(This is a longer one, but it’s worth it.)
For a little over a year, our older son and I rode the train into Washington DC to the nearest public library story time.
We did this twice a week, no matter the weather, because the librarian, Philip, and the story time he orchestrated was that good.
I have thought often about why these 25 minute chunks of time were so consistently valuable to us. Here is what I’ve come up with.
Philip’s thoughtful preparation of the gathering was always evident. Each story time was similarly structured but never was it stale. It balanced predictability and variety in a way that oriented and delighted us. Each session had a taste of music, typically accompanied by an instrument he would play, as well as a book or song in a language other than English. His book selection represented excellent range and subtle humor as well as a general protection against the insipid volumes that too often characterize children’s literature.
And his execution of each session was similarly full of care. When leading the alphabet song, he would slow down around “L, M, N, O, P,” so that the children, for whom the letters were new, could distinguish them individually. He would always read the name of the author and the illustrator so that we could find these or similar books later in the library. He would often show up early to tune his violin or ukelele, and afterwards, show it to any child that might be around. His demeanor during the story time was gentle, friendly, and engaging, no small feat since the room was filled to capacity with 100 or so children and adults, carrying themselves with varying levels of courtesy.
It occurred to me often that he could not have always felt like doing this. But he did. He did show up each time with remarkably consistent emotional endurance. This consistency poured the love of language and music into our son.
How was Philip able to show up as he did, with tender endurance, and so constantly?
I think it was his formation, in college and graduate school, as a musician and conductor. For years, he dedicated himself to works of beauty and imagination within the musical form, and then shared that beauty in (perhaps imperfect, and so daringly vulnerable) performance for the enrichment of an audience. We were seeing, 25 minutes at a time in that room at the back of the library, the fruit of his immersion in musical excellence. He also has worked for years as a youth orchestral conductor and so, I must imagine, is primed to believe that young people are capable of a richer interior life than we often perceive or acknowledge. Perhaps he looked at us, from his little plastic chair at the front of the room, as an orchestra of sorts in which artful language would grow richly and play out over a lifetime.
The fruit that Philip’s talented endurance has borne in the life of our son is remarkable to consider and difficult to quantify.
From the time he was barely verbal, our son would hold story time in our living room, bracketing the session with Philip’s “hello” and “goodbye” songs, and lovingly displaying for me each page of each book he had chosen. (There were usually about 30.) He continued to do this months after we moved from Greater DC, and he knew more of the books’ words each time.
He often sorted his books into “Mr. Philip books” and “Non-Mr. Philip Books” and the familiarity with these titles and authors helped him navigate the shelves of any library. (I even came into his room last week, now almost two years after our last story time, and he had selected a stack of “Mr. Philip” books and was paging through them.)
I was not in the least surprised, then, when my son and I both cried after we said goodbye to Philip following our last story time, days before we moved.
So. Let us never underestimate the value of showing up to our work consistently with tender endurance. Indeed, it may be one of the most important decisions we will ever make and will certainly bear more fruit than we know.