When a Teacher Becomes a Peer by Kate McGovern

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It was the first session of an Advanced Novel in Progress workshop at GrubStreet, the writing center in Boston where I’ve taken many classes and met many writerly friends over the years. I was sitting at the long table in the middle of the room, waiting for the rest of the class to drift in. And then suddenly, next to me, there was a familiar face: Connie, my second grade teacher.

“She taught me to write!” I said to the class, laughing. “Literally.”

I meant it. As a six year old, I’d spent day after day in Connie’s classroom, penning my earliest stories. Connie and her co-teacher, a legend named Jim with a Santa beard and year-round Birkenstocks, kept the Stories and Poems corner of our classroom stocked with blank books, half-lined sheets of paper stapled between neat slices of mismatched wallpaper. I filled book after book with my works of fiction, among them “Detective Shlock and the Missing Cheese,” about a mouse detective, and “Grud,” about “a very old peddler” seeking greater job security at the local palace.

After second grade, Connie became the school librarian, and I spent many more hours over the years to come scrunched up on old floor cushions in our tiny library, listening to her read aloud to us from novels like The Cricket in Times Square and Haroun and the Sea of Stories.

Sometimes, when I tell people that I went to a school where we sat on the floor and listened to stories read aloud to us right up through eighth grade, I get funny looks. But I did, and as an adult, I’m a writer and a reader because of it. In that library reading nook, I learned a lesson that stuck with me: You’re never too old to listen to a good story. I learned that there is magic in the sound of a voice telling a story, and in the shared experience of listening together. We didn’t have much space in that library; we certainly didn’t have any technology. But we had a room packed with books and a teacher who instilled in us that stories were the key to whatever other worlds we wanted to explore.

Connie gave us many ways to tell our own stories, whether in comic strips or illustrations or short stories or novels. One day, we walked into the library and Connie had covered the back table with biographies. It was the start of what she called the “biography project.” We each studied a famous person, penned an autobiography in their voice, and then dressed up and gathered in the school gym with our families and school community to answer questions about our characters’ lives. It was one of the highlights of my elementary school years—so much so that a fictionalized version of it plays a key role in my new novel for middle grade readers, Welcome Back, Maple Mehta-Cohen.

On another occasion, Connie read an excerpt from one of her own novels-in-progress to us. That was when I learned that real people with real jobs might also have a whole secret life of writing books, and that maybe one day I could, too. And now I do.

All those years later, when we walked into the same GrubStreet classroom, I got to know Connie newly as a peer: We were both writers at work on our craft, stumbling along in the humbling process of finishing manuscripts and trying to get them published. I have a copy of her recently published novel on my own shelf. And I’ve returned to her library many times, to talk to her students as a visiting author. The school has moved to a nicer building with a bigger and brighter library space, but thirty years later the energy is the same: It’s Connie and all those shelves of books, and kids sprawled on old cushions, becoming readers and writers.

Kate McGovern is the author of the young adult novels Rules for 50/50 Chances and Fear of Missing Out, which received starred reviews. She has worked in schools and education nonprofits in Boston, London, and New York City, including at the Harlem Children’s Zone, where she served as a reading specialist and directed Shakespeare productions with middle-schoolers. Her daughter, Priya, is the original “Hin-Jew” kid that Maple is written for. Kate McGovern lives in an Indian-Jewish household in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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