There are always those people who influence you early in your life. Sometimes they’re teachers, civic leaders or friends. In my case, it was a librarian named Sylvia Allen, who had been the Librarian for Harwood Union High School’s Harry Brusa Library for a quarter century. I arrived at the combined middle and high school in 1998 at the age of 13, and I was a quiet, geeky and completely unprepared student. Just a year before, I’d been introduced to the Star Wars films in theaters, and was an obsessive reader of Hardy Boys mysteries and Star Wars novelizations.
My experience as a geek in school wasn’t really all that bad. I didn’t really understand how to interact with a lot of people, and had some issues there, but there was none of the beatings, not much of the bullying, and I was never stuffed into a locker like television would have you believe. But, I was scared for part of the time, simply because I never quite fit in. I sought refuge in the school’s library, where Mrs. Allen quickly became a friend. Her library was well organized, and stocked with an impressive range of science fiction / fantasy novels, nonfiction tomes and magazines that I worked my way through. She encouraged me to explore beyond my reading comfort level, and because of her recommendations, I picked up novels such as Dune, Foundation, and many, many others that spring boarded my interest in science fiction, fantasy and writing.
At some point in High School, I simply stopped going to study hall, stopping by the room was a mere formality on my way to the library. I found the internet there, where I set up my first website and found discussion forums and other like-minded people on the internet. (Hello, TFN’s Jedi Council Forums) and quite a bit more. Midway through, she (along with Mrs. Lehner, the assistant librarian) took me on as a library intern, where I learned how to use the library’s software to check in and out books, how to cover, repair and tag a book for circulation, She also served as a vital go-between for be between a fairly new website, Amazon.com and my weekly allowance. For years, she helped me keep up to date with the onslaught of Star Wars novels that came out, and cheerfully kept up with my repeated question: “Is it in yet?”. She provided me with much guidance during that time when it was most crucial.
At the beginning of my high school career, Mrs. Allen vanished for half a year. I later learned that she had an aggressive form of breast cancer, which was closely followed by a remission. She recovered, and was back in her office full time within a year. Looking back, it’s an amazingly short amount of time. I don’t remember any change in her attitude towards the students or her role in the library. In 2003, I graduated. She had sponsored me for a scholarship, which helped with books for college, and she came to the graduation party that my parents threw that day, where she fit right in with the rest of my family.
We sort of lost touch over next couple of years – I would exchange an e-mail or two, and dropped by the library early on while I was in college to say hello. In 2005, she finally retired after 25 years of service to the school, and set about writing a book, something that she always wanted to do. She worked on researching the Vermont Transit Company’s history in 2008, and in 2011, she finally published it. It’s a short, well written history on a small piece of Vermont history: The People Will Be Served: A History of the Vermont Transit Bus Company. By that point, she had reached Facebook, and we talked every now and then.
At some point, the news came that cancer had returned – this time, an aggressive form of lung cancer. She told me that there wasn’t anything to be done: just repeated chemo treatments to hold it back. It was sad news, but she was upbeat about it, and her enthusiasm never flagged. Last year, on a whim, I sent her a note that I’d be trooping at the Brownell Library in Essex Junction, not far from where she lived, asking if she’d be interested in coming out. She came out, and I was a bit shocked at how much her illness had impacted her. She smiled, and made a joke about how I wouldn’t be able to recognize her. She was a bit slower, shakier on her feet, but we talked for a little while. I introduced Megan, and she apologized for not making it out for our wedding. She had sent us a nice clock, which graces out living room. We talked about books, and she noted that chemo had ‘fried her brain’, making it difficult to remember what she read. I felt bad, but she told me that it wasn’t a bad problem to have: she was able to re-read a number of books as though it were the first time.
She slipped out of the event early as more people came around: her condition left her immune system weaker, and she avoided large crowds. We stayed in touch afterwards with updates on how we were doing, and life went on.
In December, I received a Christmas card from her, and as I read it, my stomach dropped. She told me that her cancer treatment had come to and end, and that there were no further options. I realized at this moment that time was limited, and sent off a letter to her, hoping that I’d be able to see her in the new year.
Last Thursday, Mrs. Allen passed away, and I feel like I have a hole in my heart knowing that she isn’t out and about somewhere. Of all the non-family people in my life, her guidance was most important to me, and I know that it was the same for a lot of other people around me. I’m sad, because she was fantastic: humorous, strong, and someone who loved books. Most importantly, she taught me how to love books, and the stories that they hold, lessons that I’ll keep with me for a very long time. Cancer really sucks, but it was something that she took in stride and didn’t let it rule her life.
Today would have been her birthday, and I while I’m sad that I can’t wish it to her this year, I’m happy that I’ve been able to do so in the past. I miss her dearly.