I read voraciously in junior high school.
Not sure if it was to escape the sudden burst of mean plaguing my public school or the belief that the adult world was hiding secrets in Harlequin Romance novels or an innate search for how to script my thoughts into something I could share with the world. Some and all of these reasons were true depending on the day, but the discovery of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings answered all these questions and more to come. It became the inspiration for a new dream.
I immediately identified with this girl ushered from one physical and spiritual space to another and eventually into a self-imposed silence that made her seem unaware–or maybe overly aware–of the power of words. I was riveted by her story and followed the young Marguerite Johnson all the way to Ghana, Africa in her fifth autobiography All Children Need Traveling Shoes.
So I didn’t need a re-cap as Dr. Maya Angelou settled in to address the audience at the Ron Clark Academy graduation on June 14, 2013.
As a matter of fact, I had to keep myself from wagging a finger at the crowd behind me who gasped when she revealed that she was raped as a young girl. All I could think was: Read a book! That was her first autobiography!
But I had a legend in my presence—far more pressing. I knew she would weave relevant anecdotes and poetry to catch the audience up with her story. I was already where she needed me to be. Maya Angelou was on stage and I was at her knee ready and waiting.
I hung on her every word—-
Her counsel to our students that they be courageous, that they “dare to care” and “be a rainbow in the clouds” were all incredibly moving. The stories told to punctuate the point were painted beautifully, but I was her student too and I was listening for my new lesson, the lesson for a me older than the one who met her in Ms. Flowers’ parlor. I waited as she made us laugh, sharing that she didn’t trust people who didn’t laugh—we laughed on cue. She spoke about the use of the ‘N’ word and paused to sing a few lines of a blues. I perked up because both of these topics were part of my language arts curriculum. Neither topic appearing on any standardized exam, but topics that would allow my students to understand and even converse with Maya Angelou — far more important than test scores.
But I knew she had more for me. Greedy, I know. After all I didn’t expect to be in the presence of one of my sheroes while celebrating Class 2013. But I was right there when she worked Momma’s store in Stamps, Arkansas and I watched as she hung on the back of a San Francisco street car that she would eventually break barriers to conduct. She had already taught me so much through her example, her charm and her sass, but I knew she had more to teach me and I was a ready-student marveling at the fact that she was right in front of me. I watched as she stopped and started searching a book of poems for a poem to read to us. It was then that I realized that she had started her speech with the words I needed most.
Having interrupted one of my student-poets who was going to introduce her (really he was) she introduced herself with an off-handed mention of her numerous honorary degrees and a quick reference to the litany of publications that we know to be treasures and then she paused. She paused as if she was recognizing it while the words left her mouth…
She stopped for emphasis, “I am a teacher who writes.” Above all she counted her students at Wake Forest University and her students around the globe as her greatest blessing.
And in that moment she helped me find answers, find language and reaffirm my soul’s calling.
I am a teacher who writes.