How Maya Angelou’s Class Changed My Life

Margaret —  May 29, 2014 — 19 Comments

How Maya Angelou's Class Changed My Life

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?

*Adapted from The Organic God. Click here to pick up a copy.

*Original Photo Source

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19 responses to How Maya Angelou’s Class Changed My Life

  1. Wow, what an experience!! She gave me chills every time I heard her speak. Such a profound speaker and deep individual.

  2. As a writer and poet, I love words and have always been moved by hers.
    Yours are moving, too. Thank you for sharing your story and bringing more of her words to life through yours.
    Indeed, her wisdom will be missed.

  3. I have been racking my brain trying to remember who it was that had her as a teacher… I could not remember which book I had read about her…. it was you… i loved hearing your story in your book and again here. It is a rare treasure to have a teacher…mentor as her. I heard her say… how much she loved teaching…and if she had taught before she wrote books…she may have never written at all.

  4. It was through reading your book that I was first introduced to Maya Angelou. I want to thank you for that introduction, as without it, I may have missed out on the wonderful woman, poet, and writer that she was. I was blessed many times by reading her works as I have been by reading yours. I loved reading your story then and again today Bless you, Ms. Feinberg, as you continue to be a blessing to others through your writing and speaking. Thanks again, Norma B.

  5. Oh, I dreamed of running off to North Carolina when I was finishing my English degree in Pittsburgh. I was so in love with Maya Angelou and wanted to drink her knowledge and voice in her presence….
    I was given the pleasure of hearing her speak at a Carnegie Mellon University and remember sneaking my mini-cassette recorder into the presentation, illegally, I am sure, to record her words so I could press them into my soul for safe keeping forever…. And that voice… I love your description…oh, it was so, so beautiful.
    How in the world can I choose a quote from her wise words? So many are so, so good…. But right now, I think I am loving: “I’ve learned that people will forget what what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Love people…love all people… :)
    <3 thank you for your words… You are also one of those amazing writers, and I, too, have had the gift of hearing you speak… Amazing, touching and etched in my heart. :)

  6. Thank you for sharing your story in this place. Because of her death at such a time as this many will now know … the answer to the question Why does the caged bird sing?

  7. Hello Margaret. My favorite quote of Miss Angelou is ‘Dare to love deeply and dare to risk everything for the good thing.’ The good thing to me is Christ. I have had this quote framed in my home for years and it continues to urge me on to love others as Christ loves us.

  8. I had already decided to reach back into your earlier writings and teach The Organic God in the fall. Now that I know that you write about Maya Angelou in that book, I look forward to it even more. Wake Forest? I’m from Winston-Salem although I have been away for 40 years.

  9. Richard S Kuipers June 2, 2014 at 12:30 pm

    Hello Margaret, first off I am known as Rick to my family and friends and I would sincerly hope that I could become a friend of yours via the internet or in person. I so much enjoyed your presentation at chcc yesterday morning. I am originaly from NJ leaving there in 86′ where I spent the next 20 years living in the Clearwater, FL area. So when you were relating to those incidents with your father in both of those states I could clearly visualize the locations. I have been married to my wonderful wife Marilyn for 37 years and have 3 wonderful daughters. The youngest of which is an attorney living here in CO. I have had so many experiences in my 73 years of life on this planet that when I tell family and friends of them they sit back in awe of what I am telling them, in some cases in disbelief, and this is the reason that I am reaching out to you. I had a very disfunctional childhood in NJ, I am a former Marine, a former NJ police officer, business owner and world traveler. I hope I’m not boring you. Over the years I have written many stories and memoirs of my life experiences and have been encouraged by many professionel and lay people alike to persue a career ‘so to speak” in some sort of writting and I have tried. I have reached out on line to ghost writters, publishers, magazines, etc, etc. I don’t trust myself or those other entities to guide me so I do nothing! I SINCERLY BELIEVE that GOD has brought me to where I am today thru all the trials and tribulations in my life and my desire would be to write and show others how he did that. Standing on top of Masada in Isreal many years ago I felt compelled to do just that. I expressed to my wife yesterday that I also felt compelled to contact you and she said go for it. So Margaret would you consider reading some things that I have written and give me your honest opinion as to whether or not I have a reason to continue thinking this way. I would be more than happy to compensate you for your time. We have not formerly joined chcc but we have attended for 4 years. We are living at Palonio Park in Highlands Ranch…… Thank you, Rick

    • Hi Margaret,
      I graduated from Wake Forest University in 1984 and was in one of the first classes Maya Angelou taught. I remember being a shy English major who had no idea what to expect. I knew I would be in awe of Maya Angelou herself and of her work, of course, but I did not expect to be terrified. Once we learned each other’s names and really got to know and trust each other, she then moved us out of our comfort zone through not only the topics that were discussed, but also in the manner of our response to these topics. We were asked to dance and sing and write poetry of our own. We were all awkward and self-conscious to start, but the magic of Maya Angleou’s teaching was how she helped us grow and reach beyond the standard answers to connections that were personal and profound.

      • “The magic of Maya Angelou’s teaching”– that is the best way to describe it. Thanks, Debbie.

  10. Margaret, Thank you so much for taking me into that classroom with you. What a beautiful experience and such life lessons in her presence.

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