Opinion
Polka Dot Portraits

What Maya Angelou taught our students

The poet and writer showed young people the power of words and the importance of perseverance

June 1, 2014 3:30AM ET

I was afraid to pick up the phone and call Maya Angelou. It was 1997, and my friend David Domenici and I had just started a school in Washington, D.C. for kids who had been arrested. The school was less than a year old, but one thing was already clear: We needed a new name, a real name. We had been calling ourselves the See Forever School, and while the phrase had some resonance (we told kids that they were learning to see beyond tomorrow, to “see forever”), our students didn’t love it.

“We need a school with a real name,” said an 11th grader named Dante. “When we go to college or look for a job, we don’t want to say we went to the ‘See Forever School.’ It just doesn’t sound like any school anybody has heard of.”

It was a fair point, and since we were committed to building a community where students helped make decisions, we decided to have a school-naming contest.  Students wrote essays making the case for different names, and the finalists gave speeches before an audience of family, teachers and peers. A 10th grader named Sherti spoke in favor of choosing Maya Angelou, and, after deliberating, the judges agreed. (Malcolm X was a close second.)

Which brings me to the phone call I was avoiding. Now it was my job to ask Angelou for her permission. We had a relationship — she was a close friend of my grandmother, the writer Jessica Mitford, and eventually she adopted the rest of our family and became my unofficial godmother. (If only our mother had been Christian, she once told my brother and me, Angelou would have been our godmother for real.)

But however strong our ties were, this would be a big ask. I wanted her to lend her name to a brand-new school, one whose only admission requirement was a past arrest. David and I had good intentions but no track record, and there was no guarantee that our school would bring glory to her name. As I dialed, I told myself that she would likely let me down easily; she would say that she needed to think about it, to talk to her people, and that she would get back to me. But then she wouldn’t, and her silence would be the answer.

Instead she responded: “Of course, dear. I would be honored.” That was all — seven words, each resonant and measured. And with those words, by saying yes, she told our students she thought they were worthy.

Her name was more than I had the right to ask for, but it was only the beginning. A few months later she came to our first fundraiser, where we unveiled the school’s new name. Sherti, who was invited to speak, told the crowd that Angelou had suffered terribly as a child, that she had experienced violence and rejection. Yet she hadn’t been defeated by anything, and neither would Sherti or her classmates.

“See Forever students have had a lot of problems too,” Sherti said. “We have problems in our neighborhoods, our homes and inside of ourselves. But like Dr. Angelou, the students of See Forever are using hard work and education to create a new future.”

Angelou kept coming back after that first fundraiser. For 17 years, even when her health was failing and she needed an oxygen tank nearby, she would get on the bus and log the miles from Winston-Salem, North Carolina, to D.C. There were no inaugural throngs at our events. No television cameras, no glamour. Just a few kids whom most of the world had abandoned.

Teachers like to say, “Character is who you are when nobody is looking.” Maya Angelou was there when nobody was looking.

Words go into the upholstery, into the rugs, and then into my hair. They go into my clothes. Even into my body.

Maya Angelou

Before every fundraiser, she would meet privately with the students. Some years, she lectured them: I remember her saying that women were not b-----s and blacks were not n-----s (Angelou herself would never speak these words). She explained how she had persuaded Richard Pryor to stop using such words (for a while).

“I believe words are things,” she said, “and the N word is a thing that was created to strip people of their humanity.” Think of a bottle, a bottle labeled “poison,” she told them. You would never put that into your body. Words can go into your body, too, she said. “Those words, they go into the upholstery, into the rugs, and then into my hair. They go into my clothes. Even into my body.”  She looked into their eyes, one by one. And under her gaze, in her presence, our students were still. Her words were most certainly entering them.

Maya Angelou
Maya Angelou visits her eponymous school in Washington D.C.
See Forever Foundation & Maya Angelou Public Charter School / facebook

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.

James Forman Jr. is a Clinical Professor of Law at Yale Law School, where he directs the Educational Opportunity and Juvenile Justice Clinic.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter