I was an awkward adolescent at Woodrow Wilson Middle School when Maya Angelou helped me get my first published clip. In Mrs. Sebald’s reading class, we were required to select a book from her library of paperbacks to read silently while our peers finished up assignments or tests. I pulled a faded copy of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings from the shelf.
I’m sure that I didn’t grasp the whole of what I was reading at the time, but bits and pieces stuck to my ribs, snuck home with me in my pockets. I returned to the book each period and finished it more quickly than any other from Mrs. Sebald’s collection I’d read.
Weeks later when Mrs. Sebald’s announced The Erie Times News was accepting submissions from students for a special section, I handed her a poem I’d written about Maya Angelou. I only remember the last few lines (“…and she’s just a woman/ a phenomenal woman/ who tells it like it is.” GAG!). I was so impressed by her story and how she was eventually able to not just tell it, but make it feel like I’d received a gift having read it. I wrote my crappy poem about her in thanks.
Mrs. Sebald loved it. she made some comment about this being why she encouraged us to read, she hoped books would influence our lives outside the classroom. The Times liked it enough to publish it. I felt modestly famous cutting out my poem from a copy of my hometown’s newspaper and having my mom brag to her salon customers.
Maya Angelou seriously had me thinking I could be a poet, that maybe I could put down words that musical and hum in the ears of readers in a way that made them feel something too.
Now that Dr. Angelou has passed, I have been thinking more about what writing has meant to and for me. hers and my own. I like to think of her as playing a part in who I’ve come to be today—as a writer and a woman with a voice. She moved me to put words to paper and experience what it felt like to pay tribute in story. Before my twelve-year-old self even realized I might be story-worthy, she made it make sense to pick up the pen.