How to Reopen a High School Library 18 Months After a Pandemic Closure
Jess deCourcy Hinds on the Joys and Aches of Re-Entry
Turn on the lights. That is, if you can find the key.
Struggle to remember the precise shape of the archaic light switch key for the tamper-resistant panel. A mini wrench? A tiny silver lightning bolt? More of a utensil than a key, it dangles from a purple plastic key chain. There is no spare. They don’t make keys like this anymore, your former assistant principal said. Don’t lose it. It’s irreplaceable.
Fumble in the dark. In twelve years as a solo librarian, you’ve never once lost the key. You misplace everything else that is yours, every day. During quarantine, you and your similarly absent-minded partner spent half the time searching for missing keys and shoes.
Step into the dim library: a pre-pandemic time capsule. Women’s History Month posters from two Marches ago peel off the walls, empty hand sanitizer bottles are strewn about. All magazines and journals are dated March 2020.
Wonder what people were people reading and watching when the world shut down. Peek into the “Returns” basket and find The Collected Works of Freud, Me Talk Pretty One Day, Genetically Modified Foods, and BBC “Planet Earth” DVDs.
Pull up the shades. Dust shelves. Start with fiction, letter A.
Turn on air filters, spray tables and doorknobs with 99 percent isopropol alcohol. Count your stash of masks for students.
Discover the key on your desk in the Lost and Found box. A lightning bolt. This is the flash of energy that enabled you to start a library from scratch with no money, and run it alone for a dozen years while raising a family in New York City. This is the key you carried through four difficult pregnancies and two births. This is the key that helped you leap from one hundred to one thousand books to 20,000. The last time you cupped this cool metallic key in your palm, you thought the pandemic would last a couple weeks. The last time you were here, your partner lived as a man. Now she is a woman, her transition an unfurling, a blooming. You were the sun then; now you’re the moon.
Slip the key into each slot on the tamper-resistant panel. Click, click, snap, snap. Watch light washes over the world.
Face a fortress of book boxes, two years of books. Recall the pre-Covid days when you savored that sweet chemical new-book smell and felt a rush of giddiness opening boxes. Ache to experience that joy again.
Move 100 book boxes and 15 new computers into your office. Get help from your nine-year-old daughter and a friend who owed you a favor because it’s just you here, in this library. You are the one who raises money for books, buys them, labels them, shelves them, hands them to people, and puts them away again. You are the library.
Measure spaces between computers, tables, and chairs. Arrange, rearrange, agonize.
Wrap a fresh bandage around your hand. The scar is a pink snake down your palm. Carpal tunnel, left hand. You’ve had both “librarian hands” operated on.
Crouch down to remove food wrappers, scrape gum off shelves. Pop ibuprofen into your mouth and tighten your foot brace. Plantar fasciitis, splintering heel pain, another librarian ailment.
Discover a crumpled ball of gift wrap in the philosophy section. Imagine a present unwrapped, a friendship or romance blooming among the Existentialists.
Erase all overdue fines. Feel lighter.
Open the doors on September 13th, 2021 to 25 students and two teachers. “How many books can I borrow?” a student asks. “As many as you can carry,” you say. The student jumps up and down as if she’s won the lottery. “At my old school, I could only take one.”
Solve a book mystery. Another student wants a book, but can’t remember the title or author’s name. The first name might be Jennifer. The cover has blue polka-dots against white. “Oh, and the word ‘universe’ is in the title!” Feel a flicker of memory, deep in the pre-pandemic part of your brain. Google a few word combinations—and voila! Holding Up the Universe by Jennifer Niven. It’s not on the shelf where it’s supposed to be, but it’s here in a pile somewhere.
Google the brand name of the light key, Leviton. Learn that it is not rare. It can be purchased online and in Home Depot for about $3. The keys are magical and ubiquitous, like good librarians and good teachers. We’re everywhere. We’re the irreplaceable ones.
Turn off the lights. Fall asleep riding home on the train.