Honoring Maya Angelou on the Day of Her Passing--Reflecting and Reciting

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Dr. Maya Angelou died today. That's a statement that's difficult to write. It was even more difficult to read this morning when I received a text message with the news.

Just last night, as I sat at the hair salon, my stylist was playing a CD that had a track where Angelou was speaking. But more than that moment standing out to me are the many moments I spent as a teacher sharing Maya Angelou's life story, exposing students to her poetry, and dramatically reciting that poetry to those students. I will never forget the looks on their faces as they would watch me walk around the room in one of those recitations of either "Phenomenal Woman" or "Still I Rise." I will never forget how the poem made students feel; they were uplifted, inspired, and validated.

My first year as a teacher, I taught high school. I read Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings with my tenth grade honors English class. And for the rest of my 17-plus-year career as a junior high school English teacher, my classes would read an excerpt of that autobiographical work. Students learned of her hardships growing up with her grandmother in Stamps, Arkansas, after her birth in St. Louis, Missouri. They learned of the abuse she suffered at the hands of her mother's boyfriend, her emotional inability to speak afterwards, her transformation that resulted from Bertha Flowers, a teacher who reached out to her, and her powerful emergence as a leading voice in our world. Several years ago, a co-worker and I organized a trip to take our seventh graders to hear the poet speak at the Palace Theater in Albany, NY.

I resigned from teaching in October of last year to pursue other endeavors; that was seven months ago. It's odd to me, however, that today is the day I feel that a major aspect of my career has been laid to rest for the first time. Maya Angelou was a key part of my professional life and connection with my students. They were fascinated by her story and loved her poetry. In fact, I received a Facebook inbox today from a former student. He wrote:

Hello Mrs Ross.. I don't know if you remember me but you were my 8th grade teacher.. I know you heard about the passing of Maya Angelou.. Just made me think of the best English teacher I ever had because I know you were a huge fan of her art and literature. If it wasn't for you I wouldn't have been able to enjoy her work.

Another former student commented on a Facebook status I posted upon hearing of Angelou's passing. She wrote:

I cried when I heard the news. I remember the first poem I read of hers and it was in your class.

Not only has Maya Angelou had an impact on my past career, she influences my current work. As a motivational/public speaker, I have used her poetry to inspire my audience. In January, I recited a portion of "Still I Rise," one of my favorite Angelou poems, to get my point across. Listen to me reciting from it and discussing it below; those brief comments are from the 8:25-11:00 marks.


Below is a video that was recorded and posted today. I am reciting "Still I Rise" in its entirety:

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