First off, I was never really a reader, especially not poetry or prose, so I am not going to try to pretend that I can speak with any degree of expertise on the writing acumen of Maya Angelou. I am bringing up Maya Angelou largely because of what she means about teaching and working with students in general. She obviously has meant a great deal to the teachers and professors of the English language, but I can’t really speak to that. Her passing led me to think a number of specific thoughts, and I wanted to get them out here.
What if Maya Angelou was a K-12 teacher?
Maya Angelou lived a life of various roles, but the more recent role that she played was as a teacher. In fact, she was scheduled to teach a class this fall at Wake Forest University, where Angelou has been a professor for over 20 years, all during a part of her life where most people could have been retired. In a district where myself and other teachers are currently counting pennies and percentages surrounding their next contract it is interesting to think that someone with such talent and ability would spend her final years working to teach others.
Here’s an interesting thought, what if this quote had taken place, and if Maya Angelou lived her entire life as a teacher.
If I had taught before I started writing books, I might have never written a book. – Maya Angelou
She may not have provided the world with her books, but she would still have an impact. Angelou would have touched a great many number of people, and those people would have taken her lessons forward, and so on. Could Angleou the full-time teacher have had the same impact on the world throughout her 86 years, as the poet/writer Angelou? That’s a good question. And I think she might have. If she had, would our current K-12 school system be able to support her in making the most impact? I worry that our schools are too tied to bureaucracy and regulations to help an insanely talented person like Angelou do their best work, but I think it’s possible for there to be one school somewhere that she could have made a tremendous difference.
How would Maya Angelou work with students?
Reading the news of Angelou’s passing led me to episode of the show Iconoclast where she was featured. This show takes two people who are a famous and lets them converse with each other while the cameras merely record their interaction. This episode pairs Maya Angelou, the award-winning poet, with Dave Chappelle, the “Rick James” guy.
The whole show is interesting, though it mostly centers around Chappelle, but interaction between the pair in the show gave me some insight into what she must have been like as a teacher. When you watch the show, you can imagine Chappelle coming into talk with Mrs. Angelou at lunch time. Chappelle needed to talk. At this point in his life, he just turned away from a 50 million dollar deal and disappeared from the entertainment circuit, and was looking for general guidance. Some kids in my class now are in a similar state mentally (if not financially) to where he was at that time, and they need guidance just as badly.
Maybe I am reading too much into this video, but I think this whole episode showcases Angelou building a relationship with Chappelle, listening to his concerns, and trying to give him very good guidance despite having only limited information. As a teacher, I look at the discussion segments in this session as an ideal scenario of how my interactions with students could be someday. Yes, I understand that she is insanely wise, and speaks so eloquently that everyone listening to her walks away changed, and she is really good with words, so it won’t be easy. However, as a teacher watching the final 3 minutes of part three, you have to aspire to have the ability to help kids have such profound insights. But if you watch the final sequence of Dave Chappelle travelling away deep in thought, you can see there are so many wheels turning so deeply in his head that he doesn’t even care that a camera is pointed at his face. I wish I could have that effect with students, even if it is largely unattainable. She tells one story about how she made an angry swearing Tupac Shakur and talked to him until he started crying and had to call his mom. Who wouldn’t want to be able to do that?
What if all our students are future Nobel laureates?
During the first part of part three, Maya Angelou recalled a story harrowing story about here life. The story began when she was a seven year old visiting her family in St. Louis:
I was there a couple of months when my mother’s boyfriend raped me. The man was put in jail for one day, and night, and released. When police came to my grandmothers house, they came and they told her that the man had beeen found dead and it seemed he was kicked to death.
They said that within my hearing.
I decided that my voice had killed a man, so I wouldn’t speak. I spent six years of my life as a mute, and words became very important to me.
This story of Maya Angelou’s rape sounds like a horrible thing, let alone to then grapple with the knowledge that someone was essentially murdered on your behalf. With such a terrible event, it makes plenty of sense why she would become mute. It took her six years to gain the courage to speak again, but learning that courage helped her develop her appreciation for the english language. It must have been very difficult for her teachers to work with a kid who couldn’t speak. What about the kids in your class who aren’t sharing, aren’t trying, or aren’t coming to class at all, and thinking about all of the things that they must be going through. Are those students going to be given the space and the support they need to work through whatever is going on with them? It seems like our job is to treat those students not as wayward sheep, but as the next Maya Angelou.
These are just a couple of thoughts I had immediately after hearing the news of her passing, but I would be intersted to hear what other people thought. If you want to hear more, there are some videos on the Wake Foreset Maya Angelou Rememberance page, including an interview with MSNBC anchor and a former student Mellisa Harris-Perry