President Bill Clinton reaches out to hug poet Maya Angelou after she delivered the inaugural poem at his 1993 inauguration in Washington, D.C. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan, File)

Years ago, Maya Angelou, who died on Wednesday, made a difference in the life of a young teacher. That teacher, Maja Wilson, explains how in the following post. Wilson is a teacher educator at the University of Maine, Farmington. She taught adult basic education, ESL, and high school in Michigan’s schools for ten years. She is the author of Rethinking Rubrics in Writing Assessment.

By Maja Wilson

Yesterday’s news of Maya Angelou’s death reminded me of one of my most treasured teaching experiences.

I was 24 years old, with my first teaching job at an adult education program in a rural town in West Michigan. Most of the town’s 2,000 residents knew each other. In fact, local high school students often visited my oldest student, Lucille, whom everyone called Grandma, to ask if the student he or she had a crush on was related. If not, they could date.

Most of my students were twice my age, and had lived lives for which my suburban childhood left me unprepared. In one home visit the week before school started, I sat in a living room with a swept dirt floor, nervously sipping the glass of milk I’d been offered as the family’s pet pig snored at my feet. In creating my first lesson plans later that day, I realized the truth of the matter: I had no idea what I was doing.

But I did one thing right that year. Every afternoon, I hosted book groups, when several couples from the Community Enrichment program joined my Basic Literacy class to read their choice of four different books in small groups. The most popular group was reading I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

I’d been nervous to use Angelou’s memoir; there was a deep racist streak in the town, and the school itself had recently had a racially charged incident. But Angelou’s story of struggle resonated deeply with my students, and when we finished Caged Bird, they decided to continue reading as many of her books as they could. So, later that year when I read in the newspaper that Angelou would be speaking at Hope College an hour away, I organized an evening field trip. When I announced the outing, several of my students admitted that they’d never been out of the county before.

Angelou spoke that spring evening in a small chapel. Our seats were close to the front, and we were all entranced by her presence — her grace and poise, her gorgeous voice that made music of her words. While waiting for the bus outside the chapel afterwards, my students excitedly chatted about what they’d heard. Our bus was late. The crowd slowly dispersed until we were standing alone, a young teacher with a band of eight or nine middle-aged, small-town men and women who had never finished high school.

That’s when Angelou walked out of the chapel. Before climbing into her car, which was parked at the curb, she paused to speak with each of my students, grasping their hands in both of hers, looking deeply into their eyes. Bob, an unemployed mechanic who missed class often because he was battling liver disease, told me later that he would never wash his hands.

No one who has read Angelou’s work can forget her stories. But my students and I will never forget those brief moments of connection with one human being with a story to tell — and a voice to tell it — to another.