If there ever were a palace, and a queen to reign within it, it was Miss Gifford at the Northbrae Library in Berkeley, California. I walked into her court with awe. On all sides of her throne were festoons of books. To her right sat the picture books. I never tired of Bartholomew Cubbins, nor the sights on Mulberry Street. I chuckled every time I opened Blueberries for Sal to see the baby bear eating from Mother’s bucket. I loved the logic in A Hole is to Dig, the witty responses in What Do You Say, Dear?
Miss Gifford placed the chapter books to the left of her throne. The first time my father helped me to leaf through the pages of Mr. Popper’s Penguins, Miss Gifford approached and spoke in a dramatic way, “Why Ann, you must be ready for a library card.!” I practiced over and over, carefully fitting my name within the little square asking for a signature. That accomplished, I found it difficult to select only five books a week to take home. There were the books about Freddy the Pig, the wonderful doughnuts in Homer Price, and my favorites, Betsy, Tacy and Tibb. Miss Gifford believed it did not matter I only came once a week, and devoured my books before the week ended. “Just read them a second time,” Miss Gifford instructed in her rather imperial tone.
My favorite books, the non-fiction ones, resided under the window. I checked out the bird books over and over. The bright red cardinals and the golden-yellow finches pictured between their covers seemed more wondrous than any fiction book I’ve ever read. Once I asked Miss Gifford when I might be able to see an indigo bunting. “Aaah, Ann,” Miss Gifford intoned, “Those birds all live east of the Mississippi River. They can’t fly all the way to Berkeley.”
I also treasured the geography books. They sat with rigid drab-colored spines and few black and white illustrations. I had no need for pictures. The author’s descriptions of the Grand Canyon, the autumn trees across the Blue Ridge Mountains, gave them all the color, the textures worthy of any jewel in this palace. When Miss Gifford read some of these books aloud to me, she imbued them in a cloak of mystery beyond their physical presence.
Miss Gifford cloaked herself in dress as drab and modest as the books over which she ruled: Long dark-colored dirndl skirts and hand-knit monochrome sweaters, wire-rimmed glasses, mousy brown hair. It was her eyes which served as precious jewels befitting the queen she was. Little wrinkles creased their edges. I remember, with love, how they sparkled as she spoke of her beloved subjects, her books.
She came for special visits to our elementary school. On those occasions, she held court in a corner of the classroom. It seemed to me sunbeams found their way to her seat in our otherwise drab classroom.
Many will speak of their favorite teacher. I had Miss Cooke, my kindergarten teacher who cast my entire class in a gay nineties revue, and let me be a beautiful doll to my boyfriend’s dapper top-hatted gentleman as the class sang “Let me wrap my arms around you, I can hardly live without you.” Mrs. Nelson, my 11th grade biology teacher and sponsor of the Parapsychology Research club, picked me up at my home on meeting days so we could have a record player as a part of our research projects.
How lucky I was to receive the gift of a favorite librarian. Miss Gifford shaped my life and my love of reading in a way no teacher ever did. She treated me as if I were one of her treasured subjects. She always knew I could read. Sometimes she pointed out a word in one of her books to me, explained its derivations, its roots. And I could always read.
As a child I told everyone I wanted to grow up and become a librarian just like Miss Gifford. I believe it was her influence which led me along a tangled path which included becoming a reading specialist.
Ann Metlay was born and raised in Berkeley, spent 40 years teaching special education and reading, and moved to Cottonwood 5 years ago. Ann is involved in many forms of creativity, including teaching workshops for the Camp Verde Community Library, and is watched over by two mini dachshunds. She is the author of a book of short stories, It Happened in the Cottonwood Library Parking Lot.