Janis Ian's Address to School Librarians
Remember Janis Ian? Cool singer/songwriter from the 60's who describes herself as "Northern, white, Jewish, gay, female, vertically challenged (and an) artist", now living in Nashville TN for the last 23 years. She addressed librarians there recently (thanks to Valerie from Somers Library for the tip!)
"I didn’t realize I was a freak until I started kindergarten. The teacher began showing us how to print letters. I raised my hand and asked to be excused, saying I already knew how to read and write and would much rather be reading. The teacher called me a liar, and made me stand in the corner for the rest of the afternoon. I was outraged, and complained bitterly to my mother when I got home.
The library saved my life. The librarian, Mrs. Anna Baker, was my first true friend – someone who listened carefully, responded truthfully, and gave me every scrap of knowledge she could muster through the books she controlled.Fortunately, my mother was also outraged, though at the thought of anyone calling her child a liar. She came with me the next morning, talked to the principal, and thereafter – provided I made good grades – I spent most of the writing hour with my nose buried in a book.
My father had what I now know was a rare and enlightened attitude toward my reading. A teacher himself, he believed that if I read something beyond my scope, I wouldn’t understand it, and it wouldn’t hurt me. If it was within my scope, I would understand it – and it wouldn’t hurt me.
As first generation Americans, my parents understood all too well the power of literacy. In Russia, my grandparents were not permitted to attend school. Fortunately for them, they were Jewish, a religion that insists on education – in fact, the first thing we’re taught to build when we begin a new community is not a place of worship, but a school. Because of this, they were literate in Hebrew, Yiddish, Russian, Ukrainian, French, and finally, English. Looking at my own mono-lingual skills, I feel like a pauper compared to them!
My people understood the power of literacy because they saw, over and over again, that education was the key to a future. The Portuguese say, “Knowledge does not occupy space.” As a hunted people, expelled from one country after another through the ages, the Jews had learned that lesson well. My grandmother often told me that gold could be confiscated, money could be lost – but knowledge was forever.
So my grandparents, and my parents, encouraged me to read – everything and anything, from Batman comics to My Side of the Mountain. My nickname as a child was “Why?” People would ask my mother how she could stand it, the constant questioning – my father even got a part time job selling encyclopedias so he could buy one for me and give my poor mom some time off!
But even when my omnivorous curiosity presented difficulties for them, they continued to support my quest for knowledge. Who knew where it would lead? We were in America! Maybe I would become a great scientist, like Einstein. Maybe I would become a professor, or a doctor – all the professions denied to my forebears in Russia. Whatever I became, they were sure books were key. "