Dad Checks Out

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    Once upon a time, back-to-school was strictly interpreted to refer to school-aged children. When children went back to school, parents went straight to happy hour.

    But, in yet another sign that our country is declining into a sad twilight of its past brilliance, back- to-school now includes parents, as well. If you have ever been to a parents’ night, you know what I’m talking about. The classroom walls, once decorated with cursive alphabets and multiplication tables, are now festooned with sign-up sheets soliciting volunteers. You name it, it has a sign-up sheet: mystery readers, field trip chaperones, mid-year play costumers, career day presenters, wedgie makers. (Okay, that last one was a sign-up sheet I slipped in, but it did fill up first.)

    schoolLibraryYears ago, in an effort to comply with my children’s school’s strict volunteerism requirement, but still do the least amount of work, I volunteered for library duty. I recalled the library as a quiet, safe place, a haven from playground bullies like Angela Skaggs. My mother was a librarian, which further infused the library with soothing maternal vibes. The work? Shelving books. So, yes, library duty: shelve a few books; nip away to a quiet corner for a nap. How hard could it be?

    Unfortunately, I had repressed a bleak childhood memory of pain and suffering in the library. I am talking here about the Dewey Decimal System.

    The Dewey Decimal System is the indecipherable numbering system used to prevent people from finding the books they seek in a library. This system is so obfuscatory, I am willing to assert that, if the real truth were laid bare, America’s lamentable literacy rate has nothing to do with television or the Internet, but with the unassailable wall that the Dewey Decimal System places between children and their library books.

    My first day on the job, I shelved a total of five books, and that included working through my nap break. Frustration does not begin to describe it. Did you know that it actually matters that 392.484 be shelved after 392.48? And don’t even get me started on 392.848. But just sorting random strings of numbers is not all. Multiple books within the same classification must then be alphabetized. For a guy who gets confused sorting socks, this was maddening. But in the school library, it’s Dewey’s way or the highway. So far as bullies go, Angela Skaggs had nothing on Melvil Dewey.

    But in every challenge lies opportunity. Maybe, for once, I would show a little maturity and educate myself about Dewey in an attempt to be of some actual use in the library, rather than a piece of spare furniture the children tripped over as they searched fruitlessly for Harry Potter and the Credit Rating of Doom.

    In what I hope the reader will recognize as wry irony, I went to the Internet to learn about Dewey. My first source was Wikipedia, which supplied this helpful information: [Dewey Decimal System’s numbers represent] the subject content (often combining two subject elements with linking numbers and geographical and temporal elements) and form of an item rather than drawing upon a list containing each class and its meaning.

    Well, that clarifies everything!

    Next I turned to YouTube, where, after four minutes of the “Dewey Decimal System Rap,” I could annoy my family by repeatedly singing, “Hi! My name is Melvil Dewey. Nice ta meetcha, how you doin’?” but sadly, was not any further along in my quest for a deeper understanding of Dewey’s decimals.

    I finally located the solution in, of all places, the school library. Completely by accident (because that’s the only way suboptimal beings find anything in Dewey’s world), I came across a book called Bob the Alien Discovers the Dewey Decimal System, in which an extraterrestrial visitor to earth, wishing to learn about spiders, seeks a librarian’s help to understand the Dewey Decimal System. And therein lay my answer. Bob the Alien is an ultra-advanced form of life. Bob the Alien has conquered the quantum physics required to cross light years of space. Bob the Alien acquires the English language without blinking an eye. Bob the Alien keenly determines that human society stores knowledge in libraries.

    The only thing in the universe beyond Bob the Alien’s capacity for understanding is the Dewey Decimal System.

    This was helpful in a number of ways. First, it meant I could return to my preferred state of intellectual lassitude: If Bob the Alien cannot understand Dewey, then surely it is beyond the capacity of my walnut brain. Second, it suggested that as a class of beings, school librarians are even more highly evolved than Bob the Alien. Third, it finally explained my mother’s periodic hyperspatial jaunts. But most importantly, it confirmed that the most useful role for me in the library was napping in that quiet corner.

    Which is why this year, I’m urging you to choose your “volunteer” duties wisely. Try and find one that plays to your strengths (see “wedgie maker” earlier), and even if you find yourself on library duty, don’t despair. Like Bob the Alien, School librarians use their super powers almost exclusively for good. They don’t transmogrify parents for shelving books upside down. They do suggest new titles and authors for your children, and will even help them find those titles hidden among Dewey’s decimals. And if need be, they’ll make sure Angela Skaggs can’t find you during nap time.