Mrs. Hartwig, the librarian, nightmare of every high schooler. Her white hair gathers in a nest at the top of her head, where vultures find a home. Her beady, black eyes pierce you through thick rimmed glasses perched on her ancient nose.
Mrs. Hartwig’s territory encompasses the library and study hall, clearly marked by a barbed wire fence. There is no mistake that you are trespassing on her lands when you enter. Signs are posted everywhere. No gum chewing. Keep your eyes on your books. Mouths in a closed position only.
And, God forbid, should you ever try slipping through that fence with a book not properly checked out, the barbed wire rips your clothing, grabbing your flesh. You will need a tetanus shot.
Mrs. Hartwig found me one day simply wandering the stacks of books. What are you doing?
I was just looking for a book.
Well, what do you like to read?
I stumble over words of not really knowing what I want to read or even like to read. In the silence that follows, she sizes me up imagining how my measly brain would taste fried for supper; Follow me.
I obey, accepting my fate as one does at fourteen.
She stops in front of a section of books I have never seen before. Quickly scanning, she pulls out a book, yellow covered. It is a book of poetry. One of my favorite authors. Madeline L’Engle. Read it, then tell me what you think. She walks away. I clutch the book to my chest. And I hear it — a gate swinging open, creaking on a very old barbed wire fence.
Mrs. Hartwig is the high school forensics coach. Students who endure the rigors of her military camp, emerge as the top speakers and thespians in Wisconsin. I decide to enlist.
I imagine doing a dramatic reading, one of those poems I have fallen in love with. Mrs. Hartwig has other schemes in mind; Extemporaneous Speech. I have to look that word up. I am a freshman. And she expects me draw a random social topic out of a hat. And in one hour prepare and deliver an eight-minute speech. And use only one note card. I can’t. My meager brain plans evasive maneuvers, even if it means having flesh torn from my bones. What are a few flesh wounds compared to a slow sputtering death in front of judges?
Mrs. Hartwig blocks the door; You can do it. I see it in you. Reaching in her librarian drawer, she pulls out a pair of wire clippers. Motioning me over, and with great patience and care, begins to snip the barbs off the fence of my fear. My mouth is free. The boundaries are no more.
Ruth Zwald has served as chaplain, pastor, and social worker. She has huge gardens on a farm in Michigan. When diagnosed with breast cancer, Ruth began unearthing thoughts, and loving reconnecting to this creative use of language. Her poetry has been accepted in the upcoming, “Voices de la Luna,” and “Bloodletters.”