Everyone Deserves a “Mrs. Barber”

The clarity of my childhood memories varies, with some nonexistent and others hazy at best.

But a handful are crystal clear, like they might have happened just a few days ago.

I loved both school and books as a child, and one of my favorite places in my elementary school was the library. I can picture it in my mind like I’m standing within its magical walls… the circulation desk on the right, the brown faux wood carrels in the center, and the maze of bookshelves that seemed like they reached from the floor to the ceiling encircling them. 

It was so grand, the library, so big, and my love for books grew with each visit. I would wander and browse the shelves with wonder and never felt hurried, unlike Simon Mouse in one of my favorite books (which I renewed and reread countless times during second grade), “Hurry Up, Slowpoke” by Crosby Newall Bonsall. 

I also loved the book “The Littlest Leaguer” by Syd Hoff. I saw myself in Harold, the main character who also tended to be on the awkward side while lacking natural athletic ability. Harold rode the bench in the little league dugout because he was terrible at baseball. His small stature, however, proved useful, and he ended up making the play of the season when he was given the chance.

Score for the underdog! 

But it wasn’t the aisles of spines, the library’s blueprint or deliciously musty aroma, or even the special reading program I was selected for that kindled my love for books, and with it, my innate desire to write and read.

It was the woman behind that circulation desk.

Mrs. Barber.

Whether she was organizing the shelves, teaching us about the Dewey Decimal System, reading a book to my class, decorating for the holidays, or simply sharing a soft-spoken greeting alongside her kindhearted smile, Mrs. Barber was the heart of the library’s soul.

She’s in every memory I have of that library, even on the dark day when I learned the truth about Santa Claus. I was in fourth grade and a classmate told me, point blank, that Santa wasn’t real. I played it as cool as I could, masking my disillusion with aloofness, but once the library emptied of students, I cried like the dickens in the corner. Mrs. Barber’s comfort and solace in that moment softened the scars of losing a part of my innocence.

As luck would have it, Mrs. Barber was transferred to the high school at the start of my freshman year. I spent more time in the media center than any other room in the school building during my four years of high school reading, writing, studying, and volunteering alongside her warmth and grace. She never judged me and was a positive and warm confidant, especially when I most needed one, and was a true professional in never stepping over the faculty/student boundary. I even considered following in Mrs. Barber’s footsteps and becoming a school media specialist before another path was chosen for me.

Despite my best intentions to stay connected, I lost touch with Mrs. Barber after I graduated from high school in 1989.

Fast forward to the mid-2000s.

After checking out of the local grocery store on a day when humidity hung in the air, I wheeled my full cart through the exit vestibule into the mugginess and stopped at a table where a small, elder woman solicited donations for a nearby heart hospital. I handed her five-dollar bill, then our eyes connected and our faces lit up.

“Mrs. Barber!” I exclaimed as she said, “Jill!” in a similar, enthusiastic fashion. 

She rose to her feet and we hugged, and her frail arms warmed and comforted me just as they did on that dark Santa day. 

Twenty years had passed by in the blink of an eye, but here she was, well into her seventies, and she remembered ME.

We chatted for a while, me sharing a bit about my long and winding journey to becoming a teacher and her talking about her retirement and her family, especially her grandchildren. If my memory is correct, she also explained the hospital she was seeking donations for had made a tremendous impact on her life, and she saw it as her duty to pay them back.

We ran into each other a few more times in the early 2010s, same situation. She’d be manning a hospital donation table at the local grocery store, no matter how hot or how muggy the day, and she’d remember me every time. We’d talk for a bit and say, “See you next time!” while hugging farewell.

It’s been a few years since our last fortuitous run-in, but unfortunately, there won’t be a next time.

Mrs. Barber’s obituary ran in the local papers earlier this year.

She lived a full life and died at 94 years young. A classmate of mine posted a beautiful tribute on the funeral home’s obituary page about how much Mrs. Barber influenced her love of reading, and I couldn’t agree more.

If it weren’t for Mrs. Barber, I would not have discovered my love for books as a six-year-old, which led to a love of reading and igniting my inherent inclination to write.

Everyone deserves to have a Mrs. Barber in their life, someone who sparks a light that leads to wonder and discovery, and if we’re lucky, to our true purpose.

Mrs. Barber was that spark for me.

I thought about these immortal words from Ralph Waldo Emerson when I read Mrs. Barber’s obituary:

What is success? To laugh often and much; to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; to earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate the beauty; to find the best in others; to leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition; to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Mrs. Barber, you laughed often and much. You won the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children. You earned appreciation and you endured. You appreciated beauty and found the best in others. You left the world a whole lot better. You made me breathe easier because you lived.

You succeeded, and I thank you.

Thank you for joining me on my journey. I’m glad you’re here.

With light and gratitude,


“Everyone Deserves a Mrs. Barber” was posted on jillocone.com on February 15, 2023. Views and opinions expressed in this post are solely those of the writer, who was not endorsed or compensated in any manner by any entity; views do not represent any of my employers. Copyright 2023, Jill Ocone. All rights reserved. Contact jillocone@gmail.com with reposting, licensing, and publishing inquiries.

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