On Teaching by Mira Dougherty-Johnson


Five Laws of Library Science
1. Books are for use
2. Every reader his/her book
3. Every book its reader
4. Save the time of the reader
5. The library is a growing organism

—S.R. Ranganathan


            The halls whirr with life now. The buses have arrived. There are teachers four deep waiting to use the copier. They need me to find books on genetic diseases, websites on “just” wars, and what was that thing we did a while ago with my ninth graders? A wiggi? A quiggi? A wiki, I suggest. That’s it. Can we do one with my tenth graders too? On global economies? There’s a paper jam. Looks like the toner is almost out. You don’t mind if I just grab some paper do you? I need a book for Timmy. He refuses to read anything. His mom is a nightmare and she’ll call. She’ll call again. Can you suggest something on his reading level that he won’t reject? My kids are devouring those Spanish books—do you have any more? I need something good to read. My mother-in-law just read something great. I can’t remember the title, though. Do you think you have it? Do you have any books on maps? Bridges? A large color illustration of medieval life in a castle? Can I borrow your watering can? Batteries? White-out? This computer doesn’t work. How do I print double-sided? Which one is the colored one? My kids need help with their citations. Have you seen Mike?

            Meanwhile, my “readers” slip in and out. They can see I have teachers to handle, so they leave notes on my keyboard. “Took the next one tx, j.” “Can you get me more Warriors pls!!?” “3xA12100086753Pl –Lara.” Mostly, I can decipher these. Sometimes I can’t, but I know they will be back. I know that it matters most that they are getting what they need, that they know how to get what they need. Some teachers, I realize, frown at this. They hate to see students sitting at my desk while I am across the room hunting for books. They can’t stand it that kids are rifling through my drawers for a pen, leaving with books that have not been officially stamped and dated.

            Sometimes I wonder at myself too. This is an intricate dance. I can talk a good game about advocating for youth, about student accountability and responsibility, about the complicated process of becoming a valuable human being, and I believe every word I say as I am saying it. There is more, though, if I am being truthful. It is the aliveness that I seek, Ranganathan’s “growing organism.” It is, perhaps, the adrenaline that is driving me. The risk I take every time I respond to necessity, to stimuli. Every time I engage in an unscripted collaboration. Will the bargain be upheld? What unspoken promises have we made to one another? What move will you make and what is my reaction? How long can we keep this charade up? Until it becomes real? A learned response? A behavior to count on?


Moments are the smallest indivisible vessels of time because they are the expression of indivisible elementary sensations, so called moment signs. For the human being...the length of a moment is one-eighteenth of a second. And the moment is in fact the same for all areas of sensation, since these are all accompanied by the same moment sign: Eighteen vibrations of the air are no longer perceived distinctly but rather heard as a single note. It has been shown that human beings perceive eighteen impacts on their skin as an even pressure.

-–Jakob von Uexküll, A Foray into the Worlds of Animals and Humans


            I have been trying to incorporate more non-fiction into my life. There’s been a sea change in the standards, all these studies proclaiming that reading sustained non-fiction makes students smarter. Library collections are now supposed to be 70% non-fiction, 30% fiction. English teachers are supposed to read more newspaper articles and charts with their students. I find myself mesmerized by some of these books, but like 90% of my high school students, I never read them straight through, never follow the argument start to finish.

            I do like this idea von Uexküll propounds that a moment can be articulated and measured, that moments are relative, that different species perceive time at different speeds. Using slow motion and time-lapse photography, scientists figured out precisely when that particular frame speed all of a sudden meant the beating of a bird’s wings or the blooming of a flower. For fish, who turn out to perceive motion more slowly than we do, a black and white warning disk rotated near their food and a light blow was given as they approached. Snails, who perceive motion more quickly than we do, had to negotiate a path between a bowl of water and a stick to climb on, all while getting bonked on the head.

            I feel like one of those creatures in a quest after time. I know there will be some light blows, some reworkings of a path, however, there will also be a tempo, a momentum, a stringing together of enough small inseparable occurrences at the right velocity to create something indissoluble. I think I know.


            I have a twin brother. We were born almost an hour apart on either side of midnight, so we have separate birthdays. Though we were practically inseparable as children, we also have amazingly disparate memories. I have given up calling him to ask about a particular event, a timeline I’m trying to piece together, a detail that is maddeningly blurry. Do you remember when Dad yelled at Samuel Freedman and his mom Sandra got so mad she started throwing strawberries against the just painted wall? Was that the summer that Sandra rented a house and it was so hot we kids filled up garbage bags with the hose and just sat in them, the water subterraneanly cold and our arms trembling over our heads as we held the black plastic high? Or did that happen years earlier before we even moved?

            Samuel, he will say, Samuel never came out here. Maybe for a weekend and I don’t think Dad ever yelled at him. He yelled at us, that’s for sure, but I don’t think he ever yelled at Samuel. Dad took us fishing once, to tag the bass in the Hudson. It was in the city and when we got out of the Land Rover, Samuel slipped in shit or puke or something some drunk had left and Dad let him wear a towel all day. The fish were all too big for us to reel in. Maybe we were seven? Older? We played on the pilings—remember what big teeth Samuel had? They were just so big—and Dad caught all these fish, tagged them, and let them go.

            But Samuel did come out here. There are photographs to prove it with a house in the background, small and clapboard, and us in bathing suits, staggered stances and wielding a hose, water burbling from the end of the hose, silver and in motion and impossible to photograph. Subject to such subjectiveness, our memories are no longer real as soon as you try to make them stand still. Like those fish my father caught years ago, such a great exertion to pull in so many, to touch them all, affix small plastic tags with numbers written in black Sharpie. And, he, just one of many, a small iota of the story. Fishermen all over tagging, scientists and laymen all over gathering. And, yet, so many fish untouched, so many still shimmying along the cool dark water. It was enough though. Enough data, enough evidence to help the striped bass population recover. Enough to draft new laws, set new limits, enough for a happy ending.

            I wish for a way to chart this course, but I am angling too. There are no written guidelines here, no suggested percentages, just the dredging and skimming of water.


            When I hear her damp breathing, I put the books in my arms down, there on the windowsill, under an overgrown spider plant. Jess Jaskulski, adenoidal and big boned, shuffles into the library, her just showered hair scraped back in a tight bun. “I can’t talk today, Mrs. Johnson. Physics test.” She has just huffed up the stairs and now shuffles her way through the overstuffed shelves, her backpack high on her shoulders, red and pink notebooks pressed to her chest. She takes a craggy breath. “Just wanted to let you to know,” and here she drops her voice down to a dramatic whisper, “Kaylee again.” Her zealously plucked eyebrows waggle from behind her dark framed glasses, her silver heart shaped earrings clang around her neck.

            “Thank you, Jess,” I touch her shoulder. She salutes, and I make my way over to the far door, away from the crowded copy machine. When Kaylee Kavanaugh comes, her eyes are raw and glistening. She is angry and terrified and miserable. I don’t get a lot of details. Her parents are fighting, and she can’t stand to be at home. Her dad yells and yells and she can’t take it anymore. I let her rage and moan and then give her another late pass. I press a book on her too. A new one, not even processed yet. She’s a reader, it will be solace. And she will no doubt need a new one tomorrow.

            There are some kids in my school that are always clean and groomed and dazzling. They have clothes that are new and that fit them. They have beautiful leather shoes, brand name handbags, and amazingly white, straight teeth. I am slightly in awe of them. I hope I do not provide services differently to them. I still worry I will never be like them. It is the Kaylees I recognize myself in. The ones with greasy hair and erupting skin, the too big pants, the too small shirts, the grubby jackets permeated with the smell of fry oil. The ones with the same backpack year after year, whose stomachs growl in the morning, in the afternoon, whose eyes flit quickly, never resting, a brightness diluted with shame. These are the kids I have come back to. These are the kids I need to understand most.


            I need to send an email. I am not altogether lawless. It is my duty to report Kaylee’s tears to the school psychologist, the school social worker as well. They need to document this event, put a notation in her file, maybe even call her in. I can give her time, I can give her books, but legally I am bound to share the burden with other powers that be. As my computer stirs itself to life, I flip through the local newspaper. The front page has a story on ospreys, reports that their migration has not been successful this year. Of the four locals that were tagged, only one signal is still strong. There have been hurricanes in the Caribbean and accounts of shootings in Cuba and Hispaniola.

            Kaylee’s father is a commercial fisherman. He takes both kids out of school on opening day of striped bass season, usually around tax time. She counts down the days that whole month. He has wide, thick fingers like my dad did when he worked construction and dark smudges that never come off.

            I don’t even know what files on kids look like. I’m sure I don’t want to know, yet for the tiniest moment, I am caught up in wondering what my file said about me. Free lunch kid with taciturn father? Bossy mother who won’t leave well enough alone? Smart but has a difficult time speaking up. Walks to school in the rain? Shoes with holes again?


And the motive for recording these scraps of the past?…a desire to reduce a chaos of experience to some sort of order, and a hungry curiosity. We cannot love others, so the theologians teach, unless in some degree we can love ourselves, and curiosity too begins at home.

—Graham Greene, A Sort of Life


            Every solstice and equinox we gather on the beach. We have done so since we were children and were displaced from city to country. My family and one other and then a motley assortment of whomever else is kicking around. It is always the same beach, 62 Steps is what we called it when we first got here, named for the staircase built into the bluff, fencing away the shiny tendrils of poison ivy. Fifty-nine Steps, 69 Steps, it is now most commonly called 67 Steps, though the stairs built after the hurricane last fall are just 48. These might last longer than most, the honed edges have green tinges, pressure treated with Chromium Copper Arsenate. CCA—my father taught us to recognize this early on, never to put it in the burn pile.

            The elements are always the same. The rocks, the sea, the sun, a fire, and firewater, a bottle to pass around, a swig also offered to the sea. During the summer solstice, in June, it has been crowded, neighbors from their second homes, weekend guests from the city, but, in the winter, it is just us. Cheeks bright in the wind, noses running, gloved hands on cold glass, stamping our feet by the fire on this Permian metamorphic bedrock, this debris left by a Paleocene glacier. The rocks on this beach are beaten smooth, quartz mostly. I gather the white ones, bleached like bones, cold and palm-sized. There is just time to balance a stupa on a large pink-tinted outcropping, a small tower of seven stones, for my childhood family that used to be five, for my eight grandparents who are now only three, for the four of us. The orange sun slides down, lapping the water’s glossy edge, the same as it did when flowers began to invent themselves eons ago. We have given ourselves the job of bearing witness, we think we matter to the progress of the sun.


            During 4th period, the first of four lunch blocks, Maggie Miller shows me her tattoo. Thin inky blue, a delicate grapnel anchor on her upper inner wrist, the spot where the radius and ulna gap away from each other, where her skin is impossibly smooth. It points up, the tines en route to her elbow, the shank dragging toward her wrist. Her grandfather was buried a few weeks ago with his tattoo, an anchor on his bicep, Semper Fideles on the banner above.

            I like to think that Maggie Miller is what I looked like when I was eighteen, but I know my skin was never that milk-and-honey; my hair never that silky, that blonde-white. My grandfather, the one who is still alive, has an anchor tattoo too. At sixteen, he ran away from home to join the Army and came back a few days later with a blurry anchor on his arm, dark blue braids of ropy snake twisting around it. Sometimes he says that he planned to get the snake fully fleshed out, to have it arc over his whole arm, ending in a rattlesnake tail on his pinky.

            There is a crowd of girls around my desk in the library now. They are pretty and giggly and this is their one free period of the day. They want to know if I have any tattoos. They are sure I must. I want to say yes so that I don’t disappoint them, but I don’t. It is not until later that night, when I am asleep, that I suddenly and urgently remember that I do have a tattoo. A pancake-size circle at the small of my back. It is brightly colored, yellows and greens and reds with elaborate writing, but I don’t know what it says. I don’t remember what it means. I can’t believe I have forgotten it and I twist, Tantalus-like, to see it.


            The 7th grade has come in to find Greek mythology to act out. They are fired up, free to move their limbs, roam about undesked. There are not enough books for each of them, so they clump together, leaning in so their heads arc and almost touch over the tables. The rest of their bodies are splayed out and frenetic. Their feet jiggle, their mouths wag, they cannot seem to control their arms or fingers at all.

            There is always a Zeus and an Aphrodite, an Ares and an Athena. The alpha kids rush to their teacher first, staking their claims, already laurel-wreathed and well armed. The rest look up in a panic. What has just happened? Omigosh, we’d better hurry, and they start scanning the pages, their memories, their arcane souls. That is when the unearthing begins, when the children start digging and strike deep a vein of gold. The alpha kids are slightly bewildered there on Olympus as they watch the hum that happens when mere mortals alight upon Nyx goddess of night, Morpheus god of dreams, Tyche goddess of chance, Proteus shape-shifter, Momus god of blame, the tales of Andromeda, Persephone, Pandora.

            The version of the Pandora story I like best is when Hopelessness is the one ensnared. I never understood why Zeus, eccentric as he is, would have put Hope in there among all those evils. I like to think he got his categories straight and it was Hopelessness in there along with Disease and Poverty and Hunger and Deceit. So it is not Hope shut in a box for humans to possess, it is Hopelessness, with ragged breath and a crushed wing, that is trapped within, kept safely inside so that it does not overrun.



Mira Dougherty-Johnson is a writer and librarian currently at work on three different projects: Recapitulation Theory, a meditation on how stories are collected and shared, Poppy Lives Here, a coming-of-age novel for young adults, and Here There is No Place That Does Not See You, a travelogue chronicling her family’s challenges and adventures during a Fulbright year in Germany.