In May of 2008, I had the opportunity to present a program based on my (at the time) latest released book, “Cooper Ridge, The Wonder Kid.” I was so excited to be working with the prestigious Kohler Public Schools in Wisconsin to bring my newest program–they were my “test” audience for the material that has become one of my staple offerings. A young audio visual student was setting up my microphone and sound testing. I thanked him and asked if they had a lot of author visits at the school. He casually responded, “Not really, but, last week, Maya Angelou was here.”
You could have heard the wind go out of my sales! I was following Maya Angelou? I felt doomed to disappoint. My sister and editor who had arranged for my visit hadn’t mentioned my “opening act,” and with good reason. I actually felt a little sick to my stomach at the thought of the countless ways I would never compare.
I’m sure writers across the world have stories to share, today, as they read about the unexpected passing of the former Poet Laureate at the age of 86. This is mine. To stand in front of students that had just, the week before, heard from Maya Angelou, was like stepping into such a huge pair of shoes at the front of the audience that the top of my head was barely visible.
The woman became known as a poet and actress, but with a humble background in what was once a racially divided nation, she actually had a lifetime of diverse experiences to lend itself to the broad range of themes her writing addressed. She will be missed, not just by those who knew her, but by those who, if even for a moment, got the opportunity to stand where she stood in the hopes that we could absorb some piece of her warmth, forged by strength, and bonded by beautiful words.
With no shortage of far more personal stories out today about a woman who truly helped to shape a modern literary field through her contemporary poetry, I think it’s best to allow her own words to speak for her from a 1985 interview: “What I would really like said about me is that I dared to love. By love, I mean that condition in the human spirit so profound it encourages us to develop courage and build bridges, and then to trust those bridges and cross the bridges in attempts to reach other human beings.”
I’m sure it’s been misattributed many times, but Maya Angelou once said, ” I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” May she be flying free today, because, Maya, you made us feel . . . alive.
Reji Laberje is an author, speaker, and collaborator of written works. Learn more at www.rejilaberje.com.