Library Lady – An Education Reform Story (from 2-22-16)

Assistant Principal Peter Graves was happy.

For one thing, it was Friday. For another thing, he had just left this month’s Assistant Principals Roundtable meeting, which was always a relief. He felt free. For another thing, the Vice-Assistant Deputy Superintendent of Assessment and Achievement had given all of them a very strong recommendation that he had carried out with pleasure.

The Vice-Assistant Deputy Superintendent, a woman named Dr. Strong, had strongly suggested that the assistant principals at all the districts eighty-five schools should delegate the role of Testing and Assessment Coordinator to their school’s Media Specialists.

Since Assistant Principal Peter Graves had been the Testing and Assessment Coordinator for John C. Absolute Elementary School for over a decade. He was tired of it. And now, with one brief email to his Media Specialist, Mrs. Kirja, thirty minutes ago, he was not only free of the Assistant Principals Roundtable Meeting, he was free of being the school’s Testing and Assessment Coordinator, as well. He had sent Mrs. Kirja all the state-issued PDF’s, the three month-long testing schedule, and the list of school technology being commandeered to be used to administer the tests. He had also asked the office specialist who worked for him to move the boxes and boxes of Test Proctor Manuals full of teachers scripts over to the Media Center. It was all in her hands now.

So Graves was feeling good as he walked onto campus this Friday afternoon. It was a warm night for February, and the campus was almost empty of students: just a few stragglers were waiting at Parent Pick-Up with Coach Binkers. He was feeling good until his phone buzzed.

He snatched it off his belt and looked at the screen. It was a text from the principal, Mr. Griffin. Family emergency. Dad heart attack. Supervise readathon.

That was it. The whole message. He was now feeling not quite so free. He’d only been vaguely aware of how long the readathon was supposed to take.

He stopped by a flyer hanging limply from a nearby brick wall and held the paper up so he could read it.

Participate in the Absolute Readathon!

Show you love to READ!


Snacks, breakfast, and lunch provided by local businesses!

Bring a sleeping bag, a toothbrush, and a desire to read!

Mrs. Kirja the Library Lady looks forward to seeing you in the school library!

Graves was now not happy. Not happy at all. For one thing, he no longer felt quite so free. He’d been looking forward to going home, having a beer and burger somewhere with his wife, and then settling in for an evening of ESPN and, probably, more beer. Now he would have to explain to his wife that he wouldn’t be home until tomorrow afternoon. And he hadn’t brought a sleeping bag. Or a toothbrush.

And he certainly didn’t want to read. He didn’t advertise it, but he secretly couldn’t stand reading. He found books boring. But he put on a good show for the students. He pretended to read autobiographies of sports figures. He’d been pretending to read the autobiography of Chut Brickhaus, famous quarterback (written with Kevin VanDerrclerk) for about a year and a half now. He assured the students who asked why it was taking so long that he was doing a “close-reading” of the text. They nodded knowingly and didn’t ask anymore questions. If he had to sit in on this Readathon, he’d have to read. Well, pretend to read.

And that wasn’t the only reason he was now unhappy. Mrs. Kirja was still using the word library. It was not a library. It was a Media Center. And she was not a library lady. She was a Media Specialist. But she insisted on using the old fashioned term. She needed to get with the times.

Mrs. Kirja annoyed him on several counts. She was one of those older ladies who’d been in the system too long. She wasn’t old, really. Graves himself was pushing 50, and she probably wasn’t much older than him. But she seemed older. She was one of those people who had always seemed older, who had probably seemed older than some of her teachers by the time she was in third grade.

She was blond, slim, and pale, with papery skin that didn’t really wrinkle. Her voice was a quavery, mezzo soprano treble. Not quite a low-talker, but not loud either. Her every intonation sounded tentative, a little wimpy. She wore conservative little suits with sensible shoes and tasteful skirts. Her hair was always up in bun.

He tried to think of what she looked like, and he realized that she looked like a… librarian!

But she wasn’t a librarian. Schools didn’t have them any more. She wasn’t Library Lady. She was the Media Specialist. And now she was the school’s Testing and Assessment Coordinator. Maybe that would finally make her realize what her role was.

Well, he’d have plenty of time over the next 24 hours to talk with her and help her see the light. He was going to be stuck at the Readathon. He went to his office and grabbed his copy of Goalposts: the Chut Brickhaus Story and went toward the Media Center.

The Media Center was at the front of the campus, with an outside entrance that opened on a little courtyard, across which was the main office. As Graves tried to exit the front office, the door stopped abruptly, with a metallic thud. Something was in the way. He squeezed through the opening and found the door had been stopped by a large metal cart. A laptop cart. It was one of several carts cluttering up the courtyard. As he stood there trying to figure out what was happening, the door to the Media Center flew outward and one more cart came rumbling over the threshold and rolled out to crash noisily into the others, causing Graves to leap aside to avoid a domino effect cart crashing into him. The door slammed closed again. It almost seemed as the library… Media Center was expelling the computer carts.

He looked at the Media Center. The official school door sign had been defaced. It had been painted over with red tempra paint.

It now read Library.

What was going on?

A series of loud thudding sounds from behind the Media Center doors drew his attention. He moved over to door closest to him, the In door, the door that had just expelled a laptop cart. Through the small, tall, narrow  window in the door, he could see cardboard boxes were heaped up to the height of his waist. Another box thudded down on top of that one. And another. Soon they filled the entire window. He leaned in closer to look. A label on the box read TEST PROCTOR SCRIPTS: DO NOT ISSUE TO TEACHERS UNTIL PROPER CONFIDENTIALITY FORMS ARE SIGNED.

These were the boxes he’d had sent over to her just a few minutes ago! What was she doing with them? He shifted over to the other door, the Out door. It, too, was full of boxes. He tried the door handle. Locked. He took out his master key and tried to use it. It wouldn’t move. He tried twisting and turning it until his fingers hurt, but it wouldn’t turn. He pulled on the key, but now it wouldn’t come out of the door. At his feet he now noticed the tiny, empty tube of HyperGlue.

What was going on? If this was some kind of student prank, he’d see these kids expelled!

He pounded on the door. “Hey! Open up! This is Mr. Graves! What’s going on in there? Let me in!”

There was a long pause, during which he thought he heard giggling, the laughter of children. Then a quavering voice unused to using any kind of volume spoke from behind the door, as if from a distance.

“I’m sorry, Mr. Graves. I’d prefer not to, sir.”

“You’d prefer not to… what?”

“Oh, so many things. But I’d prefer not to do them all.”

“Is that any way to talk to your administrator? ‘I’d prefer not to’?”

“It’s a literary allusion, Mr. Graves, but I suspect you wouldn’t recognize one of those if it came and kissed you on the cheek while wearing a school I.D.”

“Melville?” a small voice from beyond the boxes asked.

“Yes, Melville. That story I had you all read last week during literature discussion group.”

Graves stood, quivering with rage for a moment. What was going on here? “Mrs. Kirja, you need to move those boxes and open that door as soon as possible. This is not going to look good on your summative evaluation!”

“I’m afraid I can’t open the door, Mr. Graves. I can’t even move the boxes – at least not easily.”

“Why not?”

“Because to get to the boxes, I’d have to move all the furniture I have stacked up in front of the boxes, and I’m far too busy right now to move all the furniture again.”

“You’re busy? Doing what?”

Again, the quavering voice. “We’re having a Readathon, Mr. Graves.”

“Yes – a Readathon I’m supposed to be supervising! Let me in!” He could feel his blood pressure rising now. This could not be happening! He thought about calling the principal to ask what he should do, but the last thing he wanted to do at this point was add another crisis to Mr. Griffin’s plate since he was already in the hospital with his father.

After a long pause, Mrs. Kirja’s voice sounded again from the other side of the door, boxes, and furniture.  “I’m thinking, Mr. Graves.”

“What?! What are you thinking about Mrs. Kirja?” he found himself screaming at the door.

“I’ll have to ask you to lower your voice, Mr. Graves. I have 75 children in here who are all immersed in wonderful, magical books. And you are distracting them. As to your question, I’m thinking about which of your requests I might be willing to acquiesce to.” A pause. “I’m thinking none of them.”

“What requests? What are you talking about? Let me in!!”

“That’s the first request. And my answer is no. I won’t let you in. But your other requests are all receiving a ‘no’ as well.”

“What other requests? What the hell are you talking about?”

“Little ears, Mr. Graves! Look, perhaps you should come over the window where we could see each other and both talk without shouting. I really don’t want to interrupt their reading. It’s so important.”

A moment later he saw her behind the large glass wall-sized picture windows to the left of the doors. The wall angled away so the windows looked out over faculty parking and the street beyond the front of the school. As he moved over to join her at the window, he noticed the announcement for the Readathon in large letters on the school sign.

He pushed past the laptop carts and joined faced her at the window. She was just as he remembered her. When had he last seen her? He never went to the Media Center anyway. Trouble makers rarely went there. He looked at her for any signs of what might be wrong, but she looked fine, even, in her own Nordic way, radiant. She stood a couple inches taller than him, slender and lovely, wearing a cartoon T-shirt with the message Reading: The Best Thing You Can Do For Your Brain on it, along with several drawings of students and a family happily reading books.

“You realize,” he said, “that I could just break the window.”

“And endanger 74 small children with jagged shards of broken glass? I don’t think, so Mr. Graves,” Mrs. Kirja said calmly, smirking a little. Who was this woman? He’d never seen this side of their librari… dang it, Media Specialist! He caught his own reflection in the window, looking pale as well, but also paunchy and thinning on top. But there was a red flush on his cheeks. Would there be two heart attacks today?

“Fine, but tell me, what other requests are you saying no to, aside from not letting me in?

“I’m refusing to be Testing and Assessment Coordinator or whatever you’re calling that asinine position. But even aside from that, I’m refusing to let you take over my Library for two and half months so it can become a testing center.”  

Graves thought for a moment, then tried to keep his voice level. Mrs. Kirja, I would point out to you that you are not a librarian. You are a Media Specialist. And it is not your library. It is not even a library. It is a Media Center, and not even your Media Center. It is the property of the school board, and as such, it is there’s to use as they please. You are an employee of the school board, and they – through me – may tell you to do anything they please. And I, on behalf of the school board, am telling you to let me in this Media Center right now. If you do that, we may avoid any further unpleasantness.”

“What do you mean, further? So far, I’m finding this quite pleasant really. What has been unpleasant for the past several years is doing things that I know are bad for children in the name of supposedly helping them. I have had them take computer reading tests to prove they have read books so that they can get rewards like bicycles and gaming consoles. Do you know what message that sends, Mr. Graves? That sends the message that reading is a chore, and we need to bribe you to do it. But I was told to do it, so I did. I’ve always been a good student, Mr. Graves. I’ve done what I was told all my life…”

Graves cut her off. “I’m not here to be your therapist, Kirja. I’m here as your boss. And your boss is telling you to let me in.”

“When I was told that testing was moving onto the computers and that we’d need to use the library to test students, I allowed it to happen. How bad could it be? But last year, testing took over the media center for three months. Three months of running a test-taking bunker. They shuffled in, the teachers read the script, the students sat like zombies and read boring texts on the computer, and clicked on answers, their eyes glazed over…”

While Kirja babbled on, gesturing behind her into the Media Center, Graves grabbed his walkie-talkie from his belt and hit channel 5. “Deputy Bozell,” he whispered, “we have a situation up here at the Media Center. It’s… I guess… a hostage situation.”

“On my way,” came the hissed reply. “Calling for backup.”

“No… you don’t need to call for backup. Go to the main office and let’s talk a minute!”  Graves said hastily.

“Are you even listening to me?” asked Mrs. Kirja.

“Of course, Mrs. Kirja! But I just got a call on my Walkie-Talkie. You know, Principal Griffin can’t be here for the readathon because his father is in the hospital. I need to go take a phone call in the office for an update…”

Mrs. Kirja’s expression changed to one of concern. “Oh, of course! Please do so!”

Graves manuevered through the laptop carts, and managed to squeeze into the front office, where they campus resource officer, Deputy Bozell was waiting.

“What seems to be the trouble?” Bozell asked. He was big, beefy; looked like an overgrown Boy Scout, Graves thought to himself.

Graves explained the situation.

“But you don’t want backup?”

“No. Look, we get in a bunch of squad cars and the next thing you know, there’s a Channel 9 News Helicopter circling overhead to cover the story, and we have 75 parents trying to pick up their kids early. Mr. Griffin doesn’t need that kind of stress in his life right now. And neither to do I.”

“What did you have in mind then?”

Graves told him.

When he returned to the window, Mrs. Kirja was still there, helping a little boy find just the right pirate book. Graves waiting patiently until she was done, and then for her to notice him.

“Oh! You’re back! How is the principal’s father?”

“What? Oh,  him! Holding steady. Still in danger, but now worse. He just wanted to update me. But you were telling me something about the readathon… Please continue!”

“Just a moment. I need to help Sara.” He watched her walk over to a little girl, maybe 8 years old, who stood bewildered before a bookcase. He couldn’t hear what they were saying, but after a brief discussion, the girl smiled, and took a new book off the self. She flopped down happily in a little purple beanbag chair and delved into her new find. Mrs. Kirja returned to the window. “That’s what I live for, really. I know that sounds crazy, but the look in  child’s eye when they have found the right book… Oh! And seeing them sit and just disappear into another world! That is what I love to see. It changes lives, Mr. Graves. When they read like that all the time. All your data walls and test scores and tracking assessments – it all means nothing if the children don’t learn to read!”

Mr. Graves felt like maybe she was softening. He tried to make his voice conciliatory and gentle. “Mrs. Kirja, I can tell you care a great deal about these issues. If you’d let me in, I could talk to you about it…”

Mrs. Kirja appeared to drop out of a reverie, a step back from a utopian dream of paradise built of books and bookshelves. Her face became rather grim, and she spoke again in that quiet little voice, now quavering with rage.  “Mr. Graves, you claim you want good readers, but you are the enemy of reading. You want to take reading away from them. You want to fill my library with row after row of computers so our students can sit and take tests and and fail at them, and feel like failures, and grow to hate reading. It isn’t just this Federal Assessment and Review Test this Spring. All through the Fall and Winter they’ve been taking district reading and vocabulary tests. And the Library has been closed for weeks on end each time. My Library should be open everyday, all day, for the sole purpose of helping students find the right books, encouraging them to read those books, developing their love of reading, and making them better readers simply because they read a lot.

“But you want to close the Library for almost half the year to engage in activities that damage our students and make them hate reading! And the philosophy behind these tests they take, the philosophy that reading is the act of mining text for evidence, regurgitating objective facts in formulaic little essays, avoiding any personal connection to what they read – it makes me want to regurgitate!”

Mrs. Kirja’s voice had actually risen now to a fever pitch. He’d never heard her talk so much or so loudly before.

“Mrs. Kirja, as I said, I’d really like to come in there and talk this out with you. But you don’t seem to want to let me in. Let me ask you. Exactly what are your plans?”

There was a long pause. Mrs. Kirja turned away from Graves and looked out across the Media Center, where children were curled up in nearly every nook and cranny of the large room, reading, reading, all reading. All immersed in words. Yes, it was fun if you liked that sort of thing, but was it measurable? Graves doubted it. You got better at passing reading tests by practicing for reading tests, not by just reading for the fun of it. It was like sports. You didn’t get better at the game by playing the sport casually on your own time: you needed intensive training to get to the pros.

Kirha turned around to face him again. Were her eyes a little damp? “What are my plans, Mr. Graves? My plans are to finish my readathon.”

“And then?”

“That depends on you.
“How so?” asked Graves.

“My readathon doesn’t end until I have written assurances that my Library will not be used for testing, or even test preparation, ever again. I want it in writing the Library is a place for love of reading, not ruining it for a lifetime; a place to read books, not dull as sawdust articles with multiple choice questions attached that make millions for the testing companies but ruin children’s reading lives forever. That is what I want. We will stay in here until my demands are met.”

Graves couldn’t believe what he was hearing. She had really flipped.

“Mrs. Kirja, it won’t work. What will you eat?”

“We have, I have calculated, four months worth of fruit snacks, granola bars, and peppermints that were to be given out during testing, that will keep us nicely fed.”

“But Mrs. Kirja, that would amount to 75 counts of kidnapping! You’d go to jail!”

“The children are all here willingly!” Mrs. Kirja turned to face the throng of reading kids again. “Children, what if I told you that you didn’t need to take any more tests this year, and that the readathon could go on for weeks and weeks? You could live here! What would you say to that?”

A cheer of voices went up from all around the Media Center.

Mrs. Kirja turned back to Graves. “You see? It’s fine!”

Graves glanced behind her, across the Media Center. The door to video production room opened a crack, and he could see Deputy Bozell giving him the thumbs up.

Graves moved forward to where Mrs. Kirja stood, her nose pressed to the window. “Mrs. Kirja, don’t worry about it. You just stay right there. obviously, you’re right, and we need to change our way of thinking about school.” He sighed.  “Obviously the best way to get better readers is to let them read. Obviously. I wonder how I didn’t see it before.”

Then he glanced behind her, back toward video production. “Mrs. Kirja… is there anyone else in there with you?
“Well, yes, there are seventy-five…”

“No. Another adult. I think there may be someone back in the Video Production studio.”

“But I sealed that door off, just like the others… Oh, dear. Who do you think it could be?”

“I don’t know, but if someone’s broken in, you don’t want to face them alone. Let me in, and I can help you…”

“No, Mr. Graves,” Mrs. Kirja said grimly. “I’ll handle this myself.”

She marched to the back of the Media Center, careful not to disturb any reading students on the way. She opened the door to Video Production, looked around cautiously and stepped inside. There was a flicker of blue light, and a thud. But none of the students seemed to notice.

A few minutes later, Mrs. Kirja was on a stretcher and had been laced up in a straight jacket. A doctor from Hinckley Mental Health Center had arrived to take her away. She was only now becoming coherent again. “But I need to help them find the books they love. I need to read to them readathon readathon goes on for more hours maybe days or weeks or months… lots of granola bars!”

The stretcher was loaded into the ambulance. The ambulance was parked out behind Media, where the students couldn’t see it.

Graves looked into the Media Center and wondered how to handle this little situation. Those poor kids. They’d been corrupted, corrupted and twisted by a demented mind. It was time to bring some order to the situation.

Deputy Bozell had taken care of the jammed doors and the custodians had hauled the boxes and furniture back into the Media Center. Graves rounded up the bus duty teachers and together they hauled the laptop carts back into the Media Center. The children sat, stricken, asking where Mrs. Kirja had gone. The teachers began setting up laptops.

The little girl, the eight year old who needed help finding a book, walked up to Graves. “What happened to Library Lady? Is she okay?”

“She was a little sick, that’s all,” he replied. “She’s going for some help. You know what, though? It’s time for us to continue the readathon. Only this part, we’re doing on the computer.”

“Library Lady never mentioned that. She said it would be all about books.”

Graves suddenly felt overwhelming anger at how badly she had brainwashed these innocent little children. “Honey, she wasn’t the Library Lady. There’s no such thing as a library at a school. Her name was Mrs. Kirja, not Library Lady. This is the Media Center. And it’s time to get on a computer.”

“But I want to finish my book…” The little girl held up the tattered paperback.


The children all fell over themselves racing to get to laptops. The little girl was weeping. Graves felt bad for her. But it was time to restore order. No time for sympathy.

“Now, log on to the address you see posted on the whiteboard. It’s the training site for the Federal Assessment and Review Test! You know the drill!”

The children tapped their usernames and passwords onto the keyboards.

A whisper. “I thought we were going to be reading books…”


Ten minutes later the Media Center was quiet again, and the children were all occupied once more. The media had not been alerted, and no parents would find out about this little problem until tomorrow. He would have come up with a good story to smooth the whole thing over by then.

He looked at the tables of children sitting in neat rows. This was more like it. Order. And children obediently getting ready for the real business of school: tests. Kirja had obviously been insane. It was a good thing he had been here to restore sanity to the situation. He looked with satisfaction at the children, all  tapping away, their faces gray in the glow of the laptops. This was how it should be.

He considered reading The Goalpost, but pushed it aside, pulled out his phone, and got a live feed on ESPN.