I cannot remember the time when I didn’t have a library card. My mother started taking us to the little library behind the American Legion hall on Orchard street when I was just a little guy. It was the domain of Mrs Bernice Kitchell. She was the first librarian ever I knew. She was not too tall, slight in stature, almost too thin, wore spectacles and always had her hair up. She was very nice to little boys and guided us around the tiny rooms, for the library was, at that time, just a temporary building. Being a temporary building, it is, of course still there sixty five years later. At the time it was just a simple city library, not the kind you see today, but financed by the town. Mrs Kitchell was of course paid a pittance and in return she did every job required or not. She scrounged books from everywhere she could and it wasn’t unusual to find in a checked out book someones name written on the flyleaf. Most likely someone you or your parents knew. There was a muted mysteriousness to the place brought on by the smell of books, both the sharp fresh smell of a new book and the musty timeless smell of the old. The air was redolent of the mixture and combined with the pale, dusty air, a perfect setting for the child exploring for just the book to take him to a new place and the adventure there.
Thanks to Mrs Kitchell I’ve been everywhere, both on this world and all the others. I ran through the jungle with the Lost Boys, I’ve drifted down the mighty Mississippi with Huck and Nigger Jim, Followed Tarzan through the great, lost elephant graveyard on his quest for the jewels of Opar. I waited until I saw the whites of their eyes on Breed’s Hill, Studied with Frank Merriwell at Yale and crossed swords with Pedro De Vargas the Captain from Castile.
Before I was out of grammar school I had read hundreds of books. I used to take books to school and read after my lessons in the little two room schoolhouse that my brothers and I went to. Both of my teachers, Mrs Brown and the sainted Miss Elizabeth Holland knew I was reading when I should have been doing something else because I would open my desk top and read a few lines while I pretended to be looking for something.
Mrs Edith Brown and Miss Elizabeth Holland at Branch Grade School
One of the things that worked to my advantage was that each of the teachers taught four complete grades mixed in each of the two classrooms. They taught each grade level for part of the day while the other students did assigned work or read from the school library. A student had time to explore their education without having each classroom minute orchestrated. This worked to my advantage because I could complete my school work and then go adventuring in a book. What has turned out to be the greatest reading lesson of all has been the ability to read in context. I was simply too lazy to go to the big Webster’s which weighed a full fifteen pounds and look up words I didn’t know, so I figured them out by the way they worked in sentences. I can say that this is the best thing I learned in school.
Not many of these little schools exist anymore. They were places where the teachers set the curriculum with a little help from the school board. Many of the school board members at Branch had gone to the school themselves. Other than a small stipend from the county schools office they were on their own as to school improvements, curriculum, books, playground equipment and anything else that was required. We had no band, and no organized sports program. Everything we did was dependent on the parents and teachers. Believe it or not, some of our text books were the same books used by students more than a generations before us. It seems strange today but those books covered social studies or history up to the 1930’s and the rest everybody knew because they had lived it. It was first hand knowledge.
The photo above shows some texts from Branch. None is newer than 1936. The Growth of the American People has two names written on the flyleaf, Joe P. Roza and William Quaresma. Al Coehlo’s name is in the California Progress textbook. I knew these men as friends of my father and went to grammar school with Al’s children. These books were still in use in the fifties when I studied there.
I figured not long ago that I’ve read somewhere north of ten thousand books in my lifetime. Incubated in the Library and School, I have Mrs Kitchell, Katie Sullivan McNeil, Edith Brown and Elizabeth Holland to thank for starting me On the Long Road.