I will never forget my first-grade teacher. Her name was Miss Benveniste. She was the prettiest teacher in the school and looked like Jackie Kennedy with her twinkly black eyes and short nose. She wore elegant sleeveless dresses that came just above her knees. I liked the way she crossed her ankles when she sat down and how her voice was clear and strong when she taught us songs like Row Row Row Your Boat and This Old Man Came Rolling Home. I wanted to be just like Miss Benveniste, and I prayed every night that she would like me.
One day Miss Benveniste moved my desk to the front of the class. That’s when I knew God had answered my prayers. I reasoned that this was evidence. Miss Benveniste liked me best. I didn’t realise it was because I had recently had a hearing test and didn’t hear well. She was very nice to me and let me clean the erasers after school and sharpen the pencils. The other girls didn’t want to play with me anymore. I heard them say, Teacher’s Pet and they made angry faces at me. I didn’t let them see, but what they said made me smile inside. I was Teacher’s Pet.
One day, Miss Benveniste said we were going to write a story of our very own. I was excited because I had a lot of practice telling stories to my three younger sisters. Miss Benveniste passed out the lined paper and as soon as I got mine I knew what I would write about. I remembered the little girl from China who was on the cover of a magazine at my house. It had a yellow cover. I wrote my story about her and her little dog and how she played with her friends in the streets of China and wore funny clothes.
Miss Benveniste told me to stay after school that day. I was a little scared, but also excited. I thought she was going to tell me how much she liked my story. But once all the other kids were gone, she came over to me and made a sad face. You didn’t listen, she said. I told you. You must write what you know.
She sighed. You have never been to China, have you? I shook my head. I was six years old. I had never been anywhere. You can’t write about China. You don’t know it. I closed my eyes. I didn’t want to look at her. I could only feel my little heart breaking. Miss Benveniste didn’t like me anymore. She hated my story. She hated me. My face was hot. All I wanted was to go home. I didn’t hear anything she said to me after that. When she finally dismissed me, I picked up my things and ran all the way home.
I went to my bedroom, which I shared with my three sisters, and took out the stories I’d written from under my bed. They were about pirates and princesses, fairies, and goblins. I looked at them with a new sense of shame. I knew Miss Benveniste wouldn’t like these either. I was about to throw them away, but something stopped me. I liked these places and I liked being able to take myself there with words. Like magic. No. I wasn’t going to give them up because of Miss Benveniste. I like them more than I liked her. I decided to keep my stories but not show them to anyone else. From then on, they would be just for me.
Despite the writing lesson, I continued to worship Miss Benveniste, though the volume of my adoration was turned down a few notches. The seasons passed. I continued playing school with my sisters who were entertained for hours as I gave them lessons. It wasn’t too surprising that I became a teacher, like so many of the women in our family.
It was only when I was nearing retirement that I decided to properly learn the craft of writing. When I was in a writing class I heard those words again, write what you know, and I laughed out loud. The words brought me right back to that first-grade classroom. Was Miss Benveniste right all along? Well. Yes and no. Of course, it helps to write what you know, but it’s a mistake to take that literally and only write from your own experience. There are plenty of writers who start with what they don’t know. I’m one of those. I write historical fiction. Researching what I don’t know is half the enjoyment of writing for me.
What we know as writers is quite a lot–like how to use our emotional memory to help us describe what a character might be feeling. We haven’t forgotten how to use our imagination, which is a skill that’s already highly developed when we are children. We have storytelling in our DNA, but as a trained writer, I now have tools that can help me write to communicate.
I can now look back on this memory of my first writing lesson with some compassion for the teacher who was quite young herself when she became my role model. She cared enough to deliver what she thought was an important lesson in writing to a small group of six-year-olds. I can see now that she took her job very seriously and took us seriously too. She wanted to give us an established truth of writing.
But I’m also impressed by my six-year-old self, and that I didn’t give up on my writing just because a teacher didn’t like it. My younger self instinctively protected the simple joy of writing and subverted the authority that might have stamped it out. I’m glad I continued to write, that I went sideways and found a way to keep doing it. This is an effective strategy for writing too, approaching a difficult topic from another angle, like a crab or a spider.
We were both right. I may not have known China back then, but I knew I had something important in the act of writing, and that someday it would take me to places where my heart longed to go. This was what I knew then and what I know now.
I did get to China, many years later, on an educational tour with other teachers from around the world. We were there for three weeks, in Beijing, and touring the Yunnan province. There were many surprising things. It changed my perspective on everything. China is so vast and so rich in culture and history, with so many layers of experiences, it is hard to imagine anyone could ever really know it completely. One day on this trip, as I turned a corner, I saw a young girl with a little dog playing in the street with her friends and I smiled because it was exactly the way I had imagined it as a little girl.
I’m glad I didn’t give up writing because of what I didn’t know and that I kept faith with my future self as a writer, by protecting my practice. Learning requires seeking out and finding good teachers, but the most important voice to listen to is our own.