Lessons in Tolerance From a New Librarian

IN the days just after World War II, there were Italians, Irish, and Swedes in our South Side Chicago neighborhood, but our ethnic enclave didn't include African-Americans until Miss Farley came to the Chatham Branch Public Library.

I can't remember whether I told my parents the new librarian's race, but I probably did, for Miss Farley's dark skin was as exotic in our working-class neighborhood as were fur coats and Cadillacs.

The Chatham Branch was my favorite place in all the world, somewhere I could browse through book after book and take several home to gobble up. But there was a cloud in this Eden: You weren't supposed to read books from the adult section until you reached eighth grade, and by sixth I had consumed most of the fiction in the children's section.

Then Miss Farley came to the Chatham Branch Library, and to my astonished delight the new assistant children's librarian not only approved of my voracious appetite for books, but she also gave me permission to take out just about any adult book I wanted. Although I now realize she was probably fresh out of college, my new ally seemed delightfully mature and sophisticated.

And wonder of wonders, she enjoyed talking with me! Mostly about books or the theater. For Miss Farley had decided to form a theater group for the community's children.

Though I accepted the proposed drama club simply as an unexplainable but happy occurrence, in retrospect I am awed by it. It was an ambitious undertaking for anyone; for a neophyte black librarian of that time and place, the plan was breathtakingly bold.

We had meetings to read and discuss plays and even got our names in the local newspaper, which told its readers we were learning ``poise, charm, and pleasing diction.'' We went on field trips to downtown Chicago to view an art film and even a stage play, to see what this acting business was all about.

Finally we were ready to put on a play ourselves. ``American Beauty'' was everything we expected - and more. At the final curtain when I clutched a bunch of real long-stemmed roses and bowed to the applause, I felt my life had reached a pinnacle. And as I look back on it, I realize the play's success signaled a zenith for Miss Farley, too.

Afterward, I continued to haunt the Chatham Branch Library, to ask Miss Farley for book recommendations or just to talk. She told me about the time she met Tallulah Bankhead (I suspect Miss Farley was stage-struck herself and that the drama club was not just for our benefit). But most of the time we discussed books. By now I'd completely forgotten Miss Farley's skin was a different color than mine and when she mentioned the play ``Othello,'' I, anxious to show off my seventh-grade erudition, said, ``He was a Negro, wasn't he?''

Miss Farley paused and then said, ``Yes, he was.'' And as she said it I remembered that like Othello, Miss Farley was a Negro. I stared at my shoes. Surely she must know that to me she was just Miss Farley, not white, not black, just someone who liked books as much as I did. But how could I explain? I didn't. After an aching moment she changed the subject.

Apparently, however, I was almost alone in being oblivious of her color. We in the drama club were a scruffy bunch of kids; most of our families had little money, and the majority certainly hadn't had Miss Farley's educational advantages. Maybe that's what began to rankle with some of the girls. Miss Farley didn't act how they had been led to believe a ``colored person'' should act.

While Miss Farley was the source of good stuff like trips to Chicago, the girls were willing to accept her leading us into the realms of poise and charm and pleasing diction. But when it came to giving out parts and directing rehearsals, they weren't quite so sure Miss Farley should be telling them what to do.

Though I only learned of it after the play, evidently there had been rumblings about the casting of ``American Beauty.'' Some of the girls felt they hadn't been given parts commensurate with their talents, and with this grievance they began to notice the color of Miss Farley's skin.

Even though I was as obtuse as a self-absorbed adolescent can be, I became aware of growing tension when we began to plan a second play. A girl standing next to me at the audition muttered that she wasn't about to be told what to do by any ``nigger.''

The word shocked me as much as the meanness of the statement. It would be comforting to say that I defended my friend, but I did not. It was just too embarrassing. Desperately hoping that Miss Farley hadn't heard, I moved away and pretended I hadn't heard either.

There were other comments and Miss Farley overheard some of them. I knew it by the slight stiffening of her shoulders, by the careful way she continued to focus her attention on whatever she was doing or whomever she was speaking to.

I protested, but coming from Miss Farley's pet my words carried about as much weight as a feather in a pillow fight. Miss Farley didn't give up easily, but she began to speak of postponing the play. Casting difficulties, she said.

Then Miss Farley left Chatham Branch. I don't know where she went. I only know that one day when I asked for her, I was told she had gone. When I asked why she had left so suddenly, the other librarians said they didn't know. I didn't question their reticence. Despite the fact that I read adult books, I was a kid. They were grown-ups. They didn't have to explain things to kids. @bodytextdrop =

Anyway, I'd won an award for my acting and at the time was far more interested in my prize than Miss Farley's departure. Though it shames me now, I remember my relief at hearing Miss Farley remembered my prize and had promised to drop it off.

And sure enough, one day it was waiting for me. But when I picked it up I found to my astonishment I didn't want it. I don't know why it took so long to sink in, but I finally realized Miss Farley was gone, that she had never again come charging around the side of her desk, beckoning me as she headed for the adult section to show me a book she thought I might like.

Before long I was able to check out books from the adult section legally, but it wasn't the same. It was months before I stopped looking for Miss Farley when I went to the Chatham Branch Library. After all these years I still remember her - with affection, with wonder, and with regret.

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