My Very Own Poems


(Based on the life of Phillis Wheatley)

Phillis stood on her tiptoes and took a book from the shelf. She sat down in a chair by the window. The pages were very thin, so she turned them carefully.

“Phillis, what are you doing?” asked Miss Mary Wheatley from the doorway.

The little black girl looked up. She hadn’t asked to use the book. Is my mistress angry? she wondered.

But Mary was smiling. “You like books, don’t you, Phillis?” she asked kindly.

The little girl nodded.

Her mistress came over and looked at what Phillis had on her lap. “That’s a book of poems.”

“What are poems?” asked Phillis.

“Words that are put together in a lovely way,” the girl told her.

Just then Nat, Mary’s twin brother, came into the library through another door. “Well, what have we here?” He smiled at the little black girl.

Phillis didn’t say anything. Nathaniel Wheatley wasn’t home very often, and she didn’t know him well.

“We were just talking about books,” his sister told him. “Phillis likes to look at them.”

“Really?” he asked. “Well, Mary, why don’t you teach her to read?”

Mary had hoped her brother would suggest that. He had taught her to read. Not many girls in the 1770s could boast that! She turned to her young servant and asked, “Would you like to learn to read, Phillis?”

The little girl nodded as hard as she could. She looked like a tiny excited bird.

Nat laughed. “You certainly have an eager pupil.” Then he kissed his sister good-bye and set off for downtown Boston to see his father.

“Phillis,” asked her mistress, “would you like to begin today?” Mary was excited too.

“Yes,” answered the little girl in her soft musical voice. “I can hardly wait.”

“Fine,” said Mary. “Some of Mother’s friends are coming to visit in the early afternoon. When they leave, we’ll have our first lesson.”

Phillis closed the book and put it back on the shelf. She knew that it was her job to serve refreshments to the guests.

Soon three ladies were seated in the parlor with Mrs. Wheatley and Mary. Phillis carried a tray into the room. She walked slowly and carefully and didn’t spill anything. She offered the plate of cakes to each woman. Then she poured lemonade into dainty cups. When she left the room, she sat down on a chair outside the door so that she could hear her mistress if she called.

“That girl always seems so cheerful,” she heard one of the ladies say. “My Bertha isn’t like that at all. She never wants to do any work. And when I make her, she grumbles.”

“Phillis is special,” Mrs. Wheatley told the woman. “She’s smart too. A few months ago she had never been away from her African village. And now she speaks good English!”

Phillis felt important when she heard people talk about her that way.

“Today she looks even happier than usual,” another lady said.

Mary smiled. “That’s because we start our lessons this afternoon. I’m going to teach her to read.”

One of the women gasped. “Teach a slave to read? That’s ridiculous! Servants don’t need to read.”

That made Phillis angry. She knew that Mary would tell the woman how wrong she was.

“Well,” said Phillis’s young mistress. “I suppose you’re right.”

The little girl couldn’t believe her ears. She ran up the stairs to her room in the attic, crawled under a dilapidated chair, and hid.

Soon the guests were gone.

“Phillis!” Mary called. “Phillis, you can clear away the dishes now.”

There was no answer. Phillis always came when she was called. Mary began to look for the little girl.

Up in the attic, Phillis heard her mistress. She knew that she might be punished for hiding, but she was so sad that she didn’t care what happened to her.

Finally Mary opened the door to the attic and stepped inside. She saw the edge of Phillis’s dress sticking out from under the chair. Mary pretended not to see her.

“Where could Phillis be?” she said out loud. “I hope she isn’t lost. I’d miss her if she were gone.”

Phillis felt guilty. “Here I am,” she said, crawling out.

“Aha!” cried her mistress. “You aren’t lost after all. You certainly fooled me.” She saw that Phillis wasn’t smiling back at her. “What’s the matter?”

“You told me you’d teach me to read,” she said. “Then that lady said that I didn’t need to learn. And you told her she was right.”

“Goodness!” Mary stooped down and put her hands on Phillis’s shoulders. “I said that she was right that you don’t need to read. But you must have run away before I finished. I told her that a person who wants to read should be able to, even if he doesn’t need to. After all, a lot of people say that girls don’t need to study. But I learn, right along with my brother.”

Phillis opened her eyes wide. “Does that mean you’ll still teach me? You’ll even teach me to read poems?”

“Of course. We’ll start as soon as the dishes are cleared away,” she told the little black girl. “And when you know a few words, I’ll teach you to write them too. Maybe someday you’ll write your very own poems.”

“My very own poems,” said Phillis slowly. She ran out of the attic to finish her work.

Mary smiled as she watched her go. She’s special, she thought. She may be a great woman one day, even if she did come to this country on a slave ship.

Mary Wheatley was right. In the next few years, Phillis learned to read and write English very well. She also studied Latin, ancient history, and mythology. When she was about thirteen, she wrote some poems that were published a few years later. Phillis Wheatley became the first famous black woman writer in America.

[illustrations] Illustrated by Paul Mann