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Books at the Center

“We’re going to put books at the center,” the woman in charge of my interview said.

Books at the center.

“Can you tell me how your professional life brought you here? To this position.”

I retold a story about stories in books, not always quite, at the center.

What struck me in the days after the interview was the opening provided by this total stranger, the opportunity for story. For my story told without expectation, measurement, judgment of success, or lack thereof.

At the height of COVID, I told my supervisor I could no longer answer the question, “How are you?” I wrote a blog post about, “Synonyms for Fine”.

Too many layers. Too many possible value judgements. Interviews are usually much of the same. They are the ‘how are you?’ of achievements.

This interview was the first time in my recent memory that a job was asking for my story, honestly. Although maybe this wasn’t the first time in a long time for story. Outreach and programming often craft a version of a story to increase a perception of the protagonists’ impact. But, maybe this was the first time, in a long time, the job was part of the story I wanted to tell.

Me in the center.

The memory of the fairy tale returned. I had just seen the notebook from our staff writer’s workshop. I had been rummaging for a different piece of paper. I knew what was in the envelope taped inside the back cover. The note I had asked my staff to complete for their own ‘ends’. The message I had written to myself about happy endings.

In that fairy tale, the heroine unbound the pages; she reordered them so that the end was a beginning. Choice. Choices. Choose to be happy.

Joy (in books) in the center.

“Erin knows her books,” the woman noted somewhere towards the end of the interview.

Yes. My story had always been comprised of books. Choosing a ‘who’ for myself and others. Chapters marked and traced through connections to them. Somewhere in the middle the questions about how we choose became the most important question.

Sometimes. I found the lists. Sometimes. Lists were written for me. Most recently, I was learning to read again. This time in Hebrew. Most of the time children's books, often equated with learning to read, were not for me. The shadow of those I had taught using books meant for them and yet not returned. I bought a book about a curly black haired girl wanting cake to increase my ability and bring my niece and I together. In that simple picture book, I could read very little, and she was more interested in scary dolls than smiling little girls.

Picture book language was not so universal. Still, 'books' like those my mother used to write and staple on scrap paper, remained the opportunity to share a story and be heard. What is a story? What is a book? This week I realized my most important story was a 3rd grade math problem my niece wrote about herself and the words my nephew imagined aloud to match Hebrew text on the pages. I celebrated understanding and my father celebrated while understanding nothing at all.

(Open) Books (are) at the Center

“We’ll get back to you with next steps. Hiring likely in December. Start date in the new year.” The interview ended in the most traditional of ways. But, it had not been like any other. Not just any story. At least not for me. I too told a story I chose to someone who wanted to listen.


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