors in all my professional roles; some of those mentors have become lifelong friends.

My time at Roscoe Village was an interlude, a veering off the path, and I thank God for that special, unexpected time, and for the blessing of the wonderful people I had the honor to work with.  I spread my denim rugs on my swept bathroom floor, I feel them with my bare feet, tucking and untucking the nubby, firm, ridged fabric with my toes.  I will go back–perhaps this Fall,–and I will see if any familiar faces remain.  But time passes; I can accept that now.

As Betty Lou says, it can’t be helped.  But I know this, now, too: the things we shared together will always, somehow, remain.

Betty Lou and Charley
Betty Lou and Charley

There’s a Place for You

The first day, her mother marched her from the school to the library. It was three blocks, and Tillie would have to cross a big street.  But there was a light, and, Mama said, on school days there would be a crossing guard.

“Do you get it?” asked Mama.  “Can you get yourself here?”

Tillie nodded, but her mother tested her anyway.  She drove her back to the school and left.

“You walk there and I’ll wait for you,” she said.

Tillie walked back the exact way they had walked before.  Crossing the street at the light was a little scary, but she waited until the light was red, she made sure there were no turner cars, and when she saw it was okay to go, she ran across, really fast.

She got there, no problem.  Mama was waiting outside, smoking a cigarette in the car.  When she saw Tillie coming, she ground it out, and she got out and slammed the door. She walked up to Tillie and grabbed her by the hand and tugged her up the steep gray steps of the library.

At the big glass doors, Mama showed her a button to push that would make the doors open.  Tillie liked that. She itched to do that herself. Tomorrow, she thought.

Inside there were more steps, shiny marble steps that went up to a big room that had a big desk in its center. Radiating out behind the desks were shelves–big, tall wooden shelves, loaded with books. It was very quiet.  A pretty lady with big glasses and her hair pulled back sat at the desk.  She looked up as Tillie and Mama came in, and she smiled right at Tillie.

“THIS way!” Mama said gruffly, and she pulled Tillie off to the right, where there was a door and a stairway going down.  The stairs opened into a big hallway.

“There’s your bathroom,” said Mama.  “See that?  Lady with a skirt?”

Tillie nodded.

“You need to go?” asked Mama sharply, and Tillie quickly shook her head.

Mama tugged her into the big room then.  There were books here, too, but the shelves were shorter. And there were little round tables, wooden tables, with chairs that were just children sized. Books lay open on the tables; next to one there was a fuzzy puppet, and Tillie could see the puppet was also in the book.  She walked around, a little bit amazed.

There were some other kids in the room, and one or two other mothers, but they were very quiet.  There was a big desk here, too, like upstairs, but the lady behind it was old.  She had a crinkly face, and she smiled at Tillie.  She nodded toward a table where there was a plate of cinnamon graham crackers and dixie cups of juice.

“Would you like a snack?” the crinkly lady asked Tillie.

She opened her mouth to say, “Yes, PLEASE!” but Mama answered for her.

“She don’t need none,” she said, and she pulled at Tillie’s hand.  “This is where you come, you get it?  After school, you come here, and one of us will fetch you.”

Tillie nodded, a growing excitement bubbling. Everyday after school, she would walk here and see the pretty lady, then the crinkly lady.  She would have a graham cracker and she would sit at one of those tables and look at books until Mama or Daddy picked her up.

This wasn’t scary.  This was wonderful.
Tillie was five years old.
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The pretty lady upstairs was Miss Gail; the crinkly lady was Miss Dell. Every day, after she pushed the big flat button and the doors swung open wide, Tillie ran up the stairs and said hello to Miss Gail before she ran downstairs.

Some days were just ordinary days in the Children’s Room. Then Tillie would have a graham cracker and some juice and  go sit at the table with the big stack of books Miss Dell had gathered for her. Miss Dell knew all about good books, and she picked ones that had few words and wonderful pictures–sometimes made-up stories and sometimes about real things, like a zoo or a farm.

When there weren’t a lot of people, Miss Dell would come and sit at Tillie’s table, and they would read a book together.  Miss Dell read in a gentle, happy voice, and she would point to the word and then to the picture.  After they were done, Tillie would turn the pages, slowly, and she would point to the word and the picture, too.

Other days were special.  Sometimes there was a circle of kids and Miss Dell read to them.  The stories might all be about the same things–dogs, maybe, or the way leaves change color in the Fall, Hallowe’en stories, going to school,–things like that.  Often Tillie was the oldest child there–the other kids had to have parents with them, and they mostly sat on their laps; that’s how little they were.  Miss Dell asked Tillie to show them how to act, and so Tillie always sat very still with her hands in her lap and looked right at Miss Dell when she was reading.

“Such a good listener,” one of the mothers said once, and Tillie’s cheeks burned with happiness.

Sometimes a visitor came and talked to them and read to them.  Once it was a fireman in his slick yellow coat and big boots, and he talked to them about Stop! Drop! and Roll! and then read them a book about a fireman who rescued a silly cat from a tree for a little boy named Johnny. Another time a dental hygienist came and talked about tooth brushing.  He gave them coloring books and a little bag with toothpaste, fluoride rinse, and a new toothbrush. Tillie decided to keep her bag with Miss Dell.  Everyday after school, she took her bag into the girls’ room and brushed her teeth and then rinsed.

When her rinse ran out, a new bottle appeared.  Miss Dell said the dental hygienist had left a whole lot of extra ones.

Around 5:00 someone came to get her. Usually it was her mother.  Sometimes she would come in and sit down and let Tillie show her a book.  Sometimes she stood in the doorway and hissed, “Get your little ass OUTA here.”  Those days her breath had that strong, funny smell, and Tillie knew better than to argue.  Some days, her daddy would come, and he would say hello to Miss Dell and ask what everyone had done that day.  Miss Dell always told him what a good child Tillie was, and what a good helper.

Daddy would put his big hand on her head and smile down at her, and Tillie didn’t care that there was black in the creases of his fingers from all the greasy cars he fixed. That hand felt good right where it was.

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By December, she was reading, the words Miss Dell pointed out painting pictures in her mind even without the ones in the books.  By then, too, Mrs. Grace, her teacher, was walking her to the traffic light and watching her across.

“It gives me a little chance for fresh air before I go back and grade papers,” Mrs. Grace told her.  On rainy days, she loaned Tillie an umbrella.  Tillie just left it at the library, and Miss Gail, who was a friend of Mrs. Grace, made sure it got back to her. When it snowed and the sidewalks were icy, Mrs. Grace kept a tight grip on her hand and watched her all the way up the street after she crossed by the light.

After the Christmas break, during which Tillie didn’t get to go to the library–that made her very sad–Miss Dell announced something new.  Tuesdays were “Read to Me” days, and Tillie was going to be reading to Miss Dell, and sometimes, even, to Miss Gail, who liked to switch with Miss Dell every once in a while. Tillie held the books just like Miss Dell did, so her audience could see the pictures.  She was getting, the library ladies told her, better and better and better. Sometimes, Tillie read to the little kids.  Just like Miss Dell, she would point to the word and then point to the picture.

As the year wore on, her daddy came to pick her up more and more. One day he took her to a diner for dinner.  They had fried chicken and mashed potatoes, and peas, and pie, and Tillie had a big glass of chocolate milk.  And after dinner, before he handed Tillie her jacket, Daddy said, “Do you know your mama is a kind of sick, Tillie girl?”

Tillie looked at him.  “On bad breath days?” she asked, and he smiled at her, but it was a sad kind of smile.

“Yes,” he said. “On bad breath days.  She gets mad on those days, too, doesn’t she?”

Tillie hesitated, but then she nodded.

“Well, baby,” said her daddy, “Mama’s going away to try to get well.  Tomorrow, Grandma Judy’s coming, and then Mama will go to a kind of hospital on Friday.  She’ll be gone for a good while.”

He helped her get her arms in her jacket, and they went off to a home that was, suddenly, changing.

Grandma Judy stayed all summer.  To Tillie’s delight, Grandma Judy took her to the library every week.  While Tillie read her books, Grandma Judy would go upstairs and find books for herself.  Sometimes she got a book or a magazine for Daddy, too. They got books to bring home, and Tillie had a special spot to keep them in, on a shelf in the living room.

Daddy said they were all turning into bookworms.

On Sundays they called mama.  Sometimes she cried when she talked to Tillie.  She said, every time, “Baby, I’m so sorry!”

Once, in the middle of the summer, they went to visit. Mama was thinner and pale, and her hair was neat and shiny and pulled back in a pony tail. She showed Tillie her room.  They couldn’t stay long, but before they left, mama hugged Tillie so very tight.  Her breath was sweet and minty.

In the Fall school started again.  Tillie had a new teacher, but Mrs. Grace still met her each day and walked her to the light; she told Tillie she hoped she didn’t mind.  It was just a nice kind of habit, and she’d miss it if they stopped. Tillie said, “Of course!” and she grabbed Mrs. Grace’s hand and she skipped when they walked together.

Grandma Judy stayed, and she picked Tillie up every day, and then Mama came home.  She had to rest for a couple of weeks, but pretty soon she started picking Tillie up on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

When Mama came to the library now, she would say hi, shyly, to Miss Dell, and she would sit with Tillie and look at all the things she was reading.

“You’re my smart girl, aren’t you?” she said.  Mama started going upstairs and asking Miss Gail about books.  She would take only one home at a time, but she read them fast; sometimes she returned them next day and got another.  “I like me a good romance,” she said to Tillie, and Tillie smiled brilliantly at her.  Maybe when she grew up, she’d like her a good romance too.

Grandma Judy stayed on; she helped Tillie’s mama.  The house was always clean, and they had home-cooking for dinner. Some Saturdays, Tillie’s mama and daddy went out to a movie or for dinner at the diner.  Tillie and Grandma Judy would rent a movie and make popcorn in the whirligig, and Tillie would read to Grandma Judy for a long time.  She was reading chapter books now.

It was the best time of Tillie’s life so far, and she still got to go to the library every day.

******
When Tillie was nine, her daddy took her out for another dinner, and he wasn’t smiling.  This time, he told her, Mama was a different kind of sick–sick on her insides, with cancer.  She was going to have to have some treatments, and the treatments would make her even sicker, but they might make her get better for good.

“But, Tillie,” said her daddy, “I have to tell you something.  There’s a chance the treatments might not work.  There’s a chance we might lose your Mama forever.”

“Don’t cry, daddy,” whispered Tillie.  Her stomach hurt, and they went home.

At home, Mama was resting and Grandma Judy was crying.  “It’s not FAIR,” she said to Tillie’s daddy.  “She’s been trying so damn hard.”  Daddy hugged her for a long time.

******

Mama died when Tillie was eleven.  Mrs. Grace, Miss Gail, and Miss Dell were all at the funeral, and they hugged Daddy and Grandma Judy, too.  When she went back to the library the following week, Miss Gail gave her a book called, Losing a Parent: a book for young people.  Tillie and Grandma read it together.

Tillie also started looking in the non-fiction section.  She would take home craft books.  She took home books of recipes, and Grandma Judy taught her to cook.

*****
When she was in sixth grade, Miss Gail and Miss Dell invited her out to eat.  Tillie was, they informed her, too old and too good a reader to read in the children’s room any longer.  Miss Gail solemnly handed her an adult’s library card.

And then they offered her a part-time job, two hours a day, four days a week, helping out in the children’s room.

In eighth grade, she started working five days a week and shelving in the upstairs room.

When she turned 16, she added six hours on Saturday to her library working schedule. Miss Gail said Tillie had a knack for helping older children and junior high kids find just the perfect book.

“You don’t think about what YOU like,” Miss Gail told her.  “You think about what they like.”

*****

She went to the state college in town, and she majored in English.  “Getting A’s for reading books,” she grinned.  “That’s pretty good.”

They were all there when she graduated with honors: Daddy and Grandma Judy, Miss Gail, Miss Dell, and Mrs. Grace.  Grandma Judy and Miss Dell were getting a little frail; Miss Dell said she was trying to hold on for two more years; then she’d retire at the library. Daddy’s girlfriend, Abby, came too.  She was pretty, plump, and kind, and Tillie hoped that the two of them would decide to get married; they were good together.

Tillie didn’t have a boyfriend now. For a long time, she’d thought Bobby was the one, but Bobby grew to have a drinking problem. Bobby’s bad breath days, thought Tillie.  It made him lie and cheat and cuss at her. You need help, she told him.  I don’t need YOU, he’d said.

It was a good time for no entanglements, Tillie knew, but the thought of Bobby would always make her sad.

****

That afternoon, Tillie took her library book and she drove to the cemetery in her noisy old car.  She had the place to herself, so she knelt on  her mother’s grave and talked to her. “I graduated today, Mama,” she said, “and I’m working at the library again this summer. And then,” Tillie pulled an envelope out of her purse, “I think you’d be proud.  I’m going to Kent State to be a librarian.  I got this letter this week; I have a scholarship from the university women.”

A car pulled up, and two chubby old women climbed out with potted plants and trowels and a watering can.  Tillie stopped talking to Mama; she wasn’t embarrassed exactly, but she felt like their talks were too private to share with strangers.  She sat on a stone bench next to Mama’s grave, and she read in the sun.  The breeze riffled her hair.

The ladies huffed and talked and grunted and planted, lunging up off their knees and groaning dramatically.  They took a long time watering the flowers they’d placed on the grave of their someone special, but finally they finished.  They slammed back into their car and drove off.

Tillie closed her book and slid off the bench to hunker by her mother’s grave.

“Mama,” she said.  “I just have to say thank you. I don’t know how you knew to do it, but thank you for sending me to the library when I was five. Mama, it’s my place, and I found it because of you.”

She put one palm flat on the cool marble of her mother’s grave stone, and then she sighed and stood up.  Her people were waiting; there was a special graduation dinner in the works.

Tillie dusted off her jeans and walked to her car, and she drove off into her future.