MY MOMENT WITH MAYA ANGELOU
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It was 2008, and it would be the last time I saw my Girl Scout colleagues as a group. Girl Scouts USA was embarking on a national merger, and by this time next year, half of the Girl Scout councils in the US would no longer exist. More than 800 of us were gathered in Washington, DC for a national Girl Scout Leadership conference, the atmosphere both antagonistic and resigned. On our final night together as a group, Maya Angelou spoke to us about the importance and power of our work. Given the mood of the room, she had a tough sell ahead of her. Old and frail, she had to be helped to the podium. She could no longer stand to deliver her messages, but when she opened her mouth and began singing phrases from a negro spiritual, every last person in the room was hypnotized. I felt something peculiar happening inside me – the same feeling I get when I hear Dr. King deliver his “I have a dream” speech. It’s a feeling that goes beyond inspiration: deeper, almost primal.
She spoke about being poor, and being raised in Arkansas, being pregnant at 16 and weeping bitter tears because she believed could never become: a scholar, a teacher, a businesswoman, free. She thought that she could never land anywhere other than where her circumstances had led her: poor, uneducated, an unwed mother. “Today,” she told us, “I have about 60 doctorates, and I don’t tell you this to brag. I tell you this because along the way, someone ‘smoothed the road’ for me. Many people made my road less of a travail than theirs.”
She talked about her Uncle Bill who had a strange speech impediment but who nevertheless made her practice her enunciation of vowels with great earnestness. He would threaten to grab her by the neck and throw her in the coal stove if she didn’t. Secretly, she wondered how Uncle Bill had the gall to demand such perfection from her when he could barely string together a simple sentence. Her story was very funny, and at the end of it came Uncle Bill’s death, and his funeral, and the convergence of hundreds of people who came to pay tribute. Many told Angelou “if it weren’t for your Uncle Bill, I wouldn’t be able to read.” Angelou looked at the audience and said, “My Uncle Bill? The one who could barely speak himself?” Then she paused. “The reach,” she said. “Think of the reach of this man, who lived on the red dirt, with little more than a tin roof and a coal stove, and a pregnant niece as his life possessions. The reach,” she continued, “is just unimaginable for one man, who had barely nothing himself. But he smoothed the road for many, just as you are doing for countless girls. Your reach can’t be known by you, either.”
For those of us in the audience who knew our work with the Girl Scouts would end in less than a year, this was a most unexpected and profound gift of thanks.
Aside from her engaging and beautifully delivered story, I felt something else I rarely feel — a connectedness to other people. As she spoke, I realized (later) that she was bringing everyone in the room together, even the wait staff and the musicians, and the people who straggled in from the janitorial staff to hear her talk. Imagine – almost 1,000 people, some of us complete strangers, and we were all brothers and sisters for those 45 minutes when Angelou held the mic. It was so emotional, and we were all feeling it. No-one moved, no-one talked, no-one shifted in their seat. The room was as still as a rock at the bottom of a stream. People were wiping at their eyes. I’m not sure why I felt so overwhelmed and astonished. I think it’s because we spend so much time feeling divided, that when we are brought together through the humanity of words — words authentically delivered that unflinchingly remind us that we are not and cannot ever be alone, that we must smooth the road for each other and care deeply about everything — then that is a feeling we are not accustomed to. It is powerful beyond words. I remember falling asleep that night remembering her words, her face, her smile, and how for a moment, I gave up my soul to her. When Angelou finished speaking, she gave it back, but it came with something else. A small but bright flame of recognition that being human requires us to think, to do, and to never look away from the one we think has no use. That our job is always to “smooth the road” for others, even if we will never know who they are.