This past week I retired from twenty years working as a school media specialist. I had accumulated lots of stuff in my “second home” over the years and for the last months I have been bringing home my books, pictures, and extra sweaters. I gave away many of the cute knick-knacks that teachers are lovingly given and threw tons of papers out.
I left a few things for last – the framed American Library Association poster by Stephen Kellogg that hung behind my circulation desk, my electric tea kettle and my gorilla, Booker T.
Yes, I’ve had an almost life size stuffed gorilla in my media center for the past fifteen years. I saved him for last because I wanted him there for my retirement party, since it was his retirement also. He is a pretty old gorilla.
Booker’s story starts in 1973 in Mooresville, NC. My older sister Anne had a boyfriend known as Big M, but whose real name was Jerry Miller. They dated during most of her high school years and the big black gorilla was a gift from him. The gorilla sat on her bed as she breezed in to change for her date or talk to her friends on the phone (the kind that was plugged into the wall). I’m sure there was some private joke between her and Big M about the gorilla, but I never knew it. Maybe he was supposed to represent Big M, and he did bear some resemblance.
Great big stuffed animals were a thing back then. I had an almost life size Saint Bernard that we got with the green stamps Mama got from the A&P. I remember sitting at the kitchen table licking those stamps and putting them into the books. It must have taken lots of stamps to get my Saint Bernard.
I don’t know if Anne’s gorilla was bought with green stamps, but he sat on her bed even after she went off to college at UNC-Charlotte. Like many high school romances, Anne and Big M were not destined to be. Their relationship ended, but she kept his gorilla close.
In January of Anne’s freshman year in college, my parents found out that her backaches were not caused by stress or poor posture when she sat on her bed to study, but from the return of the cancer that she had as a little girl. About the time we moved to Greensboro in 1975, Anne started chemotherapy. The gorilla was on her bed or on the floor, keeping vigil throughout those dark days of nausea, pain and drug induced sleep.
Anne lost her fight with the cancer a year later, a few months after her twentieth birthday. Our whole family and her many friends were stunned. How could this have happened? We slogged through the best we could.
Her bedroom at our house in Greensboro remained the same for years, her sewing machine in the corner, her clothes in the closet, and the gorilla sitting on her bed. But somehow life moves on after indescribable grief. I left for college and seminary, then to Birmingham, met and married Keith and we moved to Calhoun. Keith and I bought our old house and Adam came along. My parents moved Anne’s things out of her room and it was now Adam’s place to sleep when we came to visit. The sewing machine and gorilla were gone.
Right before Christmas 2002, Daddy died from the ravages of Parkinson’s disease that had taken away the dignified man I had always known. He had been Mama’s whole life and she was lost, her purpose for life gone. She knew she did not want to stay in the big house all alone and made plans to move to an apartment at Friends’ Home West in Greensboro.
On a rainy morning before Thanksgiving in 2003, Adam and I helped Mama clean out the attic as she began to pare down over fifty years of her life. I remember so well sitting in Daddy’s small office at the bottom of the attic stairs, surrounded by the smell of his cigarettes and the memorabilia of his life at Clemson, his time in the army during WWII and his career with Burlington Industries. I brought down the Barbies and Johnny West horses from my childhood and we had fun going through all the memories.
Then I saw something bound up in plastic dry cleaning wrap. It was Anne’s gorilla. I knew that Daddy couldn’t let him go. Considering that he had spent several summers in the hot attic, he was in surprisingly good shape. I took off the plastic, sprayed him with Lysol and carried him to Georgia, sitting in the front seat of my car.
At the time I was the media specialist at Red Bud Elementary School. I figured the little kids would love him. I took him to school and sat him on a little chair next to me in my reading area. We had a contest to name him and one of the boys came up with the name Booker the Reader, or Booker T. for short. There was a popular wrestler by that name and with his short stubby arms and massive shoulders, he did have a wrestler look to him. The name was perfect.
At the beginning of the year I would introduce Booker T. to the children and tell them that he guarded the books each night. The kindergartners’ eyes would light up as they pondered this possibility. Could it be true that this stuffed gorilla came alive at night?
For the next six years, Booker was a part of my library, along with a life size Big Bird donated by a teacher. He allowed the children to give him hugs and pat him on the head. At Christmas he wore a Santa hat and a red and white striped Cat in the Hat one for Read Across America week. He must have done a good job protecting the books, because they never got stolen at night.
In 2010 I decided it was time for a change and moved to Valley Point Middle School to be the media specialist. I was excited, but unsure about the middle schoolers, who seemed like a strange and unknown breed made up of hormones and attitude. I had not learned yet that they were just little kids trying to adjust to bodies that were growing and changing at alarming rates.
What should I do with Booker T? How would a stuffed, almost life size gorilla go over in middle school?
I told our counselor Anthony about Booker’s history and asked him what he thought about bringing him to school. “I think if you tell them the story, they will understand,” said Anthony. And that’s what I did.
Booker T came to the media center and sat on a little chair by the window. As I introduced myself to the students that first week, I finished by telling them why I had a gorilla in the media center — that he had belonged to my sister who died of cancer and that I thought my parents had given him away until I found him wrapped in plastic in the attic.
The students at my school were from mostly low-income families and many had known more heartache in their young lives than is fair. When I shared that I too had experienced grief at about their age, they quit being goofy for a few minutes and listened. I think they suddenly saw me as a real person, not just this white headed lady standing up there telling them not to tear up the books. Something shifted, just for a second. Some would come up to me later and tell me about a baby brother or sister who had died or a parent or grandparent. Booker added a touch of whimsy that broke down walls and opened up a connection that may have taken longer to forge without him.
For the last nine years Booker was with me at Valley Point, sitting quietly on his little chair. The middle schoolers didn’t pay him much attention, other than the occasional rowdy boys that knocked him over or picked him up off of his chair and wanted to try wrestling him. I had to patiently remind them that Booker was old and needed to be treated gently, and they soon lost interest. I never knew how much they even noticed him.
In my last week, a group of sixth grade girls made a poster for me to say good-bye. They included pictures of things that they thought represented me — cross country runners, a writing pad, some vegetables (because they knew I like to garden), a heart over a silhouette of a woman and children, books of course, and a picture of a gorilla. Maybe one day they will look back and remember that crazy librarian who had a gorilla in the media center.
Now instead of guarding the books, he can sit out his days at home, keeping me company and giving me the quiet encouragement he has for these many years.