We marched to the library double file

IT looked a lot like a place where I used to live,'' is how a friend described his return to early haunts, and that was how I felt, too, on a miserable February morning, waiting in the center of the town in which I once lived. Right there, where I was standing, I must have left my bike a thousand times -- nobody locked then -- to nurse a soft drink in the air-conditioned splendor of the pharmacy, or to shoot my allowance on baseball cards.

And the hardware store. I can still smell the worn wood floor and the Duco cement in the back corner, where they kept the model car and airplane kits. We got our hockey sticks and pucks there in the winter, baseballs and bats in spring. Often, I'd go in just to hold those Louisville Sluggers in my hands -- the stumpy Richie Ashburn model, for singles hitters, the Mickey Mantle with the whippet handle and war-club end, and the Willie Mays, my favorite, as perfectly proportioned as the wondrous centerfielder himself.

At the community bulletin board at the end of the block, we checked our Little League batting averages.

Those were not altogether happy years. Still, I yearned to go back, even if just for one golden afternoon. But on this morning, there were only commuters on their way to work, as I was, too. I write about education now and was to meet a teacher for an interview.

Across the railroad tracks was my old elementary school. The side yard had once seemed a vast domain, but now it looked cramped and the worse for wear. There were more memories than I could begin to recite, and than you would probably care to hear. They fed a suspicion I have had that when I write about education, I am always, in some way, writing about my own.

The teacher arrived, and as we drove off, the talk turned to the local library, which is nestled in a corner lot where two main streets intersect.

Suddenly, it was a sunny spring day, and my first-grade class, more than 30 strong, was marching double file through the square on our first trip to that library.

It seemed an awesome place, with heavy door as on a castle, leaded windows, and oak tables as sturdy as the ages. And all those books. Who had ever imagined there was so much knowledge in the world?

Mrs. Leif, the librarian, had a chain for her glasses, like an aunt, and a voice that calmed even an unruly seven-year-old such as me. Sitting in a sunny window seat, book perched on her knees, she read to us -- ``To Think that It Happened on Mulberry Street,'' ``Charlotte's Web,'' and later, the Roman and Norse gods, including my all-time favorite, Thor.

Our teachers must have marveled at how Mrs. Leif held us rapt and still. And yet, when she was through, we were in a reading frenzy.

``Mrs. Leif. Mrs. Leif. Can I take that book out? Can I take it out next week?'' we yammered, and that book denied, we devoured what was left.

I went through two whole shelves of ``the childhood of . . .'' biographies, the ones illustrated in silhouette -- ``Davy Crockett, Young Rifleman''; ``Thomas Edison, Young Printer''; ``Betsy Ross, Designer of Our Flag'' -- all the John R. Tunis books, all the sports, all the mythology, and a good deal more. There was a history of the Boston Red Sox called ``The Red Sox, the Bean, and the Cod'' that I must have checked out 17 times.

I even dabbled in poetry, in the person of Freddie the Pig. To this day I remember, more or less, the first verse I ever memorized. It was Freddie's account of an errand in the rain: When I set out upon this excursion, I was not aware it would mean submersion

Surely, I thought, these were the most hilarious lines ever penned, and so informed anyone who would listen.

As the teacher and I talked that February morning (would you believe, the backboard and hoop are still on Richie's garage?), it grew on me how important that library had been.

I am not exaggerating when I say that much of the rest of my ``education'' consisted largely of acquiring certificates. Given the habit of reading, nurtured by those weekly sessions with Mrs. Leif, I think I would know pretty much what I do now anyway.

The teacher told me that the city, in an economy move, had tried to close the library. Several branches had closed already, and only a local protest had kept this one open for the time being, at reduced hours and with the basement rented out.

The idea is to centralize the operation in the main library in another part of town, she said.

But then, how would the first graders march down on sunny spring mornings? How could little kids without a nickel in their pockets leave their bikes on the library lawn and partake of the riches inside?

To be sure, none of us wants any tampering with our childhoods. But more than fond memories are at stake. As an eduation writer, I am literally besieged with information regarding new high-tech hardware for the schools.

I hope that no one thinks a roomful of Apples can replace a Mrs. Leif enchanting first graders. Anyone who thinks that is making a mistake.

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