Three Pieces, One Puzzle: My Time at TxLA 2023

Steve poses in front of the TxLA23 photo banner, labelled #LibrariesUnite #TxLA23 #RightToRead and featuring stylized images of Austin landmarksUnexpected Insight

I was fortunate enough to attend the Texas Library Association’s 2023 Conference this past April. Truly, it was incredible from the moment I walked in the door. Every moment of the event reminded me how powerful librarians are, particularly when we come together.

But there were three particular moments from before and during the trip that, on reflection, came together like pieces of a puzzle to help me see a picture I hadn’t expected. 

Piece One: Starfish

As I got ready to head to Texas, I was worried about what I might find waiting. Texas got off the line early with censorship and book banning, and they have hardly slowed down. The librarians there have been pilloried. Even as I packed my bag, the Texas legislature was in session to consider further ways to make accessing information that much harder. 

My new go-to library-wear is a denim vest with library-themed motorcycle club-style patches on the back – most prominently, a skeleton reading a book, with “Library” written above it. The front features a variety of pins. So far, the pins include: AASL and ALA membership, Pride, a crazy emoticon smiley, an LED nametag, and an “I’m with the Banned” pin. As I packed, it occurred to me I was missing a pin. 

Story Time

Many years ago, a speaker at my school told the story of the starfish:

An old man walks on a beach, where hundreds of starfish have been washed ashore by a storm. He sees a young girl pick up one of the starfish and go down to the water. She throws the starfish in. Then she goes back for another. 

The old man says to the girl, “There are too many! You’ll never save them all!” 

The girl holds up a starfish and says, “I’ll save this one.” 

I found the pin the speaker gave out and added it to my vest to remind me that no matter what kind of negative view of the world I might encounter on my trip, we all have the power to make things better, even if it’s just a little. And that little bit can make all the difference for someone.

Fortunately, I had nothing but a great experience at TxLA. But later, that pin helped me connect some dots from the rest of my trip. 

Piece Two: “Celebrity”

A selfie of Steve pointing over his shoulder at the group of people waiting to hear his presentation.During TxLA ‘23, I had a somewhat surreal series of experiences. It started on the first day. Someone came over and asked if they could take a selfie. I thought they were asking me to take their picture with someone nearby – it did not register that anyone would want to get a picture with me. This happened several times over the course of three days, and it felt just as unexpected each time.

And when I gave my presentations, the surreality continued. There were folks showing up in larger numbers than I’ve seen at any of my previous presentations. And people were coming up both before and after to ask me questions and get my advice. 

Fortunately, I’m a middle aged, middle class white guy, so I have plenty of unearned self-confidence, and was glad to share my opinions. But the attention felt so odd! I’ve been in education since the late 1990s, and I earned a couple of degrees in administration and supervision, but I have rarely had folks ask for – never mind listen to – my opinions about education.

And yet, within just a few years of getting into school librarianship, I not only started to feel like I had found “my people” – ironic in a position that is usually more isolated than any other educators in the district – but I also had people actually seeking me out. 

Piece Three: Awe

Steve poses with author Kelly Yang and school library all-star Karina Quilantan-GarzaI was uneasily flattered (if that’s possible) when people were excited to see me in person – I’m just a pretty strange guy who shoots off his mouth online. Meanwhile, I fanboyed over the amazing folks I was fortunate enough to find myself in contact with. 

Of course, Texas was representing with an amazing array of award-winning library leaders – Karina “Cue the Librarian” Quilantan-Garza, Wenndy Pray, Becky Calzada, Nancy Jo Lambert, Carolyn Foote, Deborah Zeeman, Amanda Hunt, Melissa Silerio, Kristi Starr  – it was like a “Who’s Who” of Texas librarianship! 

But TxLA is bigger than Texas! There were also plenty of people from beyond the state’s borders that I was thrilled to meet: Jillian Rudes (who works in the state next door to mine, but whom I had to fly 2,000 miles to actually meet), Tim Jones, author Kelly Yang. 

Each and every one a luminary, and so friendly and down to earth! 

“I Am The Very Model Of A Modern World Librarian…”

And then at a big group meal, I end up seated next to Dr. Joe Sanchez. He mentioned that he was preparing for a trip to Kenya. As the table dragged more details from him, Joe explained that he is part of a philanthropic organization setting up libraries made from shipping containers in rural Kenyan villages. Joe was going to train groups of villagers to be librarians and maintain the collections and resources. 

As I pestered him for more information, I found my jaw repeatedly hanging. He was so incredibly excited by the opportunity to offer his knowledge to these people halfway around the world, while downplaying his own role in making the whole thing come together. His mission is an amazing encapsulation of the leadership and service at the core of librarianship, and his pure joy at getting to learn from others and share what he knows was inspiring. 

The Bigger Picture

Thinking about these three seemingly disparate elements of my trip, I realized they actually were each part of a bigger picture. 

Reflecting on my experience, I realized that while I was surprised people were excited to see me in person, I was, at the same time, awed and humbled by the amazing folks I got to interact with. 

I am not operating on the same level as so many amazing librarians out there. My program is miniscule. My collection is humble. My successes pale in comparison to those of friends and colleagues I met on my trip. But that doesn’t really matter. 

I’m not anything special – I’m just using whatever skills I have to help one starfish at a time. And that’s what matters. 

Every one of us is an all-star to that one starfish we can help. Sure, we want to assist every individual we can. We may feel bad if we look at how much others are accomplishing, or how limited our scope is. 

But if all we do is make that vital difference for one starfish, then that’s worth celebrating.


Author: Steve Tetreault

After 24 years as a classroom English Language Arts teacher, Steve became a school librarian in January 2022. He has earned an M.Ed. (2006) and an Ed.D. (2014) in Educational Administration and Supervision, and completed an M.I. degree in Library and Information Science (2019). He is certified as a teacher, school library media specialist, supervisor, and administrator. He is an old dog constantly learning new tricks!

Categories: Advocacy/Leadership, Professional Development

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