Lyndon B. Johnson was president when I was a little girl. I grew up in Springfield, Massachusetts, a once thriving industrial city that was faltering by the time I came along. My local elementary school was beautiful, built during the better times, but its basement was horrible. The stinky restrooms were down there, and so was a scary furnace. When my fourth-grade teacher asked me if I wanted to work on a special project in the basement, I said yes, sure, but I thought, yikes, oh, no.
She directed me to a room that I had never noticed before. It was freshly painted, newly carpeted. Shelving had been installed. Boxes of books sat on tables. What is this? I asked an unfamiliar grown-up and, by the way, who are you?
I’m the new librarian, she told me. The president of the United States has decided that every public school in the country should have a library.
My gratitude to President Johnson was immediate, but it took me years to realize that he had opened up a path for me. The brand-new books I unpacked that day led to more books in more libraries, good grades in strong public schools, a history degree from Dartmouth College, a career in children’s book publishing, first in New York and then in Boston, a life full of books – for myself and my family – and a third act as a writer of children’s books.
All these good things, of course, might have happened to me if LBJ hadn’t been president, if Congress hadn’t boosted funding for public education, if my school hadn’t created space for a new library, if my teacher hadn’t asked me to go down into the basement, if I hadn’t said yes.
You never know what might have been, but I do know this: I’m so glad I said yes.