Wednesday, May 28, 2014

How Mrs. Flowers Helped Maya Angelou Find Her Voice

I was reminded on the drive home that Maya Angelou, who died today, was partially the product of a wonderful teacher. Angelou spent much of her childhood as a mute after being experiencing a rape. Mrs. Flowers was the person who mentored her from about age eight. Mrs. Flowers gave her access to books, including poetry, and brought Angelou to her house to help her read and to eventually communicate.

Here's how Angelou describes first coming in contact with Sister Flowers in “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings”:
“...Momma said, "Sister Flowers, I'll send Bailey up to your house with these things.”  She smiled that slow dragging smile, “Thank you, Mrs. Henderson. I'd prefer Marguerite, though.”  My name was beautiful when she said it. “I've been meaning to talk to her, anyway...” 

 I had never heard her tell the story of how Mrs. Flowers actually inspired her to speak (I had read it. But reading Angelou tell a story and hearing her tell it are two completely different experiences).  This was taken from a 1986 interview that was on Fresh Air today:

"... And when I was about eleven and a half, she said to me one day "Do you love poetry?' so I wrote [on a tablet] "Yes". It was a silly question for Mrs. Flowers, since she knew I just.... So she told me "You do not love poetry. You will never love it until you speak it... until it comes across your tongue, through your teeth, over your lips. You will never love poetry....And I ran out of her house. I thought 'I'll never go back there again'. She was trying to take my friend [her silence]...she came to the store and she would catch me and say 'You do not love poetry. Not until you speak it .... And finally, I did take a book of poetry and I went under the house and tried to speak [for the first time in years] and could ... 

My six year old daughter walked into the house with her mother today writing a poem. Apparently, her teacher had mentioned the poet's passing in school today (this is odd since there is no poetry in her current Common Core unit, but I suppose she has a good teacher). She was, in fact, so engulfed with her poem that she refused to come to the table for homework until she had completed the two lines she had been writing.  "I think I want to be like Maya Angeloooooh when I grow up" she said, as she finally raced off to the table to start her non fiction writing about "predators" and "temperate deciduous forests" (true story).

As for me, I'd like to be like Mrs. Flowers. I'd like to inspire the next poet, the next writer, the next famous politician to come out of his or shell and follow a path to stardom and greatness. I think my life would be complete if that were to happen. And when my work's all done, I think I'd like to sit back, watch it all unfold, and be proud of my student -and of the difference that I helped make.

So on the day of Maya Angelou's passing, I thought a quick shout-out to the teacher who helped her get there, Mrs. Flowers, was in order.

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