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The Because Project: Amy Cunningham 

"I am a curious and avid reader because of Iris Keith, a great librarian."

Page Memorial Library is a small, gray stone building in downtown Aberdeen, N.C. It is a historic, romantic, slightly spooky space — very different from the air-conditioned ranch houses and strip malls that made up most of my childhood world.

The building was one big, slightly U-shaped room, with the young adult section tucked into a nook by the entrance. (I can visualize exactly where The Chocolate War was shelved.) The circulation desk, where Iris Keith held court, was front and center. I think I was in the fourth grade when they extended the hours and we started visiting regularly.

Iris was the real reason that the library was special; we always said that we were "going to see Iris" — not "going to the library." She was a beautiful, wrinkled grandmother with a sparkle in her eyes. She had her own casual sassiness: think Annie Oakley as a senior citizen. She told great stories and had an independent streak. When I'd spend time with my grandfather after school, visiting Iris was our favorite activity. I'd read magazines and do homework while Papaw and Iris would trade stories and discuss the state of the world. I realized years later that they were polar opposites politically, but I never heard them argue.

Iris was my own personal reference librarian and academic cheerleader. I'll never forget the night she stayed with me after closing as I tearfully finished the most daunting and scary assignment that my 12-year-old self had ever encountered — a five-page report on Ireland with a bibliography and note cards. She helped me reach the "I" volume of the Encyclopedia Brittanica — the big one, not that lightweight Junior series. She sat with me at the table and read to herself from the material I had spread out, "hmming" with interest as she discovered something new about the potato famine.

I was already a voracious reader by then, tearing through Judy Blume books years before I understood all of the juicy parts. I suppose I was on my fifth reading of Harriet the Spy when I got my first library card. My teachers and family had already instilled in me a strong foundation of reading and learning, but Iris helped me see that this was a lifelong pursuit and joy. One thing that sticks with me is how excited she was by art and poems and ideas; I didn't really know anybody quite like that.

The word in the town was that she retired because the new computer cataloguing system would require her to start charging overdue fees. When I happily hand over a few dollars for my own often-overdue library books, I think of it as my tiny tribute to her.

Amy Cunningham is the Executive Director of Everybody Wins! Vermont.

Submit your stories for the Because Project to sara@vtchildrenstrust.org. Submissions should be 300 to 600 words long and respond to the prompt "I am/decided to/learned to _______ because of ______." Kids VT will feature one of these stories in each issue.
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