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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.

 

 


13 Comments

  1. Ken Caputo said...

    Powerful. She had that affect on so many of us. What an inspirational person that cared deeply about all people. To have experienced the power and force of her speaking in person in a memory that will last a lifetime. Thanks for the share, Janice.

    Comment posted on June 9, 2014 at 9:12 am

  2. Susan Woodward said...

    Wow, Janice. Beautifully done.

    Comment posted on June 9, 2014 at 9:46 am

  3. Susan Ratcliff said...

    I was sitting right next to you that night as we turned our undivided attention to Maya Angelou. It had been a rough few days for us, as we not only had the realization that our councils were being merged, but also, our career paths would soon be changing as well. Her words helped ease the pain of “what we knew to be true” was about to change. We would be facing both professional and personal challenges, but at the moment she spoke all of that went away. She was an amazing women and her words will carry us forever. Your article was beautiful…

    Comment posted on June 9, 2014 at 10:58 am

  4. Larry Beahan said...

    A great moment.

    Comment posted on June 9, 2014 at 12:56 pm

  5. Ann said...

    You have learned well for it is in reading YOUR words, whatever the context, that you make us feel safe…safe to surrender OUR souls. Then you return them….lifting us to a new level of being ready and willing to do whatever is next. Maya Angelou inspired countless individuals and but you represent those who carry on her work. Profound gratitude to you my friend.

    Comment posted on June 9, 2014 at 5:08 pm

  6. Janice said...

    That is perhaps the kindest and most meaningful compliment I have ever received, Thank you.

    Comment posted on June 9, 2014 at 5:33 pm

  7. Janice said...

    @Susan. Yes, I remember you sitting next to me (as you often did, poor thing) and whatever petty and large grievances we were feeling for the powers-that-be that night simply dissolved under the influence of Angelou’s words. To command a room like that — full of disgruntled women — is nothing short of miraculous, and I felt a little bit as though she was some kind of miracle, a person who could never be ordinary or invisible even if she tried…

    Comment posted on June 9, 2014 at 5:37 pm

  8. Molly Keeney said...

    I was with you and Susan too that night but your memory is so much better than mine. Thank you, Janice, for reminding me of that most meaningful talk. You do have a way with capturing the message and the feelings it produced. Thanks again.

    Comment posted on June 9, 2014 at 8:14 pm

  9. Janice said...

    Molly, I confess…I actually wrote about this in 2008 after she spoke to us. It took me a little while to find it, but I’m glad I did, because otherwise I wouldn’t have remembered the story about Uncle Bill. However, I DID remember how she made us all feel, bringing to life her oft-quoted phrase: “People will forget what you said. People will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

    Comment posted on June 9, 2014 at 8:29 pm

  10. Pam Hyland said...

    Janice, thank you for your inspirational message about a night I too treasured. How fortunate we have been to have heard so many amazing women and men share their stories with us over our Girl Scout careers. Thank you for carrying on the spirit of Maya Angelou…

    Comment posted on June 9, 2014 at 10:35 pm

  11. Janice said...

    That night in 2008 touched so many of us in the same way. Maya Angelou struck a common chord in such an uncommon way.

    Comment posted on June 9, 2014 at 10:44 pm

  12. Laura Burns said...

    Thank you for helping us remember Maya in such a powerful way.

    Thank you for carrying her torch.

    Thank you for reminding us to be vigilant. As her/your Uncle Bill story reminds us, with good intention and kindness we all are capable of a certain degree of “reach”.

    I miss you.

    Comment posted on June 18, 2014 at 6:26 pm

  13. Janice said...

    I often think about how quickly these moments of inspiration leave us when we’re in the midst of tackling our day-to-day issues. Some people, like Angelou, and certainly like her Uncle Bill, seem to be able to hold on to them as a way of life. That’s something worth striving for, even if we aren’t successful 100% of the time. Thanks for your comment, Laura. Wish that Ontario were closer!

    Comment posted on June 18, 2014 at 8:58 pm

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