Friday, 27 May 2016

The Library: My Expectations vs The Cold Hard Reality

My library job happened a little by accident and a lot by fluke. It had less to do with having a burning ambition to keep the Dewey decimal system alive and everything to do with how much I hated the job I was in at the time. Anyone who had the misfortune of knowing me in any capacity between the months of February and November 2015 will know that I was miserable. I hated my job so much that I would often quietly sob as I was getting ready to go to it. My housemate stopped asking how my day had gone because he knew it would never be good news. On the phone to my mum, I'd hear her breathe a sigh of relief if I said, 'today wasn't completely shit.' That was all I hoped for. For my day to not be completely shit. Anyway, woe is me, whatever. The point is: I wanted to get out at any cost. When you're in a state of acute desperation like I was then, you envy everyone who's not you. On lunch breaks with my lovely colleagues (they were my little rays of sunshine in the office and still are now in real life) we'd look at dogs running round the park without a care in the world and want to be in their shoes (paws.)
'I wish I was that dog.'
'I wish I was that tree.'
It was my first full time job. I was 24 years old. It was ridiculous that I was jealous of a tree.
I was constantly trying to work out how to get doctors appointments during the day, how many weeks it was until the next bank holiday, how best to use my generous holiday allowance of 16.5 days to give myself the longest possible break from the office...
I was all consumed with thoughts about how soon I could leave without completely fucking up my CV. I very quickly worked out that I wasn't up to doing a full year like I'd originally planned, and as time went on and I became ever more anxious, I started to think about what I could do that would pay more (most things) and give me slightly more holidays (anywhere.)
I was disillusioned with publishing - it wasn't what I thought it would be and I needed a clean break, but books and literature are all I know. I couldn't fathom working in any other field. So what could I legitimately do with my (limited) skills? I'd worked in schools before, and am good with children (I actually find them to be a lot less unpleasant than most adults), but I knew from how miserable my teacher ex was at the time that you should never teach unless your whole soul is crying out to you that it is your one true vocation in life. I was done with crying in the mornings. I wanted an easy life.
Books and kids... Books and kids... Where could I find both of these things under the same roof? A bloody school library, that's where!
I did extensive research, of course (as long as if by 'extensive' we mean me googling 'how much do librarians earn?' and 'schools North London' on my phone.) It turns out that the school librarian is dead. They are now known as 'LRC Managers.' Well that was that dream over, then. How could I jump from a 'co-ordinator' (a fancy word for slave) to manager overnight?! I wasn't qualified. But it turns out that LRC Managers earn salaries as fancy as their job titles, and I repeat, I was desperate. So I applied to an advertised vacancy. It was a half hearted attempt at escape and was completed as such. If I remember rightly (which I do) I filled in half of the application on my ex's tablet on his bedroom floor, sulking because he was marking books and not stroking my head, and half of it on my phone on the bus. It took me a week.
Against all odds, I was utterly convinced that the job was mine. It had to be. How could you want something so badly and not get it? In what unfair world would I not deserve to get the very first job I applied to? (Again, remember I completed the application on a floor and on a bus.) I checked my emails obsessively for a month, and then admitted defeat. As unjust as it seemed, it probably did make sense that someone with absolutely no prior experience of working in a library or any librarian qualifications (they exist! Check if you don't believe me!) would maybe not be entrusted to run a massive school library singlehandedly.
But then, two days after being cruelly dumped by the boyfriend who was too sad to stroke my head, when everything had got to the point where I was seriously contemplating moving back home and living off my mum forever, I got the email inviting me to interview.
This was it! My one way ticket out of misery and shit holidays!
I couldn't believe my fucking luck (and it was luck, nothing else, because I repeat, I wasn't even slightly qualified for the role.)
I was at Hell Job when I saw the good news, so I summoned my lovely colleagues to the kitchen or basement or one of the other many places we would use to cry or moan or hide, and showed them the email and we all hugged and danced around and maybe even teared up a bit (I mean, I almost certainly did. Don't know if you'd heard but I was crying quite freely at that point in my life.)
I prepped ferociously (watched loads of YouTube videos called things like 'misconceptions about the modern librarian' and 'why it pisses me off that people think librarians are sad and wear glasses and need to get laid.') I was ready.
I went into Hell Job on interview day with my Sandro dress hidden under a massive wooly jumper and felt delirious about my secret. Lovely Colleague 1 and 2 kept catching my eye across the office and winking. I had this in the bloody bag.
When the time came to toddle off to the interview, I completely misjudged just how far away the school was (I live in North London and Hell Job was central London and New Job is about as South as you can get and still confidently say you're in London.)
It took me an hour and a half to get there. I was late. I ran all the way from the bus stop, halting only very slightly as I approached the doorway so as not to look manic and red and deranged. I wasn't the only one interviewing. There were five other candidates, who had arrived in good time and didn't have stringy fringes and looked like your typical librarian. I don't want to be a generalising little twat, but my competition were not dressed in their best Sandro dress. My competition were dressed in cardigans and sensible lace ups and wire rimmed glasses. (I'm not just making this up for dramatic effect, all five of the other people at the interview were either already librarians elsewhere or fresh library degree graduates.)
But I felt good anyway. I literally had not one thing to lose. I liked being in a school environment. It was refreshing. The Hell Job office was stuffy and overheated and my heart sank every day when I swiped my way through the front door. The school was buzzing with life and activity and movement. I already knew I'd be working there soon. Not in a blowing-my-own-horn way, but I smashed the interview's head in. I was my most sparkly, charming, well spoken version of myself (and it didn't hurt my confidence any that another one of the candidates had a panic attack halfway through and had to put her head between her legs for ten minutes.) They said they'd let me know within the week.
They called me the next day.

Handing in my notice at Hell Job was one of the happiest days of my life. I'm not exaggerating. My lovely colleagues bought me flowers and I couldn't, not even for form's sake, keep the smile from my face when I asked to speak to my boss 'in private.' I was so excited I forgot to delete the 'Monster' logo from the template I'd used to write out my Notice letter. My boss noticed and made a massive deal out of it, doing a fake tinkly loud laugh, and in my head I just kept thinking, 'after this month I never, ever have to see your face again, and it won't be a moment too soon, you life-ruining horror woman.'
I walked on a cloud for the next four weeks. I still cried a bit (quite a lot), for the other thing, but I clutched my impending new job to my chest like a talisman. I'd made a change, I was in control of my own life again, and I was going to be happy (happier) one day soon. Plus let's not forget all those glorious school holidays I was about to qualify for. Fuck you, dog-in-park! I can run around and be fancy free too!
I was so giddy with not working at Hell Job anymore that I almost entirely forgot that I did actually have to go and start a new job and do everything that comes with that. I didn't really know what to expect. The closest I'd ever come to working in a library environment was when I applied to Camp Hill (a less than desirable area in my hometown) library for a Saturday job and my feedback post interview was 'enthusiastic but probably not equipped to handle the trickier, occasionally aggressive patrons.'
Instead, my first Saturday job ended up being as a waitress at my local football stadium, tripping over people's handbags, dropping plates of food and forgetting to ask whole tables to pay. I have weak wrists and the crockery was heavy. I've never worked in hospitality since.

Things I was maybe expecting to do as a school librarian:
-Recommend books
-Catalogue books
-Instill a love of reading to impressionable young minds
-Start a book club
-Use my contacts from my time in publishing to get authors in to chat to the students
-A poetry slam 
-Potter around, organising the shelves
-Generally be a Miss Honey/Dead Poets Society/Coach Carter hybrid inspirational human being

Things I actually do day to day as a school librarian:
-Say 'shhh' until my face hurts (if only this cliche wasn't so true...)
-Crowd control
-Break up fights
-Reconcile friendship fall outs
-Give out pens like they're going out of fashion
-Fix computers
-Litter pick
-Whistle blow (not literally, although I do have one in my top drawer for emergencies)
-Hand out hair, friend, relationship advice (even though I'm not sure I'm qualified to preach about any of the above. The extent of my hair adventures is a home dip dye in summer '13 and a fringe that's taken me nine months to grow out, I have approximately six mates that I plan to keep until the day I die, and I always bring up my high cholesterol on first dates. But they ask, and when I suggest things they listen, so I must be doing something right)
-Lend something like two books a week out (and this is often only because I physically thrust the titles that I think particular kids will like into their unwilling little paws)

Conversations I thought I might have with the library users:
-'Miss, have you got the new Malorie Blackman?'
'Sure thing, Khadejah! Have you read her earlier stuff? Why not try the Noughts and Crosses series?' (A few of the younger girls will actually ask me for books, but always very quietly and discreetly as if it's a dirty habit they need to hide)
-'Miss, can you possibly help me with my English coursework?'
'Sure thing, Jeremiah, one A* coming right up!' (This too, does in fact sometimes happen, but unfortunately I'm little to no use as I can't remember any of the shit they're studying, not even A Streetcar Named Desire. And I loved A Streetcar Named Desire (well, I fancied Marlon Brando in the black and white film, even though he was a midget and a misogynist, and it felt important to be studying a play, so I guess that's the same as loving A Streetcar Named Desire)
-'Miss, can I confide in you about a juicy, interesting, but not life threatening, personal problem, please?'
'Sure thing, Egypt, pull up a seat!'

Things that students actually ask me, in order of frequency:
-'Miss, how old are you?'
Quickly followed by:
-'Miss, aren't you a bit young to be a librarian?'
-'Miss, where are you from?'/'What's your heritage?'/'Where do you live?'/'Was that you on the 196 to Brixton speaking in a foreign language on the phone?'
-'Miss, did you go to uni?'
Quickly followed by:
-'But if you have a degree why do you work here then?'
-'Miss, have you got a good man at home?' (Only ever phrased like this. 'A good man at home.' I mean. First of all, if I did have a boyfriend, he would not be a 'good man at home,' for a number of reasons. For one, he wouldn't be at home, and he definitely wouldn't be at my home, and then he also wouldn't necessarily be 'good', just quite nice and good at kissing and picking where to eat. So.)
-'Where did you get that?' about every single item of clothing I ever deign to wear. I always lie because sixth form can wear their own clothes and I really could live without Tanequa in Year 12 coming in in the same trousers as me on Monday
-'Are you staying next year?' said cautiously, as every librarian they've had before me has gone running for the hills after a few months. Can't think why.
-'Can I have a pen/paper/scissors/kidney?'
-'The printer's out of paper.' This is, admittedly, not a question, but I still have to deal with it, so it counts.
-'Can I leave my bag with you?' NO. I AM NOT A CLOAKROOM.

Really horrible/incomprehensible things the kids have said to me:
-'You're jarring, man' x 500
-'You're so extra' (yeah, I'm not sure what that means either...)
-'Shhh' (it doesn't work quite as well this way round)
-'I'm dead' (this confusingly doesn't literally mean that they have passed away whilst visiting the library and that I'll have reams of follow up paperwork to fill in and that they are miraculously telling me about their new state from beyond the grave. Rather, it means that something is funny or unbelievable or generally worth an exclamation of some description.)
-'Why you being a little snake?' (Said after I called for assistance during an actual bonafide physical fist fight.)
-'This woman!' (Me) 'I'm going to slam this laptop off her head!' (Not only did she not slam said laptop off anyone's head, I also got her excluded for the rest of the day. Snake fo' lyf.)

Really horrible/incomprehensible things I have started saying to the kids (I am almost definitely now my grandmother):
-'If you're just going to socialise then you can take it outside!'
-'Unhand that girl!'
-'Who's rustling? There's crisps in here! I can smell them!'
-'We are still way too loud!' (Don't know why I choose 'we' as my pronoun of choice; I'm never the one making any noise.)
-'That doesn't look like work to me!' (Said while looking at students having any form of fun, ever.)
-'I know books, not computers.' A lie. I know computers just as much as the next person.
-'You are all horrible and I hate you.' This makes them laugh, and then I laugh, and then at least we're all laughing for a second.
-'Let's all try to live in harmony, shall we?' (Who knows.)
-'What are your intentions today?' (I want to throw myself out the window whenever I hear myself say this one. They're 15-18 years old. They have no intentions.)
-'Shhh' (Often said at the top of my lungs, which, really, completely defeats the object.)

Really lovely, thoughtful things the kids have said to me that make my day and make me so glad I filled in that application on a floor and on a bus:
-'Miss, you're my favourite teacher.' I used to be pedantic and correct them, but then I realised it's not worth the effort. If I can be someone's favourite teacher without doing any teaching of any description, then I'll take it. 
-'Miss, you could do loads better than this job.' Not too sure what to make of that one, but I'll also take that.
-'Miss, you've got the best style.' This is said to me at least three times a day no matter what I'm wearing. I mostly wear jumpers and an array of high waisted trousers. I've worn the same loafers since January. They say 'I see you!' every time I do absolutely anything different with my appearance (I've worked out that this does not simply mean that they have 20/20 vision, but that they approve of what's in their eye line.)
-'You're cute.' (Said by the cutest 14 year old girl ever, so it means even more.)
-'Miss! I see you with your eyeliner on! Who you seeing? Where you going? Looking peng!' (Peng is still a thing, apparently.)
-'You've got a great face, miss.' That's all I've ever wanted. Some twat I was seeing when I was 19 once text me that I had a 'weak face' so fuck you, Saarah in Year 13 thinks quite the opposite. 
-'Miss, you look like Lucy from Made in Chelsea/Dakota Johnson/that goth in Eastenders.'
-'Miss, loving the new hair!' (I'd simply changed my parting.) 'Your baby hair's looking buff.' (I hate baby hair. Why are they even noticing baby hair? Why don't they read a book and stop looking at my scalp?)
And my favourite ever was when a little tearaway tapped his urchin friend when he'd raised his voice at me and said, 'don't speak to her like that. She's really nice and just doing her job.'

Hear hear.

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