Lighting the Candle: A Wild Ride


From left: Carmen's father, Carlos Agra; sister, Tersi Agra Bendiburg; Carmen Agra Deedy; and mother, Esther Ponz Agra, several years after arriving in the United States. Photo courtesy of Carmen Agra Deedy.

When I was in middle school, my social studies teacher encouraged me to enter a writing contest, sponsored by an organization in our hometown. I demurred.

I loved history.

I did not love writing.

I was a Cuban refugee, and English had been my nemesis from the moment I first shoved a chunky No. 2 pencil up and down the dashed lines of D’Nealian paper.

My teacher knew my writing was cursory. And I knew that I lacked discipline. (What neither of us knew was that I was also dyslexic.)

Writing was so excruciating that my teacher had allowed me to present my paper on the sinking of the Titanic as an oral report — a one-act play, where I played all the parts. No one wheeze-laughed harder than he.

So, why the sudden hectoring to do something at which I was sure to fail? His reply: “Because I love your stories. And if you’re willing to apply yourself, I think you have a good shot at this.”

***

Few things motivate a writer like a bit of shameless flattery.

I chose Paul Revere’s horse as my subject. The story would come straight from the horse’s mouth. Not a brilliant notion, but funny; and unlikely to be anyone else’s choice.

What did the horse think, as he ripped through the night, his coat sloughing sweat, his eyes wide with adrenaline? Did he get tired? Have doubts? Did he want to quit?

I sympathized immediately. I got tired. I had doubts. I wanted to quit.

But, like Revere’s fabled horse, I kept going.

I worked hard. I checked my spelling. With a dictionary. I enlisted my older sister to correct my grammar. I checked out a half-dozen books on Paul Revere from the library. I even read a few of them.

When I handed in the finished essay, my teacher read it, laughed out loud, and said, “Great. Now, write it again. And no name. Entries are anonymous.”

I wrote it again. And again and again. If I didn’t win, I didn’t care. I had poured a wobbly writer’s blood and sweat into something that made my teacher proud.

***

Weeks passed. I forgot the competition. Thoughts of winning — a pipe dream to begin with — gave way to the enticements of a Georgia spring.

Then came the news.

There were two winners from each grade. A lanky, sweet-natured redhead in my class won second place.

I won first place.

That may have been the first time in my chatty life I was struck dumb, in any language.

Our teacher hooted with delight, my classmates stared at me in open disbelief, and Second-Place Red gamely shook my hand.

The following week, the winners met with the head of the sponsoring organization. We stood in the office, clutching our plaques and tittering to one another, when a small, birdlike woman entered. She spoke to the adults, then made her way down the line of winners, congratulating each of us and shaking hands. Red and I were last. We introduced ourselves. She looked from one to the other.

She didn’t speak.

She didn’t extend her hand.

After a few awkward seconds, she cleared her throat and explained that there had been an embarrassing mistake.

Then she gently reached down and took our plaques — hands crossing at the wrists, she re-assigned them — and apologized for the error.

I was now the second-place winner.

No one challenged her.

It wasn’t until later that I remembered. Our entries were anonymous. How could she have known which child had won what?

***

I can’t tie a bow on the end of this strange tale and make it pretty. It’s not that kind of story. But there is this: I got a taste for writing that spring. I learned to respect a writer’s labor and perseverance. And — despite the challenges of both dyslexia and a second language — I never stopped writing.

From the May/June 2021 special issue of The Horn Book Magazine: The Pura Belpré Award at 25. Find more in the "Lighting the Candle" series here.

Carmen Agra Deedy

Carmen Agra Deedy won a 2008 Belpré Honor for narrative for Martina the Beautiful Cockroach (Peachtree). Her latest title is Rita & Ralph's Rotten Day (Scholastic).

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