Shortly after moving to New York City, I had the honor of meeting Maya Angelou. Unlike the random glimpses of celeb elite on crowded streets or in dark corners of restaurants, a simple author event turned into a powerful life lesson.
It happened on the cusp of a losing battle with the New York public school system, and after I’d been handed over and reluctantly accepted the honorary title of homeschool teacher/mom. Defeated, I worked hard to create an environment that took the sting out of the fact that my daughter, Jordan, wasn’t surrounded by peers in a classroom. We’d been discussing poetry and creative writing for her English requirements, when I heard about the next author event at Barnes & Noble, Union Square. Maya Angelou. The only caveat, she was promoting her latest book, a cookbook, Great Food, All Day Long. And I quietly worried that her appearance and conversation wouldn’t be in any way focused on all of her others works. Hesitation proved brief.
Quickly we organized our lessons around Angelou’s works. I shared my knowledge from my time in college, and from reading her books, articles, watching her in videos and in conversations with Oprah. Jordan read her biography and shared facts and daily trivia with me, like, did I know, “Maya Angelou worked as a street car conductor in San Francisco?” I didn’t know. And so the student taught the teacher too. This continued for weeks until we made our way through the crowds, finding prime seats in the first few rows. We awaited her arrival like family at an airport watching for that first glimpse of a loved one we hadn’t seen in ages.
Surprising us all, Angelou arrived in a wheelchair, appearing fragile and aging. Then she smiled at the crowd as she glanced around the room, happy to see her fans. She wore a black dress with dangling pearl earrings and dark red lipstick, looking elegant as always. Once she was settled on stage, she began speaking, and the strength of her words and her voice filled the room. You could no longer hear whispers, shuffling in seats or the buzzing traffic outside, only Maya Angelou speaking to us as if we were old friends. And all of a sudden you knew you were a part of something special, larger than life, something that couldn’t be captured in any other form, really, but being in that moment and savoring the lovely memory.
I managed to take a short video, featuring the last few things she shared with us. Next we were invited, as is customary at book signing events, to form a line on the side of the stage. I asked Jordan to calm down. She was nervous about meeting her and what she’d say. I didn’t want her to be disappointed and let her know that usually the process was quick with the assistant placing the yellow sticky note with your name on the page the author signs, and a brief exchange of words, usually not much more than a smile and a thank you.
But Maya Angelou was different. There were children touching her, drawn to her wise soul, and adults having conversations with her, laughing and lingering for more than mere seconds. Fans handed her flowers that she gladly accepted. And she looked completely in her element, at home with it all, comforted, perhaps, that she’d made such a difference in the world and people knew it and appreciated it. When it was Jordan’s turn to walk up the steps and stand in front of her, I stood off to her side, allowing her the moment.
“Where do you go to school in the city, Jordan?” Angelou asked.
Jordan looked at me nervously. “I don’t yet. I recently moved here and have to do homeschool until next year.”
I know she felt embarrassed as did I. But that didn’t last but a few seconds as Angelou looked at me, drawing me into the conversation. She caught Jordan by complete surprise as she took Jordan’s hand in hers and said, “Oh, that gives you time to read and study so many wonderful things.” And she began to give Jordan and me the name of a few books to study, allowing Jordan time to write them down. “Never stop learning,” Angelou reminded in a soft but urging voice. She chatted with the two of us for a few more minutes, sharing her thoughts on education and being a life long learner, not just in school, and not just from books. She asked questions about what I was teaching in homeschool and what Jordan was learning, smiling and nodding, whispering words of encouragement.
This morning when we found out about Maya Angelou’s passing, it felt personal, like we’d lost an old friend. I immediately pulled out the photos, the video, and even the cookbook from its perch on our kitchen counter where it’s been since that day in Union Square. I closed my eyes, thinking back to how she reached across the table and held Jordan’s hand tight in her own, reassuring us both about where we were then and the glorious path unfolding before us. Of course she was right as Jordan skipped a grade, due to our hard work, and now prepares for graduating from I.C.E., her NYC high school, and then an exciting move to Ithaca College in the fall, a glorious path indeed.
Wouldn’t take nothing for my journey now. ― Maya Angelou