I sit within the emptiness of the Young Adult section in the Fort McMurray Public Library. Teenage books about the dangers of plastic surgery and fantasies involving angelic vampires keep me company. I have come to the library in the hopes that its environment would inspire me to write. As I experiment with several positions in my four-legged chair, I drag it along and leave the marks of my struggle for all to see, scrapped against the hardwood floor. My hope for inspiration was slowly being crushed with each passing minute.
Beyond the door behind me, the library is full of bodies hidden behind piles of notebooks and sleek laptops. Here is a typical scene for any library, but there is a particular vibe felt in the air of this library, and it can even be felt occupying homes on every street in the city. The ‘Fort McMurray Dream’ inspires and drives residents to believe that success is given to those who work hard. Hard work leads to satisfaction and happiness (until it’s time to pay your imploding rent or mortgage bills). I passed by many tired minds sitting throughout the library focusing on unlocking the secrets to this happiness with searches for jobs on computer screens and throughout classified ads in newspapers. Images of big yellow tanker trucks packing oil rich soil beam down at us all from walls above the polished cubicles and spacious table tops.
A rush of cool air brushes against my neck as the door opens. The room quickly fills with more bodies. A young woman whizzes by as a blur of fuchsia (the effect of her bright cardigan) while jangling a box of pencils and paper. Soon after, a mother walks in with her two children and leaves behind one of the two— her son. He is a skinny adolescent, who looks even thinner under the bagginess of his brown T-shirt. I watch him sit before the woman in fuchsia with surprisingly excellent posture, as his back sits upright in the chair before me.
The two swap tips as they converse about the latest and greatest X-box games. Silence builds as the conversation dies. It is now time to begin what they are here for—perhaps a peer-mentoring session.
The energy of the gym seen from the window stretching behind the woman, captures my attention until I hear, “I’m sure more people will come eventually, but we can start. Which game would you like to play?” Her face is cheerful but her voice lacks genuine excitement. I imagine this exact line has been said before to other boys and girls.
Under faded lights, he looks at his choices, pauses for a brief moment, and apathetically declares, “Scrabble is good.”
Letters rattle and shake.
Looking at the bag of letters she asks, “Would you like to pick out a letter and figure out who goes first? Whoever gets closest to ‘A’ gets to start.”
The boy reluctantly reaches out a hand to grab a letter.
“Oh, you get to go first!” She sounds hopeful that her “student” will be just as excited as her to begin playing. If he is, he does not express it.
As words materialize on their game board, I look at the glaring blankness of my laptop screen. My empty thoughts are interrupted by, “Oh that’s a good start.” There is reservation in her soft voice, as if she wants to say more, but she is holding back. Instead, unspoken encouragement is given as she smiles at his efforts.
No one else has come to participate in this battle of words.
“You can’t just start a random word. Here’s what you can do,” her reserved nature begins to crack as her fingers point to possible solutions, but she leaves his word intact and prepares for her turn. Afterwards, she jots down a few notes before perching her chin onto her clenched fist. Her eyes challenge the boy to make his next move.
“Nicely played! That’s a triple score.”
The congratulation is taken in their customary silence. My ears are buzzing from the increasing volume of silence spreading throughout the room. As they sit they both radiate an intensity which despite their quietness forces you to look at them and watch their next move. And in that moment, I suddenly feel a surprising revelation.
I realize that the two are playing a disguised game. It still involves words, but the game is directed by one significant rule. Only speak when necessary. It is not a straightforward game as it seems that the two are carefully calculating their every move, including their use of speech (or lack of) with one another. I hope their hard work pays off. In the meantime, they both seem to agree that it takes more than a conversation to get to know a person.
The game goes on.