10/01/2014 03:11 pm ET Updated Dec 01, 2014

Defending Your Child in the Face of Strangers

Caren Chesler

I went to our local library this afternoon because I received a letter that said the "book on tape" I had borrowed was overdue and that I now owed the library $1.60. When we arrived, I was told my outstanding bill was not $1.60, but actually $18.00. That's because on top of my overdue book fine, they said I owed them $16.40 for a book called Insects, which they claimed that I had returned damaged. They said a friend had returned the book and one of the pages was ripped. I was now required to purchase the book.

"That can't be right," I said.

"Go upstairs to the Children's library and talk to Cheryl," the woman at the front desk told me.

I was with my 3-year-old son, and when the two of us arrived upstairs, I was happy to see that the person manning the desk was a soft-spoken woman who used to work at a shop in my town. She was gentle and kind and would surely understand my predicament.

"You need to speak to Cheryl," she said when I told her why I was there. She pointed to an office across the way.

Cheryl was inside the office talking on the phone. I sent my son over to the play area, which had Legos and an activity table, and I stood outside Cheryl's door, not too close as to hover, but close enough to see when she was off the phone. As I waited, I rehearsed what I was going to say. While I'm the kind of person who feels guilty about thing I haven't even done, I found it implausible that my son would have ripped the book. Babies do things like that. My son is nearly 4 years old. Besides, he's not a page-ripping kind of kid. He's a nice boy. He throws his trash in garbage pails. He puts his toys away. He's gentle with his belongings.

"Cheryl?" I said meekly, when she put down the phone. She swung her chair around to face me. " "My name is Caren, and I was told I owe $18 for a book that was torn. I can't believe that --"

"Let me take a look," she said, rising from her chair and walking over to the computer at the front desk where the kind, gentle woman had brought up the details of my crime on the computer screen and was now pointing at it, accusingly, with a bony little finger. Some ally she turned out to be.

"Yes, it says you had a friend return the book with a rip in it," Cheryl said, and deftly swerved her chair around to grab the book off a shelf behind her and opened it to the vandalized page.

I ran my finger across the page. It was a photo of a patch of moss-covered ground that was covered with dozens of lady bugs. The caption read, "Lots of ladybugs are good for the garden. They eat other insects that damage the plants."

"I just can't believe we ripped that book," I said. "I have no recollection of that having happened."

"Well, I'm not sure what to say. When your friend returned the book, it had a rip in it." It was the second time someone alluded to the fact that a friend had returned the book, insinuating that I had ripped the book and then tried to hide my crime by having someone else return the damaged product.

"I really have no recollection of anyone ripping that page. I mean, I'm the one who would have read the book to my son, and he would have torn the page in front of me, and I don't remember that ever happening," I said. "Maybe it was like that when I took it out."

I took the torn-out piece of a page and lay it down next to the piece that was still in the book, trying to put it back together.

"There's no way we would have let you take out a book like that, with a page torn out. There's even a piece missing," she said, pointing to the gap at the top of the page, proof that even a good cellophane taping job couldn't have brought the book back to its original condition.

"I don't know what else to say. I simply don't remember my son tearing that page," I said.

"You had to have seen the page was like this when were reading the book. You couldn't even have read this page without noticing," she said, lifting the page out.

"I don't even know that we read the book," I said. "I took out four insect books that day."

I was sure I sounded like the man in court who says, "My dog can't have bitten that woman. He doesn't bite. And that's not my dog. And anyway, I don't even have a dog."

"I'm sorry. It's our policy that if a book is returned damaged, you have to buy it," she said.

I did some quick mental calculus and saw that I was simply not going to win. It was her word against mine, and if I refused to pay, I wouldn't be allowed to use the library anymore. I felt aggrieved because here, as in all relationships, the scale was tipped in her favor for one reason only: I needed the library more than they needed me.

"16.40?" I said, reaching into my pocket and pulling out a crumpled $20 bill. "That's a lot of money for a thin book about bugs."

"Non-fiction books are always more expensive," she said.

That's stupid, I thought. It takes less thought for someone to write a book that's true than one in which they have to make stuff up. Besides, it was as thin as a wafer.

I took my change and walked over to my son in the play area. Leaning down, I whispered, "Hey, buddy. Do you remember ripping this book?" I showed him the book.

"Yeah," he said matter of factly. "Why, what were you trying to do?"

"What do you mean?"

"What did that lady say to you?"

"She said you ripped the book," I said.

Just then, my son starts banging together two Lego pieces that were shaped like animals. He knocked them against each other so hard, I thought for sure the leg was going to come off the giraffe.

"Hey, hey, stop," I said, peaking over at the front desk to see if Cheryl was looking. I remembered all the times we'd come here in the past and had been yelled at by various people sitting at that desk, for making too much noise or because my son was jumping off the wood cube into the mesh playpen that's filled with stuffed animals. She was never going to believe our innocence, no matter how compelling an argument I could have made.

As we walked out into the parking lot, I asked my son, "Do you really remember ripping that page?"

"Yeah," he said.

"Really?" I said, still not believing it.

"Yeah," he said.

"Oh yeah? Which page?" I asked.

"The bug page," he said. "I thought I could make a paper airplane."