It’s evening in Jackson, Tennessee. The sky looks like a Monet sunset. I am at the fairgrounds. About to deliver my one-man show from the mainstage.
Tonight’s event benefits local libraries in Madison County.
I have met many librarians today. Small, white-haired ones. Tall, middle-aged ones. Elderly librarians who smell like bath powder and wear Reeboks. Most of them are sipping white wine and giggling a lot.
And I love these people. Because I am a product of libraries. More specifically, I am a product of librarians.
I was 11 when my father’s suicide happened. I dropped out of school the next week.
It was simple, really. One day, I just quit going to school. At first it was pretty cool. I thought I was getting away with something outlandish. And I was. I was getting away with the destruction of my own future.
It was one of the stupidest decisions I ever made. Even worse than the time I was dared to eat a lizard.
My family’s personal life was in shambles. My mother was a mess. Everything was upside down in our world. I just quit. And nobody even noticed.
Those were different times. We were different people. But I never quit reading.
It was a summer day when I first walked into a tiny library to remedy my own mistake. I was a teenager. The library was an old converted one-story house. White clapboards. Shutters. Tin roof. Hanging ferns. The whole deal.
The woman behind the counter looked like Aunt Bea, only more so. She said, “Why aren’t you in school today?”
“I don’t go.”
She just looked at me from over her glasses. This painfully ridiculous boy before her.
“You don’t go?” she said.
“No, ma’am. I dropped out.”
She removed her glasses and looked at me. It was maybe the first time anyone her age had really looked at me. Not just glanced.
Looking back, what I find most interesting about all this is that she didn’t try to fix me. She didn’t try to convince me to enroll, which would have only scared me away. She didn’t suggest a GED program. She didn’t look down her nose at me.
She simply said, “My daddy never passed the eighth grade, sweetie. And he’s a very happy 90-year-old man.”
Then she smiled.
And just like that, I wasn’t a freak. Not to her. Not in this building. This was a safe place. This was a place free of judgement. In a library there is no status. Only books.
“What kinds of books do you like?” she asked.
I shrugged. “Anything.”
She led me to the biography section. Individual biographies were classified as 921 in the Dewey decimal system.
She rifled through a shelf of hardback spines. She selected a biography on Abraham Lincoln. She said she thought I’d enjoy it.
I took it home. I read it in two days. Abraham Lincoln was a beautiful human being. Self-educated. A hard worker. He never attended college. He went to school by “littles” he called it.
But mainly, Lincoln read books. He read until his eyes went bad. He became a lawyer. No law school. No Harvard education. No dorm rooms. No frat parties. Just books.
I think I understood what the librarian was trying to tell me. If Abe could do it. Maybe so could I.
So I read everything that sweet woman gave me. She gave me novels, Westerns, spy novels, romances, classics, pulp fiction. Books about history, literature, poetry, trees, traveling, art, and books on God. And I sincerely tried to read everything she suggested. Everything.
And when I finally enrolled in a high-school equivalency course as a grown man, my teacher asked how I managed to learn so much as a drop-out. So I told her, “I go to the library, ma’am.”
I still do. I always will. And I’m about to go onstage and tell these fine people what I just told you.
Ann Thompson - August 19, 2022 7:29 am
Thank goodness you walked in to that library, and that she was there!
Public libraries are vital to every community. Today they are access to computers, classes, meeting spaces, and books. Social work is a component that goes unsung in libraries. Funding here is by each individual town often leaving gaps in access. It’s vital to support your library.
Steve McCaleb - August 19, 2022 7:54 am
A library is one of those rare places where you are limited solely by the boundaries of your imagination.And thanks be to the MAN that guided you thru those doors. There is no such thing as blind luck. It’s all part of a plan. Believe it.
Melissa Red - August 19, 2022 8:38 am
I have great respect for you, Sean.
Ed’s Art Link - August 19, 2022 9:18 am
You done good!
Ed (Bear) - August 19, 2022 9:42 am
“You done good” was meant to be a compliment and funny in an Andy Griffith kinda way. I know how much you love Sheriff Taylor!
I was a school dropout too. Now I’m a happy 70 year old that loves you very much. And wants you to be happy too!
Thanks Sean for sharing with us and being such a hard and talented worker!
Lander - August 19, 2022 9:29 am
Bless her for not scaring you off. And bless you for being such a sponge. What a good thing to be able to tell these librarians. Bet they were thrilled. And you were able to encourage them.
Leigh Amiot - August 19, 2022 10:15 am
Blinking away tears.
The library was a refuge to me, too.
Patricia Collins - August 19, 2022 10:41 am
I’m proud of your accomplishments, congrats on being involved in the library. There’s a ton of wild cowboys, the Indians trail of tears, science and romance, adventures and lots of ancestry. I think you did a fine job !
Joyce - August 19, 2022 10:44 am
This story touched my heart. I love libraries. I love wandering the aisles scanning the rows of books, choosing random ones, reading the description to see if it piques my interest. I grew up in a small town library. My mom was a cook in a local restaurant. During the summer I would sometimes go to work with her and sit at a table in the corner reading until the lunch crowd started coming in. I would ride my bike to the library and spend the afternoon there wandering the aisles and reading. Libraries are magical places. Thank you for the story. I bet all those librarians loved you for it.
Debbie j - August 19, 2022 11:03 am
What a valuable lesson you just taught me
I am a fixer by nature
I should also do what your librarian did Just listen and encourage
Thank you Sean you are awesome!!!!
Love to all
Dee - August 19, 2022 11:04 am
Thank you from an old school librarian. I miss my job and those beautiful children every day. I always said I had the best job in the whole wide world. You are a gift, Sean Dietrich!
Cathie Fowler - August 19, 2022 11:10 am
I didn’t drop out, but have been going to libraries since 2nd grade. There’s something about being around all those books that just feels good inside. When I was young, the public library was next door to our school, and we would go after school and my mother would pick us up there. A lot of library hours, and I was hooked. Started with Nancy Drew and never looked back. Thanks for bringing up a happy memory. Have a blessed day!
Barbara Dawson - August 19, 2022 11:13 am
Thanks, from one of those little ol’ white-haired ladies.
Jocelyn - August 19, 2022 11:21 am
Libraries are the best
Cheryl Karpen - August 19, 2022 11:35 am
A reminder there is more than one pathway to find our true gifts and purpose. Thank you for the inspiration, Sean.
Paul McCutchen - August 19, 2022 11:39 am
Years ago I would take my book to the library just to read. It was always peaceful and quiet,
Andrew Miller - August 19, 2022 11:40 am
I wish I had known you were here! I live in Jackson and would have loved to have met you!
Babs - August 19, 2022 11:47 am
You entered a magic land
Britt Tolar - August 19, 2022 11:49 am
I grew up a poor farm boy from Southern Mississippi with learning disabilities. Since then, I have earned an undergraduate degree from Mississippi State and a Masters degree from Elon University in North Carolina. I have come a long way from Little River over the last 50 years, but I’m still the same rambunctious boy who ran the creek banks barefooted. I find such depth in your writings because it feels as though you have seen the world through my eyes. You are an extremely gifted writer. Please keep it up. It helps me to understand that I’m not the only one who sees the world from this particular perspective.
I raise my glass of Sweet Tea to you,
Lana - August 19, 2022 11:54 am
Sean, do you speak at schools? You should.♥️
1018le - August 19, 2022 12:11 pm
Sean, I am SO GLAD you love using words…and that the Librarian did not judge you, but instead, encouraged you! And look where it has taken you! My first introduction to you was in the book, “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” I loved the book; it is one everyone should read! And I am so glad you use this blog to share your thoughts on paper (well, in the computer.) I look for your email every day, because you have so much goodness to share! May God continue to bless you, as I can see that He has already done so! Thanks for your words! 🙂
Trent - August 19, 2022 12:29 pm
Sally Ann Sisson - August 19, 2022 12:43 pm
We had a library annex 4-5 blocks from where my children and I grew up in Green Bay, WI. It was a dark red brick house that at some point in history had been donated to the library. On Saturdays, my Mom and I, and then years later my children and I would walk to the library, and visit Miss Schultz, the llibrarian…. I NEVER remember going there without her at the desk! My daughter and I talk about those days frequently!
Lori - August 19, 2022 12:45 pm
And then you and the Mrs met Susannah Lewis!! I think I am going to start a Change.org petition so you and Susannah will do a book tour together cause this country needs two people with common sense to pontificate about life, learning and lurve.
Amy - August 19, 2022 12:49 pm
The timing of this is so comical and yet supernatural. I have been struggling with doubts of my ability to homeschool my children, I have been doing so for 2 years but the first year was painful with work sheets and text books. They weren’t having any fun and neither was I. So mid year I started a Charlotte Mason style of learning where we use “living books” we read and read and then read some more. I have always wondered if this way of teaching is enough, after reading this post I know they’ll be just fine!
sjhl7 - August 19, 2022 1:15 pm
Another thing we have in common … I spent much of my childhood in a library especially during the summer. Reading is all I did. I traveled far and wide to countries I had only dreamed of before … all through the books I read. As an adult I have been able to fulfill some of those dreams by actually visiting some of those countries for which I am thankful. I am even more thankful for the books and the libraries that ignited my desire to read and learn!
David Britnell - August 19, 2022 1:16 pm
Awesome testimonial to libraries and librarians! You’re still my favorite writer/blogger!!
Sharmen - August 19, 2022 1:57 pm
Oh….what a blessing to hear you talk of Libraries as “safe places”! I am a School Librarian and LOVE what I do mostly because of people such as you who come to the Library because they might not fit in anywhere else. They come seeking information, but often they are seeking more. They are seeking the discovery of who they are and what purpose they have in life. I appreciate and love that you champion Libraries. I am overjoyed and proud that you are a product of strong Librarians and good Libraries.
Priscilla Rodgers - August 19, 2022 2:08 pm
Aw! This brings back so many memories of libraries in grade school and jr high. Term papers and research in high school and college. When I married and moved to rural Oklahoma there wasn’t an actual library. We checked out books though the mail. Now I buy books, have a huge stack to read, with a bigger wish list. Oh for the love of books!
Anne Parrish - August 19, 2022 2:10 pm
When I moved to Birmingham from a small south Alabama town, what stopped my heart was the wonderful library consortium our county has. There’s even a botanical library at Birmingham Botanical Gardens. The only one in the US. I call the Hoover Library the Taj Mahal. Just fabulous. The Vestavia Library in the Forrest is like being in a tree house. Best of all, the librarians themselves. I love talking with my librarian who does the book club to get her recommendations for books I might like. You’ve moved to the right city, Sean. Birmingham is a great place to love on libraries!
Gene Ansley - August 19, 2022 2:12 pm
As the son of a librarian, you are right on. Libraries and books are SAFE places.
Richard Owen - August 19, 2022 2:16 pm
Hate to be a downer but I wish that ALL libraries, big and small, were like what you wrote here. The same is in this woke society some libraries are bringing in men in drag to read during the children’s hour.
Makes me extremely sad.
RichardC - August 19, 2022 2:29 pm
Sean, my Dad graduated from 3rd grade; my Mom from 8th grade. From day 1 they drilled into me that I had to get a college degree and I did, graduating with High Honors from Auburn University in 1974 with a degree in Chemical Engineering. Library books were instrumental in helping me achieve this goal. I lived out in the “woods”, nowhere near a Public Library, but we had a Bookmobile that came by once or twice per month. I think I read every book on that old panel truck. Thanks for stirring up a great memory.
Krista - August 19, 2022 2:34 pm
I work in a university library, one of those behind-the-scenes jobs, getting non-English books on the shelves. It hasn’t been easy lately–we are extremely short-handed–but hopefully it is making a good difference.
William Jones - August 19, 2022 2:37 pm
Hey man! I was watching the local Jackson news when my wife heard me holler out…”HEY! THERE’S SEAN!”…Who? The guy I read MY stories every day…Ha, I’m a Respiratory Therapist and leave the clinic every day ,same time to reset my brain and wash it out with your column. I appreciate you, keep up the good work! Darrell Jones, Mckenzie Tn
Jannie Bryant - August 19, 2022 2:50 pm
I never stop reading, still enjoy it immensely. Never made it to college, stupid decisions for stupid reasons. The simple joy of reading, whether it’s one of my favorite magazines or a book, never fails. If you go to a library, it’s free!
DAVIS DAVIS - August 19, 2022 3:13 pm
Such a beautiful story. God sends us angels when we lest expect it !
Anne Godwin - August 19, 2022 3:17 pm
I’m thankful you met that librarian. It illustrates the difference one person can make.
Sue Champaign - August 19, 2022 3:28 pm
Love, love , love this!!!
Jackye Thompson - August 19, 2022 3:31 pm
Thank you for your Library essay I love books too. All kind of books old and new. Blessed day. Jackye
Chasity Davis Ritter - August 19, 2022 3:41 pm
I bet you made those ladies feel pretty special last night. I always say our teachers are heroes but so are our librarians. God bless each of the ones who really care and take precious red headed boys under their Angel wings and help them find the potential inside themselves. Love this so much!! Have a great day Sean!!
Walter Mark Buehler - August 19, 2022 4:02 pm
Thank you, another heartfelt humbling story about the fulfillment of human potential.
Betty F. - August 19, 2022 4:21 pm
Thank God for the librarians and teachers who didn’t put us in boxes or dismiss us.
Rebecca Souders - August 19, 2022 4:37 pm
Bless you, Sean, for this one. Our libraries are one of the last places we can go without any pressure to spend money! Love your work…. don’t stop.
Mary Damron - August 19, 2022 4:51 pm
Love this article. I only have a High School education, but I have learned so much from reading all kind of books.
Susie Flick - August 19, 2022 5:35 pm
I love libraries – have since childhood when we’d take the bus downtown to the Rock Island Public Library. My Mom never learned to drive, so our transportation was the bus or walking. My Dad at that time was an over the road truck driver, so gone during the week, home on weekends. Anyway, I still have fond memories of the large building, going inside where during the summer it was always cooler than outside. (before air-conditioning) We’d all walk down the stairwell to the children’s room in the basement. In the alcove before entering the room, there was a display case with all these doll houses with furniture and people. Another display had tiny china dolls dressed like Red Riding Hood, etc. The displays mesmerized me. We’d check out books, go home and I’d start reading. I was lucky to have a tree house in the apricot tree in our backyard. I would climb up the ladder, book in hand and “hide” amongst the leaves and read all summer long. Now, my only child, my daughter, is a librarian where I live now. She is in charge of all the programming for the main library and it’s 3 branches. Busy woman and she also organizes music once a month at once branch – on a Sun afternoon – free music by local and traveling musicians. This gives persons a chance to hear live music without going out at night or to a bar. I have a pile of books on the chair here checked out and enjoy having a book in my hand. I love libraries!
Patricia Stanfield - August 19, 2022 5:44 pm
My grandfather only had a sixth grade education yet became the head mechanic for a large company that made snack food in Atlanta, Georgia. He could fix anything. Some of the smartest people I know have had limited formal education. And I know some people with years of college who amaze me with what they don’t know! Thank you for stirring up this memory of my Papa.
Pat, Eastern NC - August 19, 2022 5:58 pm
God bless that sweet librarian who didn’t try to fix you. God bless you for sharing stories of your past. My daddy went through the eighth grade and never could pass the GED. But there was nothing he couldn’t do- built his porch, plumbed and wired the house, worked on cars, drove wreckers (best driver in the area), helped care for my grandparents (his in-laws), volunteered as an auxiliary policeman, became a full time deputy/supervisor in the jail, and most importantly was kind to people (even helping many who were released from jail). He was wise beyond others. He passed away 9 years this month, and I miss him every day. Your writing brings back such good memories of him. God bless you (and Jamie).
Beth - August 19, 2022 7:06 pm
I am on the board of my local library and enjoy sharing your columns about libraries and librarians with my fellow board members. It helps us to remember why we do what we do.
Patricia Gibson - August 19, 2022 7:19 pm
I love libraries. Have a special place in my ❤️ heart!
Catherine Pratt - August 19, 2022 7:35 pm
So glad that Jackson, TN got to hear what you have to say about Librarians and Libraries. My daughter graduated from Union University and one of her best friends from school became a librarian in Humbolt. I email her when I need a book recommendation. I have fond memories of my elementary school library’s story time, getting hooked on Little House on the Prairie books and being introduced to The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. When I could ride my bike to our local library I found free entertainment by waving that wonderful document-the Library Card. I admired your local librarian for introducing you to great minds. I admire you for being willing to learn, and learning how to write so we laugh and remember those that helped us when it was hard to laugh. You’ve got a gift, Sean. Thanks for sharing!
Barb - August 19, 2022 8:44 pm
Great story! Hope your audience loves it.
I’ve been writing my blog now for 2 years. Hope to be as good as you one day in story-sharing.
Helen De Prima - August 19, 2022 9:02 pm
Your first library sounds like the twin of ours in St. Matthews Kentucky. There were a couple of rocking chairs on the small front verandah. A liberal-arts education is available debt-free at the nearest library.
dbdicks430 - August 19, 2022 9:24 pm
As a retired public school librarian, I LOVED this post…my goal every day was to get the right book into the hands of each child who came into the library. I preached that if you read, you will succeed…and you’ve proved me right.
Thanks for your writing. It’s the first thing I look at when I turn on the computer every day…once I read what you’ve written, I’m ready to face the messes that keep coming in our lives.
Bless you, Sean.
shirleyrferguson - August 19, 2022 9:48 pm
I still remember the closed in, quiet sanctuary of our local library. Dust motes floated in sun raysthat penetrated the high windows. My parents dropped me off while they got groceries when I was a child. The Bobbsey Twins and Nancy Drew bored me by the time I was eleven. Mrs. McCready led me to the adult section and introduced me to Jack London and Daphne du Maurer. I was spellbound. Hooking my legs across the arms of a living room chair, my headrest the other arm, my own recliner. As our church librarian I get to buy books and charm folks in for a reading experience. Although my Dad left school in the fourth grade, he was an avid reader, devised his own math system, read blueprints and was a carpenter foreman for a small building company. He read all of Louis LaMour and Zane Grey. In retirement he and my mother, a retired RN read so many books that local library awarded them with a reception with their photos in the Birmingham News and a nice write up. Long live Libraries!!
Michael - August 19, 2022 10:06 pm
Sean, this brings back memories of riding my bike a few blocks to the Carnegie Public Library in our small town. The librarian showed me how to look up a book in the card catalog, write the book number down on little slips of paper she cut up from old sheets of stationery, and find it in the tall shelves of books. Now, sixty years later, I try to help our small library out here in the country, and our volunteer librarians are passing on the baton. And they still use a very well maintained card catalog!
Jim - August 19, 2022 10:11 pm
So glad it worked out.
MAM - August 19, 2022 11:08 pm
Libraries and the books found therein fill the minds of kids with magic. I know books filled my mind with not only the magic of travel, but the magic of made-up stories I created (and still do!), although nowadays I write more accurate and factual stories for my online news source. I, too, read every Nancy Drew in our town library. Although my tastes have branched out since then, I still love mysteries, but only if they “turn out right.” Thank you, Sean, for your everyday delight.
Linda Moon - August 19, 2022 11:38 pm
Teachers and librarians….we love it when people read and learn, especially you! So, thank you for telling us.
Slimpicker - August 20, 2022 2:31 am
That reminds me about Benjamin Franklin who started the first library.. I read that in his biography.
patriciasimmonstaylor - August 20, 2022 4:27 am
Libraries are wonderful places to escape the stress of this world! If you can read, you can do just about anything. Thank God for Librarians like this lady. She was a precious Gift in your life! Thanks for sharing this special story.
Susan H Poole - August 20, 2022 4:42 am
The main thing that dear “Aunt Bea” librarian did was to esteem you as valuable and she didn’t shrug you off. She pointed the way & encouraged you, Sean. Now, all these years later, your readers thank the Lord because we are constantly encouraged by you. Thank you, sir.
Donna McChristian - August 20, 2022 4:50 am
My daughters used to joke that I would eventually get kicked out of our library. I haven’t yet but I’m still young, ish. There’s still the possibility. I get high on book ink. Old ones, new ones, leather bound, fabric, fiber board, plastic, it matters not to me. I’m particularly fond of the ones that make that crisp sound and the ink is fresh and intense. I think I’m the first sniffer of that one and I really like that thought. Sometimes I don’t even read them. I stand in the aisles and open one after another, trying very hard not to be noticed, judged, kicked out, or sent to book ink rehab for my shameless habit. I visit libraries when I’m out of town, I visit used book stores, I hope one day to step foot in the Library of Congress. I don’t really know why, it just sounds fancy. And guarded. I would be quite proud to get kicked out of that one.
Julie M Williams - August 20, 2022 11:30 am
Beautiful story. I quit school at 15, pregnant and afraid, young and stupid. I got my GED 2 years later and when to nursing school. My Mom instilled my live of books when I was quite small. I spent many a summer day curled up in a chair at the library with my book for the day..
PecosKate - August 20, 2022 12:01 pm
Great post. I’ll bet the librarians will think so as well.
CHARALEEN WRIGHT - August 21, 2022 11:06 pm