By Ray Ceo Jr. | Edited by Lisa Schulman
In loving memory of Phyllis
I was a mighty eleven years old, and had received my first D in reading.
My stepmom determined in that very moment that no child living under her roof was going to receive a D in reading. So, she, being a reader herself, packed my little sister and I into her little white two door car that was almost as old as I was, and off we went to the library.
We had just moved into our newly built house in, what was, at least at the time, a rural suburb of Phoenix. The sweet smell of cow dung hung in the air in the evening, and next to our small subdivision was a farm where I would later almost be shot for chasing sheep with a friend.Our house was one of the first to be built in this subdivision, so, all around us were plotted out parcels with no house built just yet. Occasionally, you might find a wooden frame structure erected, standing like bones of a skeleton, waiting for skin to be sprayed on in the name of stucco.
And even though my little sister and I were now residents of this suburb we still attended our little neighborhood elementary school in the neighboring town, a neighborhood that was far too rich for us where the houses were already established by young parents, who worked at big tech companies, and who hadn’t yet divorced and remarried, blending two families together, making beautiful colors like green and orange.
When we arrived at the enormous library, I was awestruck. I hadn’t seen a library so large in my life. Growing up in a small town in northern Arizona, our libraries weren’t built like this. At least, not at the time. When we walked into the library, the floors looked like they were made of marble and I was captivated, and I do mean captivated, by this intricate sun and moon design that took your breath away as it pierced through the two floors, like it had no boundaries and the sky was literally the limit.
My stepmom had a mission and that was to find me some “damn books you like, so you actually read them,” she muttered under her breath, pulling me along, while my little sister already had her nose in a book.
Like many parents, she too was frustrated with the Accelerated Reading Program that limited, by points and grade level, what we could read. The points seemed arbitrary to her, and the selection of books were unimpressive. Some of them, she thought, weren’t appropriate for kids my age, either beneath me or far too advanced, and most of them, we both determined were just dull. As she pulled at my and my little sister’s hands and dragged us up the stairs to where the youth department was we skipped elevator because “that just will take too long and we got books to read.”
I didn’t know then, but I was about to meet the woman who would change my life forever.
My little sister had always been a reader and so it was of little surprise that, as soon as she could, she snuck away to go fend for herself like a bird that had already been pushed out of the nest and flapped it’s wings, flying aware. Meanwhile, I was still falling flat on the cement and one more attempt at pushing me out would like mean I’d fall to the ground in a splat Needless to say, I was reluctant and didn’t know where to wonder.
Instead of leading me to find books herself, my stepmom dragged me up to the desk in the middle of the room where sat a decent-looking guy my closeted eleven-year-old self eyed, and next to him was a woman with dreadlocks, whose glasses and long nails intimidated me.
“This is my stepson; he has no attention span, got a D in reading, and needs some books he actually enjoys. I am pretty sure the Accelerated Reading program has driven any joy of reading out of him. What do you got?” my stepmom asked the pair.
The man, with his curly hair, looked like a rock star and I was star struck. But it was not he who replied.
“You had best get your act together young man, or I am going to whoop your head with this book,” she said. She didn’t look at my stepmom. She didn’t look at her colleague. Instead, this woman I had never met, threatened to beat me, and she did so by piercing right into my soul. Her eyes locked mine and I felt my knees slightly weaken. I was unsure if she was joking, or being serious and was alarmed my stepmom and the rock star man next to her didn’t seem even remotely bothered by the threats of physical assault this lady was making towards me.
I smiled. She did not smile back. I don’t think she was joking.
“I would recommend you take this book right out of my hands, so I don’t feel tempted,” she said, still not smiling. The book, not terribly thick but a hardback, had a brown cover with a picture of a boy in glasses appearing to be riding a broom on it. I was not sold, because the book was heavy and I didn’t want to have to carry it, but I didn’t want it to be banged against my head by this stranger either.
While I obliged merely because this woman seemed overly serious about this, I think she could tell I wasn’t impressed by the cover in the least.
“I don’t really like fantasy,” I said.
My stepmom rolled her eyes at me. The man just looked at this lady with the dreadlocks seeing how she would respond.
Now, I’ve been yelled at by one parent or another most of my life, and they’ve all given me a look before, but none could compare to the look this fierce black lady threw my way. I don’t think she expected me to tell her I didn’t like fantasy or that I even knew what fantasy was. She most certainly wasn’t expecting me to have any opinion on the matter at all, for that I was sure.
“Can you believe this kid?” she asked, turning to the rock star coworker who sat next to her.
My stepmom took this as her cue to ditch me, so she could go find her own books. And she left me there, shaking in my shoes.
Rock star coworker smiled, likely saving my life, and giving me butterflies that pierced my inner gay. “You have no attention span, huh? And you probably want to read books about real people, people you can relate to?”
I nodded. It was as if he knew me, I thought. Like we were destined for a life spent together.
“Here, this is a book of short stories, all written by guys,” he said, pulling out his bookmark, checking it in with a thud of the machine, and handing me the book.
I turned back to the woman to hand her back her book.
“Oh no,” she said, looking rejected. “You’re going to read both those books. And next week, when you come back, you’re going to tell me which you liked better. I want to hear all about it. And I want to know why you liked the one you choose, so you cannot fool us. I’ll be right here; my name is Phyllis. And I’ll be waiting for you.”
I was somewhat flabbergasted. The way she said waiting for me was dark and twisted like if I didn’t come back she would find me and drag me to that very spot to demand I give her an oral book report.
“And what’s your name?” she asked.
“Raymond, uhh, Ray, Raymond Ceo.”
“Well, Mr. Ceo, Mr. Raymond Ceo, you’re going to learn to love it here. This is the library, after all,” she said with a wink. The way she emphasized library I remember to this day. She obviously loved it in that place.
I walked away, overwhelmed with what had just happened.
Somehow, I had been assigned not one, but two books to read.
I found a corner, tucked away with a plush chair, and opened up the book Phyllis had assigned me. I figured I best get her book out of the way. “Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much,” it read. And I was instantly hooked.
When my stepmom finally came to retrieve me, I had read about the Boy Who Lived, and felt more connected to a book than I ever had. On the way out, when we checked out the other books my little sister and stepmom were getting, as well as the one other one I was assigned by the rock star, I continued reading, so immersed in fact, that I didn’t realize the book in my hands didn’t beep on the way out though I hadn’t actually checked it out.
By the time we made it home, Harry Potter was accepted to Hogwarts, and arriving to our newly built home, I thought about when my letter might arrive, and when I might finally find out when I too would be let in on the secrets that made me special and powerful.
I finished that book before the week was up. I didn’t want it to end.
I had been so captivated by Harry’s first year at Hogwarts that I had only read one or two short stories assigned to me by the rock star librarian, but I knew, I just knew, that the lady behind the desk had worked a spell on me and this book, and in some grand conspiracy she had gone and turned me into a reader without me even realizing it.
When Saturday rolled around the following week, my poor stepmom couldn’t get me to stop bugging her about the library. I had many points of interest I had been planning to discuss at length with Phyllis, as well as this Harry Potter character. She wanted me to read it, so she would have to endure my incredible detailed discussion points and precisely what I thought of Hermoine, Ron, and He Who Shall Not Be Named.
When I got to the library that afternoon, I headed to the second floor of the library to return the book to my new favorite librarian.
“Mr. Ceo, Mr. Raymond Ceo, I knew you’d be back. They always come crawling back,” she said. She was alone at the desk, but obviously had a sense of humor that was more in line with my own than I even realized at the time. To this day, I blame my somewhat sardonic use of wit and twisted humor on this lady.
“I wanted to return this to you,” I said.
She looked at me, looked at the book, and seemed offended.
“No, no sir, that’s your book. That was a gift for you. You keep that book.”
I was taken aback by the kindness. Short of a book my third-grade teacher had given me, which she had to since my parents gave her money and it was a book fair and all, I had never been given a book before. And never a book that was a hardback and a book I enjoyed.
“Thank you,” I said. She smiled.
“You’re welcome. Now, we are going to talk about this book at this book club discussion, next week,” she said, as she handed me a flyer. “I expect you to be there.”
I nodded and, because there was a line forming behind me it, I said my farewell promising to be back.
What turned into that one book I read because of her, became a series, and then a bookshelf, and then a book row, , and before I knew it, twenty years had passed by and I was working in a library. And when a kid came into the library, unsure what to read, I had a cabinet of used Harry Potter books I had bought through the library’s book sale. When necessary, I would grab one and hand them out to kids myself, threatening them just as Phyllis threatened me, and scared me into being a reader.
I don’t know if it was the book that connected us, or her attitude of not taking shit from me or, as years of getting to know her proved, anyone; but that was most assuredly the only D I ever got in reading, and she was indeed the best librarian I ever did meet.
In loving memory of Phyllis and dedicated to every member of Phyllis’s Army.
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