Some speakers own the room. Maya Angelou owned the campus.
Nearing the end of college at Wake Forest University, I hadn’t taken a class from the famed writer and Poet Laureate, Maya Angelou. I heard her speak on occasion at the university during which her deep, thunderous voice filled the auditorium and settled over the listeners like a thick, musty haze.
She was never afraid to address uncomfortable topics like prejudice, discrimination and sexuality, but she did it in a way that was both tantalizing and terrifying. While she verbally welcomed exchanges and debate, you never knew where the line, that line, the one you’re not supposed to cross was with her.
Though dubbed a professor, Ms. Angelou didn’t teach more than one class a semester. In the world of academia, she seemed far more like a trophy than a teacher, but no one really seemed to care.
After all, she was Maya Angelou.
For that simple reason, I signed up for her class.
I didn’t know much about the woman except that she was African American, wrote poetry, and was featured on Bill Clinton’s inauguration day. I knew enough that if I didn’t sign up for her class I knew I would regret it one day.
Rumors ran wild about signing up for Maya Angelou’s class. Some said it required a personal interview. Others cited an essay. Still others spun yarns of a wait list a mile or, at least several semesters, long. I wasn’t too surprised when the registrar’s computer printed a wait list notice at registration. I joined the ranks of the waiting and showed up to class on that first day.
The class was limited to around 30, but less than a half dozen were on the wait list. I was number three. Those nasty rumors about the impossibility of getting in prevented many from even trying. Ms. Angelou began the class by taking attendance. One by one she called out each student’s last name, introducing them as mister or misses.
I wish I could to tell you that the first class I sat in on with Maya Angelou was filled with an unforgettable poetry reading and rich stories about her textured life, but for the next hour, each of the students circled the room introducing themselves, stating and spelling their names. In this class, I was no longer Margaret, I was Ms. Feinberg, and everyone else would recognize me as such.
At the end of hour, Ms. Angelou explained that what we were learning was very important. This formed the basis of our first test. Our first test. I should have been paying more attention. Sketching a seating chart, I recorded as many people’s names as I could from memory.
A week later, the Poet Laureate, called me, Ms. Feinberg, to the front of the class. I responded with a kind of awe and reverence reserved for religious occasions.
“Do you like this class?” I heartedly agreed.
“Will you attend regularly?” I shook my head affirmatively.
“Will you work hard?” I affirmed the commitment.
With a priestly nod, her deep voice assured me that I was no longer on the waitlist. Everyone who was on the waitlist and attended class was welcomed into her classroom that day. No essay. No prolonged interview.
So much for all the rumors.
As I scuttled back to my seat, my smile fell limp. Ms. Angelou asked everyone to switch chairs. My seating map became worthless. We spent the second class reviewing each student’s name. Round and round the room we went. Not exactly the awe-inspiring look at African American literature I had hoped. We would be called on by name to identify someone else in the class for our test. I breathed deep to avoid a panic attack; I hate being put on the spot.
We endured Ms. Angelou’s hour long interactive test where we went around the room naming each other as misses so-and-so and mister so-and-so. When she called on my name, I somehow said the right name. I breathed a sigh of relief and took an imaginary Valium.
At the end of the interactive test (which we all passed), she asked a simple but unforgettable question:
Why did we just spend the last three weeks getting to know each other’s names?
She pressed it further:
Why did I just spend nearly 20% of our very valuable class time together making sure you knew each other’s names?
The room stewed in a kind of deafening, molasses-thick stillness that only the presence of Maya Angelou could command. She explained:
Because your name is a sign of your dignity.
When you recognize someone’s name, you recognize them not just as human but as a person. One of the greatest ways you bestow human dignity on someone is by calling them by name.
For the remaining weeks of class, we read a wide range of African American literature—including works by Maya Angelou. We listened in reverent awe as she read and recited poems that shook the soul. We laughed when she shared colorful stories from her childhood, personal adventures, and movies. We held back tears when she told of her painful past. We dug deep to create a final project that answered the granddaddy of all questions:
Why does the caged bird sing?
More than a decade later, the greatest lesson I learned from Maya Angelou is from those first three weeks. She taught more than a lesson about human dignity—she allowed me to experience and partake of it firsthand. After sitting in her class, I will never be able to refer to Maya Angelou as merely Maya.
This woman, who I barely knew of at the beginning of the semester but fell in love with by the end, captured my heart and imagination not because of her fame, accolades or literary acclaim, but because she displayed such deep, rich wisdom. Maya Angelou didn’t want us to just have information, she wanted us to take part in the process of transformation.
More than anything, she wanted the three dozen or so students in her classroom to experience and appreciate every human being with whom we came in contact.
Ms. Maya Angelou, you will be missed.
What’s your favorite Maya Angelou quote?