MAYA ANGELOU

Focus on Future, Not the Past, Poet Maya Angelou Tells Oak Hill Center Youths

Maya Angelou smiles as Johnny Sorto, who lives at Oak Hill Youth Center, gives her a piece of art he created in her honor. The famed poet and writer spend half an hour at the youth detention facility in Laurel.
Maya Angelou smiles as Johnny Sorto, who lives at Oak Hill Youth Center, gives her a piece of art he created in her honor. The famed poet and writer spend half an hour at the youth detention facility in Laurel. (By Michael Williamson -- The Washington Post)
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By Robert E. Pierre
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 1, 2009

Maya Angelou has dozens of honorary doctorate degrees, speaks several languages and is recognized all over the world for the more than 30 books she's written.

But when she visited the Oak Hill Youth Center in Laurel yesterday, Angelou told dozens of young men that she was not all that different from them. She was abandoned as a child, raped at age 7 by her mother's boyfriend and became a teenage prostitute.

Life isn't about taking back, she said, but adding to what already exists. "Be yourself," she told the teens, who have all been deemed delinquent. "Try to be the real you, a man or woman who can do more than you think you can do."

Angelou, in town for a fundraiser for a charter school bearing her name, spent more than half an hour lecturing and listening to students such as Darius Watts, a 10th-grader at Oak Hill Academy, who said that he's reading "Animal Farm" and studying the Russian Revolution. At his previous school, outside Oak Hill, no one forced him to do class work, much less read the classics and study world history.

"No one seemed to care about us," Watts said. "We were never held accountable."

Oak Hill Academy, the school at the Oak Hill center, is run by the See Forever Foundation, the nonprofit that manages Maya Angelou Public Charter School in the District. Vincent N. Schiraldi, director of the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services, which oversees Oak Hill, has made it a point during his four-year tenure to expose many of the city's most delinquent youths to what many don't get at home: arts, culture and activities such as hiking and canoeing.

"You're smart enough and deep enough to understand Dr. Angelou," he told the youths in introducing her. "People always underestimate you."

Angelou said she know what it is like to be underestimated and judged dumb. After she was raped, Angelou said, she didn't speak for years, and many wondered what was wrong with her.

At 81, Angelou struggles to walk and aides carry around oxygen for her. But her mind remains strong. She remembered every student's name who spoke and beamed at the recognition.

Leonte Butler, 18, has been at Oak Hill for a year and is scheduled to get out in the next week. He was among four students who spoke yesterday. He riffed on Angelou's poem "Phenomenal Woman," in which the poet says:

Pretty women wonder where my secret lies

I'm not cute or built to suit a fashion model's size


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