The Rockwood Files: The Inquisition

By Gwen Rockwood, columnist and mama of 3

I think it was seventh grade. I remember lining up with my classmates in a very still, silent library – the kind of quiet that makes the buzz of the overhead fluorescent lights seem loud by comparison.

I can’t remember the librarian’s name, but I still see her face clearly in my mind. Her skin was the color of Hellmann’s mayonnaise and her hair was jet black, pulled back into a small, tight bun. She wore black framed glasses that sat on the end of her nose and were held around her neck by a delicate, silver chain. She was tall, thin and the most serious-looking woman I’d ever laid eyes on. Her “shush” was so severe and so scary that it could make a timid seventh grader nearly pee her pants. Not that I would know.

Sometimes we’d be sent to the library for an entire class period – about 50 minutes. Perhaps the teacher needed a break from the classroom full of 13-year-olds and the swirl of hormonal chaos that typically surrounds that type of group. To pass the time, the librarian created a game for us to play. Not a fun, rollicking kind of game – it was a silent, serious game that matched the tone of the room as well as its host.

The game revolved around the Dewey decimal system and the card catalog. She was deadly serious about making sure we knew our way around the card catalog since it would be our roadmap for finding information we’d need throughout life. Little did she or we know that, only two lightning-fast decades later, the card catalog’s importance would pale in comparison to knowing your way around an Internet search engine.

The trail of seventh graders lined up alongside the bookshelves that led to the center of the room where she sat at her desk, the way a stately queen presides over her court. With a stack of cards in her hand that she’d handpicked from the card catalog, she would beckon the first kid toward her and discreetly show him the face of the card. “Author card, title card or subject card,” she’d ask in a monotone voice, with no hint of the answer on her stoic face.

“Subject card?” the kid would answer hesitantly.

“Incorrect,” she’d say. “Sit down at the table.”

So the kid would sit down and be told to put his head on the table so as not to have any kind of fun or make silly faces at the rest of us while we were waiting in line for the inquisition. We’d inch slowly toward her desk, waiting to see a card and answer her question. If you answered correctly, you were allowed to go to the end of the line – a “last student standing” kind of thing.

The game itself was not hard. If you’d paid even an ounce of attention during the card catalog lecture, it was pretty straight-forward. Nevertheless, the line of students dwindled down to just a handful after about 40 minutes. When there was only one kid left, there was an inaudible group sigh of relief because the game and the waiting were over. It was nearly time to return to the classroom. But first the victor would get the spoils.

The winner would stand by the librarian’s desk and watch as she put down her stack of cards. Then she’d open one of her neatly arranged desk drawers and retrieve a pair of medical gloves, slipping them on quickly and silently. She’d reach in the deepest, darkest drawer and bring out a large bag of M&M’s that had already been opened but folded down to keep it closed. She’d carefully open the bag, reach in for a small, silver spoon and scoop up one – and only one – M&M and extend it toward the card catalog champion.

She’d tell the winner to hold out her hand, as she dropped the coveted candy into her palm, and then she’d dismiss her to rejoin the group seated at the tables. Game over. It was very dignified, very quiet and very hygienic.

We all used to joke about why in the world we stood in that line since the prize was one lousy M&M out of a bag that had probably been stowed in her desk for a decade. Why not just give an incorrect answer on purpose, skip the whole game and hope for a short nap while the other kids stood in line?

Perhaps only the winner could answer that question. Because the real reward came the second before the librarian dropped that M&M into a hand – when her face softened for just a moment and her eyes flashed a distinct look of approval. It only lasted a second but that silent message spoke volumes and left a lasting impression on me – that the real point of any competition, and perhaps of life itself, is to prove to the world and more importantly to yourself, that you can do what you set out to do. And even more – that you’re pretty darn good.