Welcome back to the Independent Ideas Summer Series, Origin Stories.
Today we will head down to Georgia to meet Rivka Genesen from the Heritage School.
“Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.”
-Seneca (allegedly- this attribution is disputed)
On an ordinary Saturday in March of 2014 I was set to meet my sister at a panel discussion at the 92nd St Y celebrating the 50th anniversary of Harriet the Spy. Her route from Brooklyn was filled with all the usual weekend reroutes so I saved her a seat and waited. Surreptitiously I didn’t have a book with me so when the woman a row ahead started talking to me I had no escape and neither did the woman one seat over. She asked us both about ourselves and then wandered off. But the woman in my row and I kept talking- she was a teacher in Georgia with a full weekend of cultural events in front of her and I was finishing up my thesis and my last classes for my MLS at Queens College. Her school’s long-time librarian was retiring at the end of the year. Would you ever consider leaving New York? she asked. Well, yes, I said even though I wasn’t sure what that meant. She wrote all of her contact information down on a hotel stationery and passed it to me. I carry that piece of paper in my wallet now, a reminder that all great things have come when I haven’t seen them coming. I’d like to say I can’t imagine what my life would have been like if I hadn’t emailed her and everything that came afterward hadn’t happened exactly the way it did. But I can.
I was so worn out by the time I met Marianne Richardson that Saturday that I didn’t know to be nervous or to expect anything. At that point I was taking my vacation days from my job as an Associate Editor of the Norton Critical Editions to go to Rikers Island with the New York Public Library and to do fieldwork for classes with incarcerated youth; additionally one or two Sundays a month I would take the bus to Teaneck, New Jersey to cover the Children’s Desk at the public library. When I met the woman who would become my guide to Georgia, to The Heritage School, to being, fully and finally, a librarian and a teacher, I was in full surrender mode.
In the summers, my mother, the daughter of a librarian, would pack us all in the car and we would set off for adventures. The common strand that wove all the summers together was the library- close by and far away, beautiful chaos ordered, a deep sigh after a long day. So it was unsurprising to find myself at the library the summer between sophomore and junior years of high school with newly obtained working papers, ready to go. I always knew you’d end up here, the recently retired head of the department said to me as I sat on the floor of the Children’s Department in front of the 600s shelf reading. I spent Sundays, vacation days, and summers there for the next 14 years. I grew older, the world grew bigger, Harry Potter went from being embargoed to a part of the childhood canon, I went from reading books published by W.W. Norton to making them.
The plan had been to become a public librarian- I didn’t know to want anything more or less. But in the latter part of my studies for an MLS I ended up in the wonderful Reading Motivation Techniques for Children & Adolescents class with Donna Rosenblum and doing fieldwork with Anne Lotito-Schuh (then a consultant for Literacy for Incarcerated Teens, she supported volunteers and brought library programming to smaller Passages Academy library sites). Sitting with Anne at lunch one day we both agreed that I’d find some way to be a school librarian. Watching her taught me that the library was a place, but that the librarian was not tethered to it and that being a librarian was a way of being, a resource in and of itself.
Talking with my sister the other day, I said something along the lines of I’m so glad I found what I am meant to do. Oh, but we all knew, she responded. I get now that I didn’t come to this a minute before I was meant to, each zig-zag and mile travelled meaningful to arrive here. Every day I find myself using the sum of my experience in big and small ways- that I get to be the person who hands the right book to the right person at the right time, who gets to help a student arrive at the best question rather than the right answer, and then watch that student grow is not even something I dreamed properly.
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