In olden days, high school libraries were run like Swiss banks, enveloped by seriousness of purpose, utterly lacking in distractions, dominated by rules to protect valuable contents. The librarians were like Swiss Guards, steel-eyed and born without the DNA to appreciate humor. For high school students like me, the library presented a challenge that only a Wall Street banker could appreciate: how to play the rules for greatest personal profit or advancement without actually breaking those rules and/or getting caught and/or being sent to jail.
The challenge in rule-playing was to annoy the Swiss Guards just enough without giving them good reason to bring disciplinary action. Stealing or defacing books or taking a dump in the stacks or carving initials into tables were obvious no-no’s. Students who — for want of a better word — were plainly “stupid,” would vandalize the library, be suspended, and earn only the scorn of their classmates. “That was just stupid,” we would mumble to each other. “Admirable, perhaps, but stupid.”
The head librarian of my Jesuit school – whom we secretly called Pope Hideous — laid out the rules for us in our first week as freshmen. Pope Hideous handed each of us a 3”x5” index card that read:
Holy Trinity of Library Sins
Thou Shalt Not Chew Gum
Thou Shalt Not Eat Food or Drink Beverages
Thou Shalt Not Talk Amongst Thyselves
My classmates and I learned and matured through our confrontations with Pope Hideous. At first, as humble freshmen, we honored his rules and he left us alone. As sophomores, we began our journey down the road of questioning authority. We chewed. We ate. We drank. We talked. At first Pope Hideous issued warnings, but we pushed him to the point where he had no choice but to assert his authority. After each infraction, he banished the offender(s) from the library under strict orders not to return until the following day.
However, high school gets serious in your junior year. You have to at least demonstrate that you are serious about your academic endeavors so that those colleges you dream about will not throw your application in the trash. In olden days, that meant spending increasing amounts of time in the library reading and writing in the presence of stacks of information and knowledge. We could not afford to have Pope Hideous breathing down our necks so we worked hard at the appearance of following the rules. Gum was chewed with mouths closed. Bubbles were popped silently. Wads were disposed of outside the library rather than underneath the library tables. Food and drinks were hidden away and consumed in nooks and crannies not under the direct supervision of Pope Hideous. Talking became discreet. We thought we were so smart and that Pope Hideous was a rube.
In reality, Pope Hideous was just biding his time, waiting until we slipped. Or, it turns out, waiting until I slipped.
If you have ever seen that TV show “Silent Library,” you will understand that teenage boys can restrain themselves in the face of humor only up to a point. There is a particular pantomime associated with the physics formula F = Gm1m2/d2 that just kills me. You have probably seen it on one of those British TV shows. It is just hysterically funny. A classmate of mine, whom I will call Pope Judas, was such a master of this pantomime that he was forbidden by us from performing it in the library upon penalty of having multiple bags of dog shit placed in his locker. During a particularly stressful lead-up to first semester final exams, Pope Judas did the pantomime in the library. By the time Pope Hideous arrived at our table to investigate the breach of his rules, I was rolling on the floor and had peed myself.
“That’s enough for you,” he told me as he escorted me out of the library. “Your library privileges are revoked for the rest of the academic year. We will see you in your senior year.”
Huh? I just looked at him, my lack of comprehension plastered all over my face.
“That’s right, you heard me,” he said. “You are banned from the library until your senior year. That should give you some time to reflect on the laws of cause and effect. Your actions, young man, have consequences.”
I walked out of the library dumbfounded. Oftentimes that the way I react to things: dumbfounded. And then I usually start to ruminate. And the more I thought about the suspension, the more I found it to be unfair for the following reasons:
- Pope Hideous had punished only me, not the perpetrator of the pantomime;
- While I could not argue with some form of punishment, Pope Hideous had never held out the possibility of such a long-term suspension. It was like he changed the rules in the middle of the game;
- As a student, I needed access to the resources of the library. Without them, my prospects of academic success dimmed; and
- Making an example out of me to cower the rest of the student body was not his job. The Pope’s job was to help us, not punish us.
The more I thought about the situation that night, the angrier I got. Of course I did not tell my parents: they would have sided with Pope Hideous. Instead, I launched a plan in my head.
The following day, I left for school as always and arrived just before the first class period, about 7:30 a.m. I promptly sat down in front of the door to the library and placed a sign in my lap that could easily be read by everyone entering the library. The sign stated:
No one should be kicked out the
library for a semester
simply for talking.
Pope Hideous saw me and the sign, but there was nothing he could do because I was not inside the library. What he also saw, which could not have made him happy, was that other students saw me and the sign and they also sat down. Only jocks and students taking classes like Greek had first period classes, so by the unofficial opening of school at second period, about 50 other students sat with me in boisterous protest of Pope Hideous’ capricious and arbitrary policy. We were definitely a distraction for those students inside, but Pope Hideous could not touch us.
Eventually, the school’s principal, whom we called Steve (his real name), sent word that he wanted to see me in his office. I would never state that Steve was a “cool” principal, but I will admit that you could talk to him and, most of the time, he listened. He asked for my side of the story, presumably already having heard Pope Hideous’ version of events.
“So what’s your beef?” Steve asked.
“I think it’s unfair that I got kicked out for a whole semester,” I said.
“Do you think it’s unfair that you were punished?”
“No, although others probably also deserved it.”
“If you are allowed back in the library, will you promise to follow the rules?”
“Are you really asking me that question?”
We looked at each other without making a sound for about a minute.
“OK,” Steve finally said. “You can go back to the library next Monday with the understanding that if you break the rules again this semester, you may suffer a longer suspension.”
The next issue of the school newspaper carried a photo of me sitting in front of the library with my sign and a stupid grin on my face. Everyone had been warned not to mess with Pope Hideous, but Steve had also let it be known that he respected my decision to hold a sit-down protest rather than just roll over and let the Pope have his way.