Phenomenal Woman: Maya Angelou

This fall when my students study I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings it won’t be the same due to the passing of Maya Angelou last week.

Just as we all have to deal with the death of loved ones as we live our lives, an English teacher has to deal with the death of writers whose work inspires life lessons in the classroom.  When you teach literature for a quarter of a century, you’re bound to go through some grieving.

I had several former students come by my room to make sure that I knew of Maya Angelou’s death, almost to share in the common grief.  

What also eased my sense of loss was the framed note hanging on the wall behind my classroom desk.

A few years back during a unit I regularly teach on tolerance which includes Angelou’s first memoir Caged Bird, her poems, and a documentary with Bill Moyers, I suggested that my students write letters to the author to let her know how much her work has meant to them.   They were expressionless at first, the thought to contact a writer never crossing their minds.

So, the students wrote, the letters were sent, and soon a reply came.

“It is a wonderful feeling to know that my words have touched you and your students,” Dr. Maya Angelou wrote.  

The kids were ecstatic that such a renowned literary figure took the time to read their letters and write back.  I’m so glad my students did that while she was still living.  How reassuring it must have been for her to know how her writing about racism during the Great Depression affected 21st century teenagers.

When teaching a highly regarded literary work, there is something special knowing that the author is still alive, that a reader could make contact with the soul behind the words.

It’s rewarding to introduce students to Elie Wiesel’s Night, a memoir of his Holocaust experiences, and for them to discover YouTube videos of him speaking today at age 85.

To Kill a Mockingbird’s 88-year-old Harper Lee continues to live with her 102-year-old sister Alice in a nursing home in Alabama.

However, teaching Fahrenheit 451 hasn’t felt the same since Ray Bradbury passed away two years ago.

Also framed on my classroom wall is a signed letter from Robert Mulligan, director of the 1962 film “To Kill a Mockingbird” based on Lee’s classic novel.   I asked my students to write him after we spent a good deal of time analyzing the movie.  

Two weeks later an envelope arrived.

“I was truly touched by their letters and I ask you to tell them how grateful I am for their kind, thoughtful, and intelligent thoughts,” he wrote.   The students were thrilled.   Eighteen months later, Mr. Mulligan died.  

I use these examples to show my students why it is important to reach out and contact people that have made a difference in their lives, and not to let the moment pass without letting them know.   You never know who may respond. 

Writers have no idea how a reader responds to their words unless they receive feedback since writing and reading are both solitary activities.   Sending a note of thanks is a form of charity, “paying it forward” in today’s vernacular.  

True, an artist’s work lives on past his lifetime, but how much more meaningful it is having that artist living amongst us and being able to make a connection.

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