Thursday, June 8, 2017

Library Voices

by Giselle Renarde

Once upon a time I was a teenager at the Toronto Reference Library.

A friend had introduced me to this edifice downtown, far from the wilds of suburbia, where books were housed, of course, but in addition to books they had all sorts of other media.  Oh sure, so did my local library, but the difference with the Reference Library was that they had listening booths. 

My friend showed me how to select a CD to listen to (a CD!  I didn't have a CD player yet!  This was really the future!) and check in with the lady guarding the listening booths and put on headphones and sit... and just listen.

We were both big on Broadway musicals, so we both picked out musicals to listen to.  I don't remember what she selected, but I picked out a musical called City of Angels.  I'd never even heard of it.  To this day I remember nothing about the soundtrack, but I remember the experience.

I wasn't the kind of kid (or teen) who went out with friends very much. I had too many family responsibilities, plus the cost of going out was prohibitive. To get to the Reference Library, I had to take a bus and a subway, and, while my mother covered the cost of my transit fare to and from school (I went to a high school that was out of area for me, a good hour from my house), any time I wanted to go anywhere that wasn't school-related it was my responsibility to cover my transit costs. 

Part of the reason I didn't go out with friends much is that the things they wanted to do cost money.  I was saving my money for university.

From the time I could write words on paper, every year at Christmas I would put the same one item in my letter to Santa: a university education. My parents hadn't gone to university.  My grandparents hadn't finished high school.  I would be the first in my family to get a degree.

You'd think a mom would be proud that her child had such lofty aspirations, but something else won out over pride with my mom--either pragmatism or crab-bucket jealousy, I don't know.  Every year she'd laugh at my letter to Santa.  She'd say, "If you want to go to university, you're on your own. I'm not paying for it."

I got my first summer job when I was 8 years old.  Picking berries. Same first job my grandfather had 58 years before me.  He earned half a penny per pint.  I earned 25 cents. Thank you, inflation.

But that money didn't last long.  Because the thing about living with a substance abuser is that sometimes they steal from you. Sometimes they steal every penny of berry picking money you earn. Babysitting money, birthday money. Addiction breeds desperation.

It's true what they say: life isn't fair.

And, you see, this is why it was a very difficult decision to go out or not to go out: can I afford to spend $1.35 on transit fare?  It'll take a lot of dollar-thirty-fives to add up to a university education.

So, more than not, I stayed home. 

But that day, when my friend invited me to the Reference Library, I decided to go out. Of all the friend-dates a person could go on, the library's a pretty good one.  And not just because it's free, although that's an attractive quality for sure.  It was more the fact that we could sit side by side at listening booths and just... listen.  No talking allowed. 

Libraries were different back then.

Not being allowed to talk can really be quite freeing.  People found me standoffish as a teen, but that's really because I had so much shame about my family of origin.  I didn't want people trying to get close to me and discovering what was behind the facade.  I didn't want people asking questions.

My friend didn't ask me a lot of questions. I didn't ask her questions either. I knew it was just her and her mom.  I didn't ask about her father because I didn't want her to ask about mine.  By that time my mother had a restraining order against him. He lived in a motel room in a small town, but he often swung by our place to break into our house, destroy our belongings, and threaten to murder us all.

One time my friend invited me to her place when her mom was at work.  She wasn't supposed to have people over, but her mother would never know.  It was kind of exciting for me to take the streetcar to her neighbourhood because she lived in a gentrified area with lots of quirky boutiques.

As it turned out, her house was one of the forgotten left-behind ones.  It was the tiniest house I'd ever seen, just two small bedrooms off one main living area that incorporated the kitchen. There must have been a bathroom somewhere but I can't recall seeing it.

The bedrooms had carpeting, but the main room was just a dirt floor covered in pine needles.

My friend transferred out of my school in Grade 10.  I heard she went to an alternative school, but I don't think she lasted long there. In Grade 12, I went to a university fair at the convention centre and there was my friend! I hadn't seen her in two years. I was overjoyed to see her again. I loved her in a way I still hadn't learned to express.

But she wasn't attending the university fair as a prospecting high school student. She was working it as a security guard. She'd dropped out of high school. She hoped to return at some point but she and her mom really needed the money and, well, you know how it is...

After working part-time and summer jobs throughout high school, I was able to afford my first year of tuition at the University of Toronto, but it was tight. Throughout university, I think I spent more time working than studying.

When I finally had that degree in hand, it was really a non-event. Aside from my grandmother, nobody in my family seemed to care much about my achievement.  But I never expected them to.


  1. Wow. I had no idea, hon. I know it's too many years too late, but congratulations! A degree should be something to celebrate, especially when you work so hard to overcome circumstances and make it happen.

  2. This story is both pitiful and inspiring, Giselle. I hope you're as proud of yourself as you should be.

  3. My small-town library felt at least as much like home as my house did. I had a job there, too, my last couple years of high school, but I'd have hung out there anyway. I may have learned as much in the library, even though most of the books were pretty old, as I did at school. I'm really glad you found some degree of solace, at least, in a library.