“Knock it off,” my mother yelled from the front door of our ranch home. “You’re going to get heatstroke.” Although my mother is certainly not a person to trifle with, I had no intention of listening to her, as I pumped my skinny legs interminably in a circuitous path around the house, over the rocks, up an incline—over and over again. It was unusually hot: a sticky, humid, early August afternoon. But I felt strong. Each circuit increased my resolve. As the pain radiated from my legs and I began to tire, I felt power. My ten-year-old self thought desire and willpower would be enough to make me an Olympic runner.
This was the summer of 1984, and I spent two-weeks transfixed by the spectacle of the XXIII Olympiad held in Los Angeles. That was the summer Mary Lou Retton became America’s sweetheart. I was as caught up as everyone else in the story of a bubbly, 16-year-old girl who nailed her final vault on the biggest stage at the biggest moment of her life. But my heart belonged to Carl Lewis—the soft-spoken, yet paradoxically flamboyant track star trying to equal Jesse Owens’ four gold medals won in 1936. Track seemed relatable, perhaps more attainable than the other-worldly feats of a gymnast. But I loved everything about those Olympics: the inspiring anthem with the horns and tribal-sounding drum in the background, the smiling faces of athletes from around the world, the pageantry of the opening ceremony, the feeling of a shared sense of history in the making, and especially all the storylines. My adult-self recognizes some of these stories as needlessly melodramatic. But my 10-year old self was intoxicated. I followed all of the American storylines: Edwin Moses, Joan Benoit, Mary Decker Slaney, Evelyn Ashord. These stories had a familiar arc: through determination and hard work, obstacles are overcome, greatness is possible, second chances are granted, and dreams really do come true. These stories appealed to my idealistic and earnest nature. They also quite literally fed my desire for agency.
Although my experience with the XXIII Olympiad was intense, it was not unique; it fit a familiar pattern: some sort of unfulfilled need. On my first day of school in the first grade, I remember feeling shame when I discovered all of my classmates–except me—already knew how to read. At least, that is how I perceived the situation—resolving to work hard and do everything in my power to become an expert reader, stat. Simultaneously motivated by the possibility that I didn’t quite measure up, and equally confident in my ability to improve this, I took phonics readers home from school, and read them over and over so many times that I could recite all of their nonsensical sentences by heart. Once I learned how to read, I was naturally predisposed to reading biographies about people who overcame adversity and accomplished great things: Thomas Edison, Lou Gehrig, Deborah Sampson. These books reinforced the idea that determination and hard work led to success. This naturally involved a type of wish-fulfillment, but I also recognize that I was also trying on new identities, and trying to model my behavior to achieve my own kind of greatness. These stories reminded me that this was possible.
My adult self recognizes the limits of my own talents and my taste in media is probably not quite as literal– although I do still enjoy a nice sports biography every now and then. But I don’t believe my relationship with books, movies, television, or media in general has fundamentally changed since I was a little girl. I read books and watch films to be inspired, feel empathy, experience new emotions and adventures, and ultimately to learn what it means to be human, and act accordingly. Opening myself to the possibilities inherent in books, movies, images, or music allows me to recapture a sense of child-like wonder. These possibilities fill me with a sense of optimism—in the human race and in my own ability to emotionally and intellectually grow. This is why I stand here today, giddy and proud to pursue a career in librarianship.