The man at the front of the room wears canvas shoes that are worn through on top where his toes bend and a gray beard that, while neatly trimmed, reminds me of various breeds of terriers. His voice is a gentle tenor, but he does not make much of an attempt to sing as he leads us in a round of “Open, Shut Them” or, later, “Where is Thumbkin?” He is the only man in the room full of babies, toddlers, preschoolers and young moms. His age, his shabby shoes and matching cardigan, and his reserved demeanor make him seem an odd choice for the library’s storytime leader. I wonder, How did he get here? Does he even know how to talk to a child? Where is the spitfire little lady with exaggerated facial expressions whose impersonations leave the kids in stitches? But none of the children seem to notice that the man looks out of place, or even that he looks like he feels out of place.
And that may be why he is actually the perfect choice for such a position. Noise and tantrums do not ruffle him. He does not excite the children with voices or silly games. He is constant, unflappable, and, it seems, nearly invisible to the children. They sit or stand in rapt attention as he reads from the day’s selection of books, their eyes never leaving the pages. When he breaks between for a “song” (or chant) the children remain mesmerized, possibly unaware that the story has ended. It is mostly because of the mothers’ encouragement that they do not stay seated in a hypnotic daze when he leads us in “The Hokey Pokey.”
The daze is only broken when the books are put away and the cabinet that houses the toys is opened. The storytime man moves to the opposite side of the room, and while the kids pull out the blocks and puzzles and cars and begin building towers and trains to be torn apart by the plastic dinosaurs that inhabit the top shelf of the cabinet, the moms look on and listen for the storytime man’s voice again as he takes attendance, and notes whose turn it is to pick a free book. Occasionally there will be polite corrections if he’s forgotten the names of a particular family, or anxious waiting as he cycles through the filebox where his attendance cards are kept.
But once the filebox is put away, and the free books are all spread out on the table for the taking, he slips out. The room, with its rows of blue plastic chairs strewn with coats and diaper bags and moms chatting and feeding babies, and blue low-pile rug strewn with blocks and dinosaurs and cars and puzzle pieces and children talking to themselves, seems indifferent to the little terrier man who, in his humble, reserved way, tamed and dominated it while somehow remaining virtually invisible.