Remembering Maya Angelou — a teacher of life

angelouIn 1994, just before Christmas, I embarrassed myself, just a little, at Maya Angelou’s house.

She had made a great big, delicious lasagna for her students, and I served myself a large portion.

“That’s too much, Mr. Post,” she said. “You don’t need to eat that much.”

She was right. I put some back.

After all, I was almost twenty years older than the other students in the class. I had a slower metabolism, and a bigger waistline. And I do eat too much.

This was the final class of the semester and Dr. Angelou had invited us to her house for dinner and  an evening of reciting poetry.

I was a student in that class, and that’s a key distinction. Student.  I was not a fan, and she made sure of that.

She was a renaissance woman, an American superstar of performance, letters, education, transformation, and wisdom. I had her books. I was at Clinton’s Inauguration, with a real ticket, close enough, with binoculars, to see her stun the nation with her grace and artistry as she delivered her poem,  “On the Pulse of Morning.”

And, thanks to an invitation from Laura Godfrey, Robert Jones and I went to Wake Forest one summer afternoon in 1994 and saw her speak to a group of Japanese exchange students.

After her talk she signed autographs. I did not ask for the autograph. I asked her if I could be in her class in the fall semester.

She said yes, if I would be there as a student, not as a fan.

I agreed, and she held me to that agreement.

It was a weekly class, on Tuesdays at 3pm. Each week, we were assigned a book to read and a paper to write. I read each book during the week and then read it again on weekends. Dr. Angelou asked a lot of questions, and she did not wait for me to raise my hand. She called on me frequently. She made sure the older guy in the room was there as a student, not as a fan.

Until now, I’ve honored that special request of hers. Shortly after that class, Frank DeLoach suggested I write a column about the experience for The Salisbury Post. I declined.

I had to get special permission to leave West Rowan Middle School an hour early, one day a week, to go to this class. Dr. Danny Thomas, the Assistant Superintendent at that time, had to get it cleared by the school board. I was a technology facilitator in a middle school and this class had nothing to do with my field of work. In order to embark on this adventure, I signed an unusual agreement saying that if I did not spend the next five years in the school system I would reimburse the system a certain amount of money, according to a formula set forth in the agreement, for those fifteen missed hours.

I needed name tags, bad. The first day of class, she went around the room and played the name game. It only took one round for her. She knew all of our names immediately. Then it was our turn. Each of us had to go around the room and speak each other’s names. We did this for several weeks. There were forty students in the class. Being the victim I can imagine myself to be when left to my own devices, I thought this was a little harder for me and a bit unfair. I went to Wake Forest. It’s not that big of a school. Many of them already knew each other! Of course I didn’t say that. It would have carried no weight at all with Maya Angelou. She was tough as nails and had earned the right to be so — while at the same time she personified, and gave language to, a personal and global stand for compassion and forgiveness and respect.

In those fresh and heady days, after the exciting Clinton victory of ’92 and just prior to Gingrich’s snide take-back win in ’94, there was a lot of possibility aflutter. She had been a star at the inauguration.

She loved her fame, and the platform it made available to her — and she loved teaching.

She joked that Nelson Mandela, who had just been elected President of South Africa, had asked her out. She got a huge laugh from the class when she described herself reprimanding him for making a play for her, because he was “still married to Winnie.”

She missed one of our classes and brought in a substitute professor from a different university so she could go to Los Angeles and shoot a movie, How to Make an American Quilt.

“He’s shooting around me so I only miss one class,” she said.

One afternoon, a bee flew in the open window and Dr. Angelou flew out the classroom door, waiting until someone got the bee out. She was allergic.

Another day, the TV cameras and crew were there, and I got to see a glimpse of myself on a national news magazine type of show (can’t remember which one).

She often said that she loved teaching so much that if she had become a teacher before she had become a writer, she never would have become a writer.

She was in a state of loving awe for her son, and took time in every class to talk about him.

The course was “The Philosophy of Liberation.” We read and discussed To the Lighthouse, by Virginia Woolf, Federico García Lorca’s “The House of Bernardo Alba,” Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible,” Wole Soyinka’s The Man Died, Kobo Abe’s The Woman in the Dunes, Paule Marshall’s Praisesong for the Widow, James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, and a number of others I no longer remember.

That winter evening, after the salad and garlic bread and lasagna, shortly before Christmas break, with Wake Forest students feeling the weight of exams and me, the oddball teacher from Salisbury, hoping I would look good and remember the poem I had memorized, we all gathered in the living room of this wonderful, generous woman — an international celebrity. The chairs were set in rows, a close, cozy arrangement. One by one, each of us took our turn at the front of the room to recite our poem.

That was our final exam. Enjoy a meal at her house, memorize a poem of our choice, and give it to the class.

I memorized Shelly’s “Ozymandias,” a sonnet, fourteen lines in iambic pentameter. It was a challenge for me, but a safe choice, and fairly typical for the evening.

There was a young man in that class with a physical handicap that affected his voice and required him to read, in a labored fashion, one word at a time, with one eye barely an inch from the page, bearing down on it with a magnifying glass.

A moment I’ll never forget is when he came to the front of the room.

“What’s your poem?” she asked.

The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” he said.

“The whole thing?” she asked.

“Yes,” he said. There was no hesitancy. No emotion. No confidence. Nothing.

I remember thinking, “Can he do that? Is he going to be all right?” I had suffered for a week learning fourteen lines. Prufrock is 131 meandering lines of various lengths that take all kinds of odd twists and turns.

He delivered it from the heart. He was Prufrock. It was one of the most authentic, moving, powerful experiences of my life.

Dr. Angelo had created the perfect space for that young man to transform who he was for all of us that night. He ambled to the front of the room as a kid with special needs. When he took his seat, a few minutes later, he was an engaging, magnetic, delightfully giving human being.

I’m so sorry to hear this loving, graceful, remarkable woman has passed away, and I regret that I never made an effort to contact her in any way since then. She said, and made sure we got, that we were not her students in that class only, but students of hers for life. And that’s true. With her legacy, we were, and are, students of hers for life. I cherish the memory of that class, am grateful for it, and, like millions of people around the world, am extraordinarily honored to have known her.

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