This morning, upon finding out that Maya Angelou died, I found myself paralyzed with emotions I couldn’t quite convey.
The same thing happened when Adrienne Rich died.
Like Adrienne, I didn’t immediately understand the rich history behind Maya’s words. I discovered Maya when I was in the 5th grade, about 10 years before I discovered Adrienne. You could venture to say that Maya is one of those poet friends who both simultaneously reminds me of my childhood and of my college years, when I truly became aware of the varying degrees on inequality and injustice in our world.
I remember the nerdy conversation I had with my 5th grade teacher, Mrs. B. She was the one who introduced me to reading poetry for pleasure, as well as the idea of being the sort of teacher who takes on a more personal role with students. I told her reading poetry was boring, and she came in the next day with a copy of Life Doesn’t Frighten Me she had checked out of the library for me. I remember begrudgingly reading the book and being surprised that poetry wasn’t a waste of time, although it would be years before I read poetry again on my own. A few years after Mrs. B introduced me to Maya, she died of a combination of various cancers. Mrs. B was an adoptive grandmother to me, right up until her death, and she managed to give me life lessons even after fifth grade was done.
It seems fitting that Maya Angelou passed today, as it’s also the 11th anniversary of Mrs. B’s death.
I’m mourning the loss of a woman who gave a voice to so many people, before they could even articulate words that needed to be said. I’m mourning the loss of the reassurance that a poetic great is still living and breathing words into our struggling world. I’m mourning a monumental loss that can barely be articulated.
When news broke of Maya Angelou’s death at my school, there was a sense of loss amongst my English teacher peers. And then… a few of my students were discussing her death while I took attendance. I was half listening, not ready to answer their teenage ruminations and questions, when I was once again paralyzed, this time by disbelief.
My students confused Maya Angelou with Nelson Mandela.
I immediately stopped what I was doing and played a video of “Still I Rise.”
(The poem starts at 0:44.)
The students were silent until the very end, and then all a single student could say was, “Damn. Preach, Maya.”
This is why I teach poetry– to give a voice to students, to expose them to dialogue, to start a dialogue, and to create a relationship between the past and the present.
Thank you, Maya, for giving me a reason to teach, for giving me a voice to listen to, and for giving thousands upon thousands of people the gift of your words.