Welcome again to the Independent Ideas summer series, Origin Stories.
Today we will head down south to visit Katherine Smith Patin at the Isidore Newman School in Louisiana.
My job came from the grocery store. I was just out of school with a degree in European history and a few education classes, lots of bills, and no plans. I temped in a bank, then tried selling French antiques, and concluded ultimately that I really, really missed school. I had an aunt who taught history at Isidore Newman in New Orleans, so I told her I might like a career in education. Within a week she ran into the school’s librarian in Dorignac’s, which is the type of grocery where you see everyone from celebrity chefs to your beloved first grade teacher. Mr. Prescott had a colleague who was retiring after thirty years. He was dreading the interview process, and figured I was worth a try. And since I was young (28,) I probably had the bonus feature of knowing about computers. The school administrators were less encouraging. Few know what library work entails, so after a smattering of questions they moved on, in some desperation, to my thesis, which was on the unfortunate topic of the anti-alcohol movement in fin-de-siecle France. The fact that I could speak confidently about absinthe and home distillery was no endorsement. They asked what I was reading. Flustered, I told them the truth. Thank goodness it was not David Sedaris, or even the civilized but unscholarly domestic fiction of Rosamunde Pilcher that I had binge-read in mental exhaustion after I finished school. It was a biography called The Aristocrats, by Stella Tillyard. I remember feeling embarrassed, as if I’d been caught in my underpants. There was silence, and then, “So you’re still reading history?” Feeling incurably dull and wondering how anything on my bedside table could be wrong (this was before Fifty Shades of Gray) I was passed on to the headmaster. We had a lovely discussion about my reverence for the teaching profession. My first day at Newman was Wednesday, July 1, 1998.
I know all schools have great kids, but Newman had so many of them. Verbally adept, clever, and playful—they did not fit the stereotypes of my high school experience. Newman is a place where the blonde cheerleader scores a perfect SAT, the football player sings in the chorus, and the gamer with the screen tan is a champion debater. Achievement is a state of mind, and the unknown is not frightening, but full of potential. In that spirit I started working on my MLIS in 2006. I did it because I thought I should. It’s the only “certification” we have. But who knew there were ethics in librarianship—controversy even! Censorship and equal access mean different things in different libraries. At Newman no one draws a Muumuu on the cover of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue, but the independent school world is busily debating whether print or digital media is more conducive to learning. I like to think that I am helping kids find helpful resources in the most convenient formats for them. Somehow, along the line, being a librarian stopped being a job and became more of a mission.
Don’t be shy!
We are still collecting Origin Stories and would love to hear from you. If you would like to share yours (500 words or less) please send it to Allison Peters Jensen at firstname.lastname@example.org