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FUHS librarian more than a book guardian for 32 years - Lorena Harris: known for introducing students to their roots

After 32 years of service, Lorena Harris has turned the page on her career as Fallbrook Union High School’s librarian. Harris has seen the school and the students that attend it evolve over the years, but her love and dedication to each student has never wavered. Now that she has finished her final year, she stopped to reflect on the unique experience her position granted her.

“Thirty-two years sounds like a long time, but I like to put it into perspective,” she said. “My children were in second and third grade when I took this job, and I would bring them with me in the summer to help me clean shelves and tables. In the afternoons, I’d let them go swimming in the pool. Now, the oldest is a grandma.”

As a Fallbrook High alumnus, Harris believes that the amount of former students that have come back to the school to serve as support staff or teachers is a testament to the caliber of community instilled in students, and believes that her time serving as a school librarian aide was one of the significant life experiences that shaped her into the librarian she is today.

However, the love of helping others and serving in libraries came much earlier, and was fostered by her grandmother, who was one of the first librarians in Fallbrook.

“My grandmother was a county librarian in Fallbrook in the first official county library,” she explained. “She moved the library into its first county building, which was across from what is now [the Fallbrook Wellness Spa]. Half of the building was the library, and the other part was for the Sheriff’s department. Everything that had to do with the county was in that location. She also moved the library to its present location and retired in the 60s.”

During her grandmother’s tenure as librarian, Harris spent endless hours helping run the library, and reached the point that she could run the building herself, which came into play when she was five.

“My grandmother’s car broke down in Redlands at a conference,” she said. “She called my mom, and told her where the library keys were, and said: ‘Take Lorena down. She knows what to do.’ I ran that library all day, with my mom there, not knowing what to do. My grandmother never had an assistant, but she told people that they could have fired her long ago if a five-year-old could run the library.”

When Harris entered high school, it became apparent that she was destined to become a librarian there.

“My senior picture even says that my dream job is to be the school librarian,” she said.

However, it took several years before she could achieve that dream. After receiving her education, she worked as a librarian around the country while accompanying her husband, who was in the military.

“When he got out during the Vietnam War, we moved back, and I worked at the Fallbrook Library as a substitute,” she said. “The lady that had taken my grandmother’s place was diagnosed with cancer, and the full time sub was always working, so began I to work for them, taking my kids along.”

Harris worked on the book mobile, and would go as far as Palomar Mountain, Sunshine Summit, and the Pala Mission.

“Everyone was so excited to see us,” she reflected.

As much as she enjoyed her job with the county library, when the high school librarian called her to take on the position at the school in 1980, there was no hesitation.

“I hadn’t thought about coming [to work at the high school] anymore, but when I applied, I probably got the job because of who I knew instead of what I knew,” she laughed. “The superintendent had watched me grow up, and knew that I loved and would do my best for the kids.”

During her tenure, Harris has moved the school library three times, and helped the library evolve to meet the ever-changing needs of the student body.

“We have been in this building 11 years now, and a lot of things have changed to meet with the times,” said Harris. “We have computers, and all that, but it’s a challenge to meet the students’ needs without any help in the library or computer lab. I used to have two full-time assistants, but now I haven’t had help in six years. I often wish I had roller skates.”

Still, Harris’ love for the kids makes the hard work worth it.

“Every year, I had special kids that you hope that you’ve touched. I hope that I helped them in this setting. The kids are great, and I get to hear a lot about them. That’s why it was so hard to make the decision to leave,” she said. “I was quiet about it with the students, but they still got wind of it. After school was out, about 100 kids came in with flowers.”

Though the library is a far cry from a traditional classroom, and many of the students who enter stay anonymous, Harris made a point to ensure that the library was a safe haven for all students.

“I don’t always have the same kids, and the 200 chairs we have are packed before school, during lunch, and after school,” she said. “We have computers here, which might be why we have some students, but there is a group who feels comfortable here. They know they can get help, and I have tried to make it a friendly place.”

With the expansion of technological use in the classroom, Harris believes that some students don’t understand the importance of a library, and hopes to reach out to students before they graduate.

“Kids can get straight A’s and never step foot in the library, but if they don’t know how to use a library in college, they will fail,” she said. “Every year, I get calls from kids at home during Thanksgiving break, asking me for help because they have no clue. Even honor students call.”

As a way to help introduce students to the library in their freshman year, Harris introduces them to their history as Warriors as well.

“Instead of just explaining where things are in the library, I tell them about the history of Fallbrook High School. They tend to perk up,” she said.

Harris has a unique perspective of being a Warrior, as her parents were part of the sophomore class that helped determine the school’s mascot and alma mater.

“My parents went to school when it was on Iowa St. in 1936,” she said. “There were 22 kids in their class, with 11 boys and 11 girls.”

James E. Potter, the superintendent of the school at the time, assigned the sophomore class to come up with the school name, colors and song.

“No one could remember the other names that the school went to, or who was in charge,” she said. “Henry Rodriguez, who would end up being one of the tribal leaders of the Pala Band of Indians, knew all about the traditions of the Indians, and suggested the Fallbrook Warriors. The 160 students voted, and that’s how we became the Warriors.”

Harris also shares pictures of old Fallbrook, so that students can see how the school and town have evolved throughout the decades. Some of the most vivid memories Harris has include watching the school being built in its current location in the 1950s, and remembering her grandmother visiting Maie Ellis, whose home was located in the same area.

“Our school district is the second oldest in the county,” she said. “It is part of [who we are], and students love it. I show them pictures of the original high school, and tell them where it was.”

As with all librarians, Harris had several student aides help her throughout the years, with a few that have stood out in her memories.

“In the 1980s, I had a student that got in trouble every single day. I would show him the door nearly every day because he would tip back in his chair, and couldn’t be quiet. He was the typical freshman boy,” she laughed. “When he showed up wanting to be my aide, I told him he’d better re-think it. Finally, I gave in and let him come in on a probationary term. He ended up being one of my best aides. He worked his way through college in a library, which wouldn’t have been possible if he hadn’t worked for me.”

One of the Fallbrook Library (county) workers also credits Harris for the passion she has obtained for working in libraries.

“She’s at the [Fallbrook Library] now, and she’s excited about doing all kinds of things here,” Harris said. “Some take a job at this library until something else opens up, but she wants to stay here.”

Harris directed others into the librarian field because of their abilities and aptitude.

“I will take credit for one girl who is now studying to be a librarian after I told her that’s what she needed to study,” she said. “She’s hooked now.”

Being a librarian is no easy task, despite the common assumption that the position merely involves shelving books.

“About two summers ago, I had the automation system put in and I had four paraprofessionals hired to help me for the summer,” said Harris. “It was a big job, and they thought that they were coming in to an easy job. At the end of the first week, they were shocked, saying they never knew it took so much work to get one book on the shelf.”

The dedication that is required to work at the school isn’t restricted to being a librarian, said Harris.

“Within any job, you have to take ownership, or you won’t be successful,” she said. “None of the jobs here are a 9 to 5 job. We are here on weekends, and working nights. People whine because we have the summer off, but when you divide the number hours by what we’re making, it’s apparent that people are here because they love what they are doing. You have to love the kids, and if you’re in my position, like the books. Kids know when you just give them lip service. You have to treat them the way you want to be treated.”

This doesn’t mean that students could get away with misbehaving in Harris’ library.

“Students sometimes don’t think that I have eyes, but I wasn’t born yesterday,” she laughed. “When new students come in, they think they are the only ones to try this stuff. But basically, the kids are good kids, and we have to allow for the kid part. They have had to grow up too fast.”

After 30 years, it has gotten to the point that Harris has purchased nearly every book in the library, and the students know that she is faster than any catalog system for finding books.

“The new girl isn’t going to know what book is on what shelf for a while,” she added. “I guess I should stop calling it ‘my’ library.”

The entire staff will miss Harris once she retires, as she has been a mainstay at the school for three decades.

“What can you say about someone who has been a part of FUHS for as long as [Harris] has been?” said Rod King, FUHS principal. “She is a remarkable person and able to give anyone a history lesson when it comes to FUHS or Fallbrook for that matter. It is truly the end of an era and she will be missed.”

Just because Harris is retired does not mean that she will sit back and waste time.

“I’m going to be a fulltime grandma, and I might be able to read books that aren’t necessarily at the high school level” she laughed. “I’m also planning to go to work at the historical society, since I love history and have provided a lot of information about the high school history over the years.”

Because of her family’s unique role in the community, she is also able to share information that others might not have access to.

“It is very difficult to leave, but I’ll be back,” said Harris. “I’m going to be helping with Homecoming, and do tasks that other people can’t fit in with teaching. I also love to quilt and sew.”

And of course, you can’t keep a librarian out of the library for long, even if she is retired. Just don’t think that she’ll sit in the administration office.

“I’ll probably go shelf books downtown; that’s my favorite part besides the kids,” she said.

“I would rather deal with overdue books and help kids find something than administration work, but that won’t be anytime soon. I’ll just be a patron.”

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