Atticus Was Right
*Names have been changed to protect the truly awesome. This is part of our ongoing focus on autism and libraries. Current statistics indicate that 1 out of 88 children are diagnosed with Autism. This is a story about how books can make a difference.
I’m one of THOSE librarians. After I read a book that moves me, I can’t help but tell everyone I know about it. Yes, I’m a book pusher; I own it, but there are worse things to be obnoxious about. Last March I read Out of my Mindby Sharon Draper and immediately started shouting its praise from the rooftops. I blogged about it, and I went so far as to call it “required reading for all of humanity.” I pushed it into the hands of students and told any teacher who would listen to me about Melody’s story, especially the fifth grade teachers at my school; I encouraged them to read it aloud to their classes. They did because they are THOSE kinds of teachers.
Fast forward to a year later. It is a typical Wednesday in the Shaw library. There is a break between my morning and afternoon rush of classes, so kids drop by to checkout books on their own. A group of sixth grade boys huddle near the nonfiction while a cluster of girls congregate near the display of recommended chapter books. The beep-beep of the scanner serenades us as I go from group to group chatting with and checking on the kids. It’s my own little slice of library heaven.
Kendrick slides through the library door and greets me with a head nod that says, “What’s up, Mrs. Bailey?”
Oh, Kendrick. Seeing him saunter in warms my heart even though he is not a librarian’s typical dream reader. He is a repeat fifth grader who suffers from a bad reputation and worse attitude to match. In the line-up of our students, Kendrick is not our most stellar. Simply put, Kendrick is one of THOSE kids.
But when Kendrick is removed from his peers—from the pressure of acting like his reputation—he is an absolute delight. In my three years at Shaw Elementary, I have come to know Kendrick as a secret reader who always greets me with a slow smile and has never given me a second of grief. I had the privilege of tutoring him last year for the TAKS reading test, and I watched him cry—yes, cry—about his anxiety over that test. Luckily, Kendrick’s second time in fifth grade has been much more successful than his first go-round. Lately, I have been slipping him my personal hardcover copies of Catching Fire and Mockingjay, and he has devoured both in record time and returned them to me in pristine condition.
As Kendrick ambles over to the sports chapter books, Josh enters the library with his teacher quick at his heels. Josh is clearly upset, assuming his familiar pose of hands covering ears. Josh is a student in our autistic class, and it is obvious that he is on a mission that might result in a meltdown.
“Hi, Josh! Hi, Mrs. Collins! How can I help you?” I greet them cheerfully.
“Josh is trying to tell me something. He wants something in this library, and I need to figure out what it is.” I did not miss the desperation in Mrs. Collins’ voice.
“Of course. Let me help you. I know Josh likes car books so let me pull some for him and see if that will make him happy.” I snap into librarian search mode.
Mrs. Collins and I begin to pull car books and show them to Josh, but his moaning grows increasingly louder. Josh is teetering between agitation and meltdown, and Mrs. Collins and I feel perilously close to the edge. I watch as tears begin to form in Josh’s eyes as he rocks back and forth and moans while holding his head in his hands. We are not cutting it with the car books.
At this point, I notice Kendrick out of the corner of my eye. He is the only other student left in the library. I think the others scrambled out due to the awkwardness of the moment. Kendrick is watching us try to help Josh with a look of concern on his face. Pure genuine concern.
I smile at Kendrick to assure him that everything is okay even though it is not. “Mrs. Bailey, what is wrong with Josh?” Kendrick asks.
“Well, Josh has a hard time communicating with us. He has autism, and that means it’s hard for him to explain what he wants, so we have to guess until we figure it out.” My meager attempt to explain the autistic mind sounds silly and trite.
Kendrick looks me straight in the eye and says, “That’s like Out of my Mind. Just like Melody. She couldn’t communicate either until she got that special computer. I can’t imagine that. Can I help Josh find some books?”
An immediate lump forms in my throat. Mrs. Collins hears Kendrick and her mouth drops open. She has read Out of my Mind, as well (she is a merciless victim of my book pushing habit), so she knows Melody’s story. She is also very familiar with the antics of Kendrick, so she gets the magnitude of this moment.
“Of course, Kendrick. That would be awesome.” I manage to squeak out.
Kendrick pulls some books off the shelf and takes them over to Josh. I don’t even know what they are because I am trying to quickly wipe the tears from my eyes without the boys noticing. Mrs. Collins takes the books from Kendrick; he smiles and swaggers out of the library in that cool Kendrick way. Mrs. Collins shows the books to Josh, and he instantly calms down—Kendrick’s picks seem to appease him—and he walks out of the library much calmer, a look of contentment on his sweet face. Mission accomplished.
I stand in the middle of my empty library amazed at what I just witnessed: the power of books exemplified.
Out of my Mind is not a book about autism. But it is a book about the power of tolerance, acceptance, and empathy in a cruel, judgmental world. Kendrick may not be successful in school, but he can make the connection between life and a book. He can put himself in the shoes of an autistic kid and want to try to help him rather than scurry away or worse—bully him. If there was a test for empathy, Kendrick would pass with flying colors.
Atticus Finch was right. In my all-time favorite book To Kill a Mockingbird, he tells Scout, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view-until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” Books do that for people. They give us that “skin-slippage” experience of being able to stand in someone else’s shoes and consider their perspective. Hearing Out of my Mind read aloud by Mr. Holgram, his fabulous, caring teacher, gave Kendrick the opportunity to experience what it would be like to have a disability that crippled his ability to communicate. Kendrick saw Josh in that library and made the connection. He felt empathy. And a book made it all possible.
It’s April so that means ‘tis the season for state-mandated tests in Texas. Educators across our great state are stressed to the breaking point with the impending pressures of the STAAR test. But this one magical moment in my library brought it all back into perspective for me. I am not in this business to make a kid like Kendrick be a really great test taker. Honestly, he is not, and I’m not sure if he ever will be. I am in this business to help kids like Kendrick—all kids—become better human beings by pushing the power of books. I now consider Kendrick one of THOSE kids—one of the most stellar ones that I know.
Librarians are on a mission to change the world—one book—one person—at a time. I am proud to be one of THOSE librarians.