The memory will stay with me forever: it was a stormy Texas night — lightning, thunder, pounding rain so fierce that the cavernous church building reverberated with the sounds. And yet, the pews were filled with families — mothers, fathers, and their children. They were here, cheek by jowl, wet from the rain and dressed as though it was the Sunday 11 a.m. service. Most were African American, though some in the audience were white.
Their faces all registered the same excited anticipation. No one could sit still, but we tried to maintain composure. Even the children somehow sensed that this evening was a special one. Some were my University of North Texas students, and as I paced about, handing out programs, responding to questions about seating, and the poetry of our guest speaker, I thought about what would entice work-weary parents in the middle of the week to dress up, dress their children, come out in the storm and sit in a church — waiting. One answer: Maya Angelou, who passed away Wednesday at the age of 86.
The tattered copies of “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” were carefully clutched by parents, even in the church, as though they did not quite trust the church building not to allow a drop of rain to enter. A little pixie of a girl sat between her mother and father, with her dad patiently pointing out sections of the work. A grandmother captured just one more loose lock of her granddaughter’s hair, making sure the braid was in its proper place. And then, it began.
While the church had echoed with excited buzz, once Angelou entered all was quiet. As Angelou walked down the transept, an elementary school-age girl slowly walked toward her, carrying a bouquet of red roses; the bouquet was so large, we could barely see her. Only her white patent leather shoes shone brightly. The poet ascended the stairs and took to the lectern, and we settled in and reveled in her readings. No one moved. No one thought about getting up. No other sounds. Just her commanding voice — at once both assertive and passionate, curious and puckish; sensitive and sustaining. What Angelou did not know that evening in 1994 in a large Southern Black Baptist church in Dallas was that several elementary schools had their students create poems they wanted to read to her. So, this night, she was not only writer, activist and artist, she was also a mentor standing before them. At the conclusion of her readings, the children, walking in her footsteps to the lectern, read their poems — standing straight, sounding clear, clearly focused.
I have been an English teacher for more than 30 years, from high school to university, teaching in Texas for many of them. Again and again, I have found that students connect with writers with whom they identify. Most often effective instruction occurs with good storytelling. Maya Angelou is and will always be a great teller of stories: her weaving of the words, the images, the people, the moments speak to every reader, even the youngest ones.
My former high school students tell me that Angelou seems to see exactly how they feel, seems to allow them to examine and understand events and moments from a safe distance that trouble them in their present.
One day at Irving High in 1977, I read to my 10th-grade class from “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.” They sat very still, taken by the words. These students were my remedial class and usually didn’t listen so attentively. I remember one young lady’s reaction in particular, even so many years later.
I read this quote: “If growing up is painful for the Southern Black girl, being aware of her displacement is the rust on the razor that threatens the throat. It is an unnecessary insult.”
Until that time, this student had said little in class, other than acting out. Now something had changed. She remained behind until the other students left the classroom and asked in a quiet voice, “May I take your copy of the book home?”
Jocelyn A. Chadwick has been a high school and college English teacher for more than 30 years and is now a lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She is chair of the secondary school steering committee for the National Council of Teachers of English.