Dana was in my first Teen Advisory Board. She had blue-black hair and striking green eyes. She reminded me of a friend I’d had when I was her age, which was thirteen. She wore heavy eyeliner and mascara, which I knew from experience wasn’t in an effort to highlight her features, but to somehow mask her true self, to try on a new image so see how it fit.
She wore tons of bracelets, and t-shirts of bands that broke up before she’d been born. I adored her, and today I have no idea where she is. It was 2006 when I met her, which means now she’s a bonafide adult, out of the brain development stage. That is, if she even made it out of her hometown alive. Where she was born and raised had (has) a knack for stealing the spirits of young people and tethering them into the ground, unable to leave, unable to see beyond the borders of their county. With one road in and one road out of the county, options are limited. Especially if you’re without reliable transportation.
Where I spent my coming-of-age years wasn’t known for its exciting events or educational standards. Instead, it was like so many rural communities that teenagers pine to escape from – a highschool nicknamed Cow Pie High, and where gun racks adorned most trucks. (A classmate of mine was once called out of class to explain to county police why there was a rifle in the truck he’d parked that morning in the school parking lot. He casually explained that he’d been hunting all weekend and forgot to take it out. Hunting is so common that his punishment was missing Chemistry class so he could take the gun home. No one thought twice about it.)
Dana didn’t hunt. She wanted to explore music and self-expression outside of the confines of a rural community. But she was thirteen years old and didn’t have access to anywhere or anyone outside of her community. Broadband Internet didn’t exist in that area – and parts of the region still rely on unreliable dial-up service – so Dana and others used public library computers to connect to people, music, and communities outside of her own.
Luckily she also found solace in the Teen Advisory Board. I’d traveled extensively as the child of a Marine, as had a couple other TAB members, so all of us came to TAB from different perspectives. I’d ask the group what they wanted from the library – in terms of space, programs, and services – and Dana would let the others go first. She didn’t have any ideas because she’d never seen other libraries. My branch had been her only understanding of public libraries for thirteen years. She didn’t know that libraries were creating teen-only spaces or that there were libraries that employed teens as collection development recommenders.
The years I spent in that library system, the first years of my library career, were crucial in establishing my understanding of and love for serving youth in libraries. Dana’s inability to express her desires for how her community library could serve and support her laid the framework for what would become my professional mission: to advocate for and amplify the voices of teens and young adults.
I’d love to know if she’s doing well now. I’d love to know that she explored (is exploring) the world, that she has seen other communities than the one she was raised in. If I return to that library, will she be working there? Plucking her books from the Holds shelf on her way home from work? Regardless of where life took her after I left in 2009, she stays in me as I write for this blog, as I speak to librarians on understanding and supporting teen patrons, and as I wonder how I can continue to teach adults to “get” teens.
What was it that solidified your professional mission? If you don’t know, perhaps you haven’t found it yet. If you’re feeling untethered to your profession, reminisce on those early days of your career, or on the last time you felt excited about going to work. Dissect that feeling and find ways to feel it more often.