He was a giant to me. I was eleven, and he was an overweight, middle-aged librarian. He always seemed gruff and grumpy. Reading glasses were perched on a head of curly black hair. A tie loosened just enough for the top-button of a crisp, white dress shirt to be unbuttoned, adorned his torso. He spoke the language of Dewey decimal and Microfiche. In the days before Google, it was the school library that needed to be perused for research, and if you couldn’t find what you needed, you had to ask the librarian, Mr. Goldman. And to an eleven-year-old boy he was a surly, giant of a man.
To say I was awkward at the age of 11 would be a gross understatement.
I was beyond awkward. I was thin, gangly and accident prone. My feet were large, my arms were spaghetti-like in girth, and my ears stuck out like two satellite dishes on a baseball. In addition to that, I got my first pair of glasses in my eleventh year of life. Now this was before glasses were cool and trendy. No, this was back when wearing glasses was decidedly uncool, and my first pair were heavy duty enough to withstand a jackhammer should I ever fall prey to a random attack by villainous construction equipment.
Thus, I was the target of the jokes and barbs of my classmates. Monikers like “four-eyes” and “geek” were hurled in my direction. I was the victim of being tripped in the hallway, “kick-me” signs and an innumerable amount of spitballs. I hated school, especially middle school. My escapes were art and comic books. In my art I could control my world and my surroundings. In my comic books, the bad guys always got their comeuppance. I could escape into these places without fear of judgment or ridicule.
This is why I loved the library. When library day came around I found a corner table. Spider-Man kept me safe. My drawings of spaceships and aliens never betrayed me. I found refuge in the quiet of that book-filled room, until he walked over to me.
“He” was the librarian, AKA the giant. Little did I know, but he had taken notice of me and my reading habits. He seemed unapproachable. Other than the “Hey, quiet down!” I had never really heard him talk. But today he had words for me.
“What are you reading there?”
I sheepishly held up my latest comic book. His quick eyes noticed my open sketchbook. “So, you like fantasy stuff?” I shrugged my shoulders, for the socially awkward this is the universal sign of, “I guess so.” He nodded and pulled a book off the shelf near where I was sitting. “Here, give this a try. It may not be Star Trek, but it has a lot of adventure and it’s a good read.” I cautiously took the book and gave it a cursory glance. It featured a drawing of some dwarf-like creature on the front. The pages were yellowed and softened by years of use. I scanned the back and instantly decided I would put it in my bookbag just to return it, unread, a week later. Surely this “Hobbit” could not stand up to my masked marvels. As if reading my mind, Mr. Goldman parted with these words, “At least read fifty pages. Give it a chance.”
Later that day, I pulled out the worn paperback. The scent of old books was strong, and I began to read. Sure enough, a week later I turned in the book only to ask if this Tolkien fellow had written anything else. With an all-knowing grin Mr. Goldman became the supplier to my burgeoning book-habit. He opened the doors to places like Narnia and Terabithia. Stan Lee was slowly replaced by Jules Verne and my sketchbooks began to try to capture the characters of Jack London and H.G. Wells.
Over the years as he moved up to the High School along with my class, our book talks evolved. We discussed our shared passion of baseball. We discussed the similarities and differences between his Jewish faith and my Christian worldview. He asked probing questions, questions that were meant to help me think more than dissuade me from my views. I once handed him a short story that I got an “A” on in English to read. He returned it, scrawled all over in his handwriting with suggestions, questions and topics to research to make the story even better. I found that I valued his critique and advice more than any other teacher. And, of course, he kept me supplied with books.
The library became a sanctuary for me, a safe place from the cruelty of children and the hardships of teenaged life. I knew I could go there and find a friendly face, a sympathetic ear, and a good game of checkers. He treated me as if I was special. He gave me a reason to keep coming back to school. And I wasn’t the only one. Many a student found their way to Mr. Goldman’s desk through the years, and they all were made to feel like they were worthy, like they were special, because to him, they were.
Today, an empty spot is left in that library and in my heart. When I heard of his passing, I was saddened, for this world needs more Terry Goldmans. It needs more men who can look past the surface and see the value of an individual. It needs more teachers who not only know that words have power, but empower their students with words. It needs more soft hearts to look out for the awkward and not-yet-confident. It needs more Gandalfs to push us out the door of our comfort into brave new adventures. It needs more friends.
Shalom my friend. I pray that you are at peace on this last voyage. Thank you for shaping the chapters and stories of so many lives. You will be missed. You were truly a giant to me.