Earlier today I tucked a slip of paper between the pages of my library book and reached for my coffee cup, intending to finish my liquid breakfast and then get on with the day. As I lifted the mug, however, I stopped to stare at the thumb of my left hand, which I'd just noticed was pitch black. I thought for a moment, then couldn't help but grin as I realized that the book I'd been reading had probably never been touched before I took it home, and that the filth on my hand was a smear of ink residue from the printers. In my mind I was suddenly transported back to third grade: a bookish little redhead hiding in a quiet corner of the elementary school library while Mr. Tesla handed me yet another stack of dusty reading material.
Mr. T was one of those rare school librarians who knew exactly what book you were looking for, even if you had no idea yourself. Even the most militant book haters usually left his class with at least a magazine or journal article tucked into their bags for perusing later on the playground. I will readily admit that he was my favorite teacher, and not just because he made it a point of buying every child in school a sodapop for their birthday lunch. In Mr. Tesla I found a kindred spirit- a lover of language, books, and learning; possibly the most well-rounded and cultured individual in my small hometown, and someone who was willing to aid and abet me in my ever-growing search for a new story.
I don't remember exactly when Mr. T first noticed my reading habits- I dimly remember checking out three or four Nancy Drew books at a time while most of my other classmates scrambled to be the first to the comic book racks. However, by the middle of third grade it was only natural for me to come into the library of a Friday morning with an armload of books that I'd been handed the week before. Mr. T would ask me a few questions about what I'd thought of them, slip between the stacks, then emerge with a whole new set to be worked on, always with the admonishment that I'd best have something to say about them next class! Eventually it came to the point where I didn't even have to bother him to check things out- I simply signed and stamped the cards for myself and filed them away in a separate section of the card cabinet for him to find later that day.
This particular school district was exceedingly small and under-funded, so while Mr. T did his best to keep putting new books on the shelves, the larger portion of the collection was rather aged and dusty, some of it dating back to when my great-aunt had attended the school in the 1930's and 40's. I used to play a game to see what books I could check out that had been on the shelf the longest- some tomes I took home hadn't left the shelf in over twenty years, and when opened released that dusty, musty, old book smell that seemed to linger in the back corners of the library room. (I always loved that smell, and to this day it conjures up images of curling up on a carpet square in a remote corner, drifting off into a story until the end of period bell shook me back into the present.)
Mr. T always kept me well supplied with literature, even to the point of bringing boxes of books from other libraries for me to pick through- not just the high school library, but public libraries in other towns. (This was before inter-library loan became a popular concept in that area, so all those books were on Mr. T's personal card, and he trusted me to finish them up and have them back to him before the due date. I don't think I processed that fact at the time, but in looking back I have to admire him for his faith in a ten year old girl to be responsible enough to not damage or misplace things in his name. Truly an incredible individual.)
This paragon of librarians retired before I graduated high school, but I saw him twice after that: he actually drove over an hour to attend my younger sister's graduation party and wish her well, and about a year after that I ran into him at a department store near my college. He had been shopping with his wife, but after we'd both said hello he made it a point to introduce us and tell her that I'd been one of his favorites, and how well I looked, and how proud he was that I was doing well in my studies. (I don't believe I've blushed quite that much since- it had been a particularly nasty day before that, but after chatting for a bit and parting ways with a hug I felt distinctly more special. Why is it so nice to be recognized?)
I've not seen Mr. Tesla since that brief meeting three years ago, but I wish him only happiness in his retirement, and that he never have a day without a good book. He was truly a guiding influence in my life, and for that I thank him profoundly.