The irony is that there is nothing, and I mean absolutely nothing “brown” about Brown Elementary. It sparkles.
The principal, Serenity Luckett, shines when she shows off her school. The students beam when they greet you. The new PTA officers glow when they explain how they are putting in new resources in the new Parent Center.
But nothing would prepare you for Miss Ruby. Her parents were prescient in bestowing this particular name upon their little girl. The woman is a precious gem.
She’s the school librarian. And she was running to a meeting when we arrived at Brown Elementary in Jackson, Mississippi on our Back to School Tour. She was not so patiently waiting for us when someone told her we were starting with the little ones on the first floor.
“Oh, no you’re not. You’re starting with me,” she said. It wasn’t a request. “You need to start with the library so I can show it to you before I have to leave for a meeting. There is no way you are leaving this school without me showing you my library.”
Well, ok, why not, I thought. She and I left the others and went upstairs to a converted classroom and she opened the door. And oh… Oh, my. Oh, the pinks and the reds and the yellows and the blues! Oh, the colors that popped and spilled and exploded over the books and posters and art and magazines and toys.
I’m not sure there is such a school library in the whole wide world as beautiful as Miss Ruby’s Popping Pink Pastel Library. I ran downstairs to get the rest of the Back-to-School crew. I needed documentation. They have cameras and microphones. They walked in and gasped.
Miss Ruby just glistened like the jewel she is. Her smile told us that she’s seen this reaction before. “It’s something, isn’t it?” she asks us. We just giggle. There are no words. It’s breathtaking.
There are two lawn chairs in the back of the room next to the puppets. I suggested we sit down. I wanted to hear her story.
“This is my last year at Brown,” she says. “I’m retiring. This is the second time I’ve retired, but this time it’s probably for good.”
Miss Ruby went to college to become a librarian, but something had her turn in another direction. She became an accountant and worked for Ford Motor until she retired. Then she thought about that library she’d always wanted to run. She applied for an opening at Brown Elementary as the school librarian.
The principal back then showed her the empty classroom that was being used as the school library. It had grey shelves. It had beige walls. It had a black carpet.
“Now that carpet still makes me mad,” she told me. “Who ever thought a place that should be the heart of a school should have a black carpet. I scolded the principal and told him that carpet had no business there, and I thanked him for his time in interviewing me. Then he asked me where I was going. He told me I got the job.”
So the carpet was ripped up and the floor became pink linoleum and paint pots opened up and there’s not a dull or drab dribble in that joyful place. By design, every nook and cranny is made to invite a smile and a touch and a curious question.
“This library is an important classroom. A school library welcomes every child, from the littlest to the biggest. It has to have something for everyone. I’m a teacher for every child. They are all my babies. Their classroom teacher does an excellent job teaching them to read, but I help that teacher by showing students that books are exciting; they make you think; they take you places. So I’ve made my library a magical place. It looks the way I want them to feel. For my children, coming to the library is a reward; it’s a prize. I designed it that way.”
I asked Miss Ruby, “Will you miss it?”
She took a breath. I saw a tear in her eye. She said, “Yes. But it’s time. I was going to go last year, and they talked me into one more year. It’s time. But yes. I’m going to miss my library and miss my babies.”
She had to run to her meeting and I had to get to the little ones downstairs. But I truly didn’t want to leave the haven she had created. It was such a warm and wonderful expression of love. I thought of colder things. I thought of policy makers who saw a school librarian as someone who puts a book on the right shelf in the right order and shushes children. Someone who stamps the books. Any volunteer could stamp a book, they think.
I’ve decided that Miss Ruby’s next career ought to be dragging those folks by the ear into her library and explaining to them that she is a master teacher. She is The Teacher for every single child in the school. She would not waste time being patient in telling them that they should start with her when they think of what students need. She and the classroom teacher work as a powerful team charting a path to new worlds for their students and the school library is the rocket ship that takes them where they want to go.
My goodness, Miss Ruby, you do inspire me! I know many school librarians who can get the blues over those who don’t understand the importance of their work. But you refused to keep the black carpet in that dull, dark room. You refused beige walls and grey shelves. You made your library shine like a ruby. Because of you, the students enter a world that makes them smile and Brown is tickled pink.