Self Help

Wraina was a precocious little girl.  She noticed things, like how her father’s breath stunk of whiskey on the nights that he had to “work late” or how her mother’s voice rang with false cheer when saying “I’m fine, and you?” to acquaintances in town who asked “How are you?”

She sensed the tension that expanded in her home like a balloon, and she feared the day when there would be a fierce bang, leaving behind only small, flimsy fragments of her former life.  But Wraina did not know how she could help things.

When Wraina started the 4th grade, her mother took up a second job to “help out,” but Wraina knew her mother was carrying the weight, whatever it was, while her father grew ever more mysterious and less present.  After school, Wraina now passed time at the public library next door, since her mother could not pick her up until work was done.  But she could never say when that would be; it might be 3:00, or it might be 6:30.  “It all depends on the day and the work, you see,” her mother said.

But Wraina did not see.  All she saw was the glimmer of panic in her mother’s eyes, the panic that if she could not keep this up, if she could not make things work, everything would fall apart.  So Wraina nodded silently and waited at the library.

The window in the Self Help section faced the parking lot, so she made a perch for herself there on a scratchy chair with stained blue upholstery, and the second she saw her mother’s old ’74 white Cadillac, Wraina hurried outside to the car, for her mother could not bear waiting, could not bear to be alone with her thoughts.

Wraina longed to wander to the Children’s section, where she might find her fill of fantasy adventure stories, but that was on the other side of the library, where she would not be able to see through the window if her mother had come.  So she stayed in the Self Help section, looking out the window at the empty asphalt parking lot, her vision slightly impeded by the tidy black bangs that fell into her eyes.

After a few days of waiting so idly, Wraina grew tired of her own daydreams, so she decided to try reading a book in the Self Help section.  She feared it would be dreadfully boring; what did Self Help entail, anyhow?  Did these books teach you how to do things, like fix a light bulb or plunge a toilet?  She picked one at random:  How to Be Happy.

Wraina sat down on her scratchy chair and began to read.

Day after day, week after week, month after month, Wraina read while she waited for her mother.  She read books on happiness, relationships, death, raising children, work-life balance, developing good habits, and basic psychology.  She read about confidence, leadership, overcoming challenges, the power of positive thinking, the secrets to success, and personal growth.  She read about how to deal with a precocious child, or a drinking habit, or a broken heart.  The books penetrated her mind, slipping bits of wisdom and insight into the folds of her strong little brain.

After so much reading, Wraina began to see the world anew.  She started to understand why people behaved the way they did, and how they could learn to break out of unhealthy behaviors.  She knew that each person had the potential to be a better person, to create a better life, to develop a better world.  So one day, Wraina selected a book that she was sure would help her mother and checked it out at the front desk.

“Now, what would you want with a book like this?” asked the librarian, an elderly man with black half-moon spectacles.

“It’s not for me; it’s for someone who needs it,” Wraina replied, toying nervously with a knot of black hair that fell over her shoulder.  Would the librarian refuse to give her the book?  But a moment later, he stamped the book with the due date and handed it back to her.

“Hope it helps,” he said gruffly.  Wraina hoped so too.

But when her mother discovered the book on her nightstand that evening, she grew angry.

“Wraina, what are you thinking, giving me a book like this?  A self-help book?  Honestly!  This is all a bunch of hogwash.  What would people think if they saw me reading this?  What’s wrong with you?”

Wraina blinked back tears.  “I…I thought it might help.”

“Well, you thought wrong,” said her mother.  “I appreciate the sentiment, but I’m fine, Wraina, really.  Now, you take this book right back to the library tomorrow.”

The next day, Wraina returned the book, but she checked out another one and left it in her father’s car.  When she didn’t hear anything about it for a few days, she began to grow hopeful…but then she found the book torn and whiskey-drenched in the kitchen trash can.

With tears in her eyes, Wraina returned the spoiled book with its wavy, pungent pages and paid the damage fine with the money she had been saving up in her piggy bank.

She didn’t understand.  The answers were all there, in the books…why wouldn’t her parents help themselves?  Why didn’t they care; why didn’t they even try?  All of their lives could be so much better if they just tried…

When Wraina went back to the Self Help section the next day after school, she did not read a thing.  She sat staring out the window with a glazed expression in her eyes and a burden pressed against her heart.

Nearby, a man set up a table and began arranging banners and pamphlets.  His movement drew Wraina’s attention, which had been wandering through dark clouds.  The sign on his booth read “Accelerated Education”.

The man saw Wraina looking.  “Looking to skip a few grades, little girl?” he asked, a genial smile splashed across his freckled face.

Wraina raised her eyebrows and walked over to the booth.  The pamphlets depicted groups of teenagers happily engaging in various projects – building a model rocket, conducting lab experiments, acting out a Shakespeare play.

“I was only joking,” said the man, whose brown hair curled around his head like shrubbery.  “You’re likely a bit young for this.”

“What is it?” Wraina asked.

“It’s an opportunity for very sharp young people to challenge themselves and reach their full potential through fun yet intensive summer camps.  It helps accelerate their education and open up brilliant possibilities for their future.”

“Is it expensive?”

The man smiled.  “It can be, but we also offer grants and scholarships for those who qualify,” he said, humoring her.

“That sounds like a wonderful opportunity…for those who qualify,” said Wraina sadly, sensing that she was not being taken seriously.  “It seems like quite an enriching program.”

The man looked at her for a moment, taking in her serious face and perceptive eyes, really seeing her for the first time.

“Wait!”  he said as Wraina began to turn away.  He motioned to the assortment of pamphlets before him.  “Help yourself.”

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