Love and Hate in the Library
It’s 1975 and I’m 16 years old.
I enter the East Hampton High School library and walk past all the boring books and corny inspirational posters taped to the walls:
Be the Change You Wish to See in the World — Mahatma Gandhi.
Nothing Is Impossible — Audrey Hepburn.
As You Think, So Shall You Become — Bruce Lee.
Mrs. Roget, our evil, prehistoric librarian, reaches up into her tight hair bun and plucks out a sharp yellow pencil. She’s squat, humorless, and wears granny glasses that hang on a strap around her neck. She’s always after me about stuff.
“Hi, Peter! I see you’re here to pay your book fine?”
“Oh,” I grimace, slapping my forehead, “I forgot.”
I smile sheepishly. She doesn’t smile back.
“Well, the month of June is creeping up on us, young man,” she says, tapping her annoying pencil on the wooden counter. “Tempus fugit. Time is fleeting.”
“Tomorrow, Mrs. Roget, I promise.”
She laughs, or snorts, and it isn’t a pleasant sound.
“Drop dead, you old hag,” I want to say. Instead, I go, “I’d like to do some research.”
“Jack Dempsey. He was a boxer.”
“Ah, Jack Dempsey — a flat-nosed prizefighter!” She laughs. It’s not a nice laugh.
“You’ve heard of him?”
“Certainly. A real degenerate, that one — a monster who enjoyed punching people for a living.” She points her annoying pencil toward the encyclopedias. “Go do your research.”
I walk past all her dusty old books — fat books, skinny books, hardcover books, paperbacks. Old Mrs. Roget didn’t know it yet, but one day I was going to write a great book, and the old biddy would be forced to buy my book and put it on her library shelf. It would be a self-help guide for old teachers. I’d title it “How to Understand Students.” It would help clueless adults, to the extent they could be helped, on how to encourage kids to read. It isn’t that kids don’t like to read; it’s that we don’t like reading boring books. I think our unwillingness to read is the result of being force-fed crap that doesn’t relate to us. No wonder we think books are ugly and horrible instead of exciting and cool.
I cop a squat and start flipping through an Encyclopedia Britannica, labeled D, searching for Jack Dempsey. Was my flat-nosed prizefighter a degenerate? A monster? There’s Dostoevsky, Deuteronomy, deviled eggs, donkeys, Denmark.
In a weird way, opening an encyclopedia is like taking the Hampton Jitney, because it takes you places. The cute girl to my left is visiting the Mayan ruins of the Yucatan Peninsula, and the studious boy on my right is visiting an ancient Greek temple in Sparta.
I’m flipping through the encyclopedia, struggling to find my flat-nosed prizefighter. I have a three-page essay due tomorrow.
Nope — no Jack Dempsey.
I look around for help. Teachers are teaching, students are studenting, and janitors are janitoring. This assignment sucks. This library sucks.
In defeat, I bang my forehead on the table and plant it there. This assignment is impossible! Maybe someday they’ll invent a machine that will make research easy and fun — just press a few buttons and information will magically spit out before you.
I pull out another encyclopedia — J for Jack.
Suddenly, my heart jumps. Sitting on the opposite side of the library is beautiful Mimi Breedlove. Actually, Mimi isn’t just beautiful, she’s achingly gorgeous. She’s a 17-year-old female with incredibly thick, jet-black hair and big brown eyes that look deep into you. “Gorgeous” is a thousand times too weak a word to describe her.
Mrs. Roget’s library might suck, but, suddenly, I am very happy to be sitting in it.
I walk over to Mimi. Right leg, left leg, right leg, left leg, chest out. It’s not easy approaching a beautiful girl.
“Hi, Mimi. I was wondering, would you be willing to help me with my writing assignment? It’s due tomorrow.”
She looks up at me and smiles.
Audrey Hepburn was right — nothing is impossible.
Excerpted from “The Boy Who Hit Back,” the latest book by Peter Wood, a former high school English teacher and Golden Gloves boxer who lives part time in East Hampton. He will read from it on Saturday at 1 p.m. at the East Hampton Library.