From Teaching to Writing
TeachingBooks asks each author or illustrator to reflect on their journey from teaching to writing. Enjoy the following from Ruth Behar.
The first few years I struggled in school. I had arrived in New York with my family in the 1960s. We were refugees from Cuba and we spoke Spanish. The teachers viewed me as a slow learner because I didn’t master English right away. Being placed in what the kids themselves called the “dumb class” felt very humiliating and I wondered if I truly lacked intelligence.
Though I learned in childhood that teachers could hurt you and traumatize you with their ranking and grading, I looked up to teachers and dreamed of one day being a teacher myself. The first birthday gift I asked for, once there was money for such luxuries, was a blackboard. It stood on an easel and came with chalk and an eraser. As the eldest, I’d play teacher with my younger brother and cousins, giving out gold stars, and withholding them too.
It took a car accident, a badly broken leg, being bedridden for a year, and having to be taught by a tutor sent by my public school, for me to climb into the “smart class.” This story was the inspiration for my first novel, Lucky Broken Girl.
Long after my childhood days, I couldn’t shake the fear of not being “smart enough.” It led me to seek an anthropology Ph.D. and become a university professor. I had to prove to myself I could be an educated woman. One of the goals of anthropology is to overturn stereotypes by immersing ourselves in diverse cultures. Having felt “othered” as an immigrant child, I was drawn to a profession where we continually identify and critique the process of “othering.”
I’ve spent many hours of my adult life inside the classroom, teaching grown-up children who suffered various affronts to their wellbeing in school. Many arrive at their undergraduate and graduate courses wounded, with a total lack of confidence in their intelligence, insecure about their writing, and tired of reading books that pontificate rather than illuminate. I have made it my goal over the decades to teach vulnerably and compassionately, and to reignite the love of learning, writing, and reading. I teach classes focusing on topics I’m passionate about, including Cuba, creative writing, blurred genres, and one of my favorites, the concept of home.
Most of all, I came back to the class about the concept of home. I remembered the questions that my students and I had addressed. Is home a place or an idea?
As I wrote my new novel, Letters from Cuba, inspired by my maternal grandmother Esther’s journey from Poland to Cuba to try to save her family on the eve of WWII, I thought about the discussions in my classes. Most of all, I came back to the class about the concept of home. I remembered the questions that my students and I had addressed. Is home a place or an idea? Is home where you are born or where you are laid to rest at the end of your life? Can you be between homes or have multiple homes? Do you carry your home in your language? What does home mean to immigrants, to those who must leave one home for another?
Crafting the fictional version of my grandmother Esther’s story, these questions found their way into the text in an organic way, maybe because I’d been thinking and teaching about them for such a long time. When Esther leaves Poland, she wonders if she’s ever really felt at home in the country of her birth, where only among Jews did she feel safe, being treated as “other” by Polish people who often held anti-Semitic attitudes.
Esther discovers in the small country town of Agramonte, where she goes to live with her father, that neighbors treat her as a fellow human being. It is liberating to no longer be seen as “other” and to be part of a multicultural and diverse community. She makes friends with an Afro-Cuban girl, Manuela, and a Chinese-Cuban boy, Francisco, who share their distinct cultures and religions with her while she shares her Jewish culture and religion with them.
Esther quickly comes to feel at home in Cuba. She learns Spanish by reading the poems of the patriot José Martí, delights in the pineapples and mangos that grow on the tropical island, and discovers that her talents as a dressmaker might be the key to saving her family and reuniting in Cuba.
But things aren’t perfect. She and Papa are harassed by Señor Eduardo, the local sugar plantation owner, who supports the Nazis and is furious that Jewish people are immigrating to Cuba. Esther fears that her dream of building a new home in Cuba will dissolve into thin air.
Luckily, her good neighbors and friends in Agramonte show their support for her and her father, and they rally together to form an anti-Nazi society. Racist ideologies, xenophobia, and injustice, Esther learns, can be overcome if communities stand up for what is right.
These are timely topics, in urgent need of being discussed among students of all ages.
Letters from Cuba gives teachers the opportunity to speak about immigration, allyship, inclusive communities, and finding hope in times of crisis. These are timely topics, in urgent need of being discussed among students of all ages. The story of Esther, though set in an earlier time and in a foreign setting, offers students many possibilities for envisioning a more just and tolerant society, where no one is the “other.”
Cuba, a place so close and so far from the United States, provides an example of how people everywhere are affected by global struggles, and no matter how distant they may seem from the centers of power, they too can make a difference in making the world a better, fairer place. Whether thinking about how to welcome immigrants, or exploring how immigrants build new lives in new places, reading about Esther’s journey can inspire students to develop the empathy and understanding needed to envision a society, not of indifference and closed doors, but of generosity of spirit and kindness, where all can feel at home.
Books and Resources
TeachingBooks personalizes connections to books and authors. Enjoy the following on Ruth Behar and the books she’s created.
Listen to Ruth Behar talking with TeachingBooks about the backstory for writing Letters from Cuba. You can click the player below or experience the recording on TeachingBooks, where you can read along as you listen, and also translate the text to another language.
- Listen to Ruth Behar talk about her name
- Explore TeachingBooks’ collection of activities and resources for Letters from Cuba
- Find a Book Trailer for Letters from Cuba
- Discover Ruth Behar’s page and books on TeachingBooks
- Ruth Behar on her website, Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.
Special thanks to Ruth Behar and Penguin Books for Young Readers for their support of this post. All text and images are courtesy of Ruth Behar and Penguin Books for Young Readers, and may not be used without expressed written consent.