As I think about this amazing organization, I find myself reflecting on the mentors I have had in my own life. And one woman, who was all of 4 feet 10, stands tall among them. That is Miss Five, my fifth grade teacher who changed the trajectory of my life.
Growing up I was painfully shy. I hid in the back of the class room and tried not to get called on. Math and science were my preferred subjects because there was little chance of interpretation or having to speak up or express myself. There was just one right answer and I could go about it quietly. So when Miss Five had us write poems for one of her lessons, I literally froze.
I distinctly remember the panicked feeling I had looking down at my blank sheet of lined paper while all of my classmates were furiously writing away. My mind was blank—I couldn’t even come up with a subject to write about. I think about it now and it was probably akin to that feeling you get when you accidentally send an email to the wrong person—you know, where everything goes black and your stomach drops out…Well, that is what I felt like back then.
My struggle must have been apparent to Miss Five, because next thing I knew she was crouching by my desk and started by calming me down. She then asked me to come up with an image, just one image, and I managed to spit out the word “lightning.”
She asked me questions: What does it look like? Feel like, Sound like? Smell like? and had me write a paragraph. Then together, we crossed out the extra words—the ors, ands, the ifs, the buts—and we physically re-arranged it into a short poem.
I get goosebumps just thinking about the pride I felt looking at my first poem! In that moment, I felt like my whole world opened up, but I could never have imagined to what extent. Miss Five’s mentorship did not stop there; afterwards she encouraged me to be bold enough to submit the poem to be judged for a very small award.
Then, a couple years later, when she wrote a book on teaching creative writing, there was my poem, in print, actually published as the opening to one of her chapters.
While this was only elementary school, Miss Five had opened a door to me that I may never have discovered without her encouragement. And it turns out the joy I discovered writing my first poem and expressing myself is something I would come back to again and again in my life.
Skipping ahead to college, I found myself at this same crossroad. While I was strongly encouraged to pursue math and science by my engineering professor, at the last second, I veered and became an English major. This was no easy road for me but it was what made me happy. I traded formulas for trying to decipher William Blake’s mythology, and there were many late nights alone in my room where I wanted to pull my hair out and scream, I don’t get it!
Truly wanting to follow in Miss Five’s footsteps, I became certified to teach secondary English—which required me to stand up and teach in front of my peers. And even though I didn’t ultimately pursue teaching, I think this is where I finally came out of my shell and got comfortable talking in front of a group.
When I was about to graduate college, and had a teaching gig lined up, I got a call from Penguin, where I had interned a while back. They wanted to know if I could come work in their publicity department. This shy girl would have to get on the phone to cold call media pitching books, not to mention move to NY. At this point, teaching and lesson plans felt safer than doing something more creative and less structured. But I remembered Miss Five’s lesson with the poem—to take it one step at a time and go from there. I followed my gut, brashly and boldly, and five days later I was at my first job in the big city. I told myself I would try it for a year and see what happens.
That was 20 years ago and I am happy to say it was the best choice I ever made. I am surrounded by people smarter than I am; I get to publish writers, thinkers, communicators, and creators like all of you, and though it can be a challenge, I still love what I do every single day.
As Girls Write Now embarks on its third decade, I can’t help but think back to over thirty years ago and the 10 minutes Miss Five took with me to go the extra mile.
I am not a writer but Miss Five gave me a voice that I didn’t know I had. She gave me the courage to follow what was for me a harder path but one that has brought me pure joy. She gave me the gift of creativity, communication, and taught me how to challenge myself.
Girls Write Now helps thousands of girls every year. Not to mention, they’re doing this in a moment where helping young women speak their truth is more important than ever. If 10 minutes with Miss Five could change the path of my life, I can only imagine the resounding impact of the lifelong mentorships Girls Write Now facilitates.
Thank you to this organization for fostering such long lasting mentor/mentee relationships that go well beyond just writing. Thank you to the mentors for helping these young women blaze their trails into the world. And thank you to the mentees for being brave enough to think big. You’re the reason we’re here.
Christine Ball is the Senior Vice President and Publisher at Dutton, Putnam, and Berkley, three imprints within the Penguin division of Penguin Random House where she has been since 2005. Christine is a champion of women’s voices and shepherded through the production of Girls Write Now’s award-winning annual anthology for the past three years. Christine and her team have showcased hundreds of stories from our mentees and we thank her!