During my second week at my new library job, I found myself sitting at the reference desk applying stickers to my prosthetic arm. When I was finished, I had a trail of assorted insects (and a few spiders) zigzagging around my arm. It didn’t take long for someone to comment on my bugs. That, of course, was the point.
It had been so long since I’d worked with the general public that I had almost forgotten why I used to keep my arm decorated with stickers. It wasn’t the love of stickers or the desire to show off my favorite bands or opinions. It was an opening. It was for all those people who would never ask me directly about my prosthetic arm, but would say something about my stickers. It was my way of saying that I’m not taking this too seriously. I’m not pretending that you don’t notice my difference. I’m saying it’s okay to notice.
I started the sticker thing when I was working as a server. I was a college student looking to make a decent amount of money with a flexible schedule. What better job than waiting tables, right? I was fortunate enough to find someone willing to give me a chance despite the obvious question: can a person with one arm do this job?? It turned out that yes, I could do the job. I did it for the next several years. It didn’t take long for me to learn the particulars of the job. It probably took me even less time to learn that unaddressed curiosity is THE WORST.
Maybe you don’t know this, but I can tell when you’re curious about me. I can feel it. You might think you are keeping your questions quiet, but you wear them in your body language. Most people do, anyway. And when I have to interact with you repeatedly, like when I am serving you a meal at a restaurant, it’s uncomfortable for both of us to ignore the questions you are trying so hard to hold in.
You know what’s bad for tips: awkwardness. It just is. Sure, sometimes you’ll get a bigger tip because the customer feels guilty about the awkwardness. But most of the time, awkward = bad tip. That wasn’t good for my pocketbook, and it made my job way less fun. So I stuck a few stickers to my arm.
It’s funny what a few stickers can do. They’re an icebreaker. They’re a signal. They cut the awkwardness down to almost nothing. They give people an out if they are caught staring.
When I started working in a public library, the stickers became even more important. I wanted to be approachable to my library patrons (and successful in my career) even more than I had wanted good tips in my serving job, and I really didn’t want the many, many kids I saw at the library to feel uncomfortable around me or afraid of me. No one wants to be an object of fear. Librarians especially so. I wanted kids to know that they could ask me anything, and I wouldn’t judge them for it. I wouldn’t be in this field if I didn’t value curiosity, and I wouldn’t have chosen to work with young people, if I wasn’t comfortable answering these kinds of questions. I’ve found it helps to dive into the questions, get them answered, and move on from there. Watching people hold questions in makes my job way less fun.
I was reminded of that as I started my new job—back in public service at a library after several years in the not-public side of the library world. This week I changed the bugs to something more summery just as I had told a young library visitor I would. “Come back in a couple of weeks,” I’d said. “I already have my summer stickers picked out. Wait’ll you see ‘em!”
Maybe it’s silly. Maybe it wouldn’t be what you would do if you were me. Maybe a lot of things. For now: wait’ll you see my new stickers. ;)