But Angelou didn’t come to D.C. mainly to lecture our students; she came to inspire them. She told them that they were her children, and she called on them to find the best in themselves.
“One of you,” she would say, pointing to the rows of black teenagers, “one of you will find a cure for cancer. One of you will help slide us away from AIDS, and from racism. One of you, maybe you, or you, or you, will help end poverty, and reduce homelessness.” Then, suspecting that the audience, or the students themselves, might not share her faith, she would return to her own story.
“People had given up on me,” she would say. “Poor child on the dirt roads of Arkansas. When I didn’t speak, neighbors would say, ‘Poor girl, she must have gone mental.’” And then, after a long, long pause, Angelou would rise up, take the measure of her own fabulousness and say, “Well, look at me now.”
The students would erupt, joyful, cheering. They screamed with the thrill of knowing that if she did it, and if she believed they could do it, then maybe they could. For one night with Maya Angelou, there were no cops doing stop-and-frisk, no homes without heat, no gunshots, no stifling racism or shattering wealth inequality. There was only her belief in you. Yes, look at her now. Look at her now.
Sherti started a tradition: Students spoke at every fundraiser. One year a young woman named Ryan talked about her experience in a summer course at Cornell, where she had been one of the few black students. One of the books on the reading list was Ron Suskind’s “A Hope in the Unseen.” Ryan identified with the protagonist, a young man named Cedric, who grew up in a poor section of D.C. and went on to Brown University. But several of her fellow students thought Cedric had made a mistake. They said that he didn’t belong at Brown, that he should have chosen a school where he wouldn’t have struggled so much. The professor seemed to agree with them. Finally, Ryan raised her hand and said, “If nothing good can come out of an inner-city neighborhood, what am I doing here?”
Before she could repeat the question she had asked in class that day, Ryan stopped speaking and lowered her head. Her peers, who were standing below her in front of the stage, called out: “It’s all right, Ryan.” They consoled her and cheered her on.
Maya Angelou was listening from the side of the auditorium, in a section behind a railing. When Ryan froze, Angelou stood up. Maybe she was thinking of walking onto the stage. Maybe her emotion made it impossible for her to sit passively; maybe she was standing in solidarity with Ryan. In any case, simply by rising, she showed the connection she felt with our students. After all, she understood better than anyone how crushing it could be to encounter people who dismissed the hope and possibility that her life illustrated: Something good can come out of anywhere.
After a few moments of silence, Ryan lifted her head again, tears streaming down her face. But she resumed her speech like a champion and was met with overwhelming applause.
When the news broke that Angelou had died, alumni of our school posted tributes and photographs on Facebook. Some shared photos from the fundraisers, where they had posed beside her. One student took a picture of his diploma and wrote that he was proud to be a graduate of the Maya Angelou Public Charter School. Another student addressed her directly in the style of a text message.
“Every year,” he wrote, “u would come by and bless us with ur kind words and call us ur children when no else really accepted us. . . . U taught us a lot about forgiveness and how to move forward.”
In our students’ memories and by her example, she will teach them forever.