Maya’s Girl

23 Jan

That smile is the truth

My best friend says that Oprah is my mother and Maya Angelou my grandmother. If that were true I probably wouldn’t be stressed out about future student loan payments (education is expensive as shit). Anyway, it seems that Maya Angelou has been following me my entire life. At nearly every turn and transition, she’s shown up and made herself into someone or something I needed. I didn’t always know it was her, but I was always left with something tangible to wear around my neck. Something to keep close to the thump-thump-thumping in my chest. She says that words have weight, and one day, we will be able to measure the weight of what we put into the world. She makes me want to be heavy with meaning and good.

When I was six, I moved back into my mother’s home after living with my grandmother in Missouri for over a year. I wasn’t happy about it. I loved living in the old farmhouse with my grandmother, and even at six years-old, I was well aware that my mother and I did not get along. One day she rented the movie “Poetic Justice”  for a night in. I fell asleep early and didn’t get to watch it with the rest of the family. The next morning my aunt came to borrow it and I heard my mother say, “Not yet. Ashley didn’t get to watch it.” So, I woke up an watched it. I remember feeling surprised and pleased that my mother out my desires before someone else’s. There’s a moment in the film where the leading character recites the poem “Phenomenal Woman” by Maya Angelou. I don’t remember understanding it. I do remember loving it, and deciding in that moment, that I loved poetry.

In middle school I was angry. My boobs were growing as fast as my ass, I was sometimes fighting other students, but mostly fighting teachers. The oldest of four children being raised by a single mother, I felt years ahead of my peers, and immaturely mistook adult responsibility for being an adult.

It would have been easier for me in school had I been more respectful. Being emotionally responsible for three other people, I had a hard time allowing for the condescending tones of most of my educators. For the record, I still think it’s bullshit for a student to be reprimanded for having read ahead in a book OR finishing before the rest of the class.  Seriously, what twisted logic does that pretend to come from?

In the seventh grade, the principle and I came to the conclusion I would do much better in my classes if I were given time in the school day to do something I wanted to do. That something became an hour in the library during homeroom, first thing in the morning. I had the entire library at my disposal for 1 hour and 15 minutes every. single. day.

One of the first books I read during that time was “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings“. At that point it was the most beautiful prose I’d ever experienced. Experienced is the right word. To say I read the book is not inaccurate but it isn’t accurate enough. I lived in that book. I rubbed it under my arms, rolled in it, and slept with it under my nails. It wasn’t just a reading. By this time, I’d read and forgotten many stories. This story pulled out my hair and stuck in the back of my throat. I didn’t stop fighting teachers, but I did begin talking to them. That was a good start.

By the time I started high school, I was much more in control of my mouth. I still wasn’t one to stand for pejorative language being thrown in my eyes, but I was much more likely to choose my battles. One morning, after a doctor’s appointment, my mother dropped me off at school. I gathered my books from the floor of the car and headed toward the building. Putting the books in my locker, I found I’d accidentally taken one of my mother’s. It was “Heart of a Woman” by, who else, Maya Angelou. I had been finding and stealing my mother’s books for most of my life. I even got in trouble in third grade for reading my favorite Danielle Steel novel during silent reading time (Assholes). I hadn’t read anything of Maya Angelou’s since “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings”  but knowing how I felt about that, I thought it’d be a good idea to read this one. One of the lines in the book is,

“We are all human beings, therefore no human being is more capable of greatness than any other. If you’ve seen anyone be great, so can you. You are a human being. Nothing that is human can be alien to you.”

When I read that, I decided I could go to college. My hunger for learning was insatiable, and according to Ms. Angelou, I was worthy of an education. I could do it. I could make it work. Yes, even me.

This morning I woke easily and happily. I’d DVR’d an episode of “Oprah Presents: Master Class” with “guest lecturer” Maya Angelou. There was so much packed into that hour, I was gasping during the commercial breaks. I’d been holding my breath when she spoke. I sat on my futon, pad and pen in hand, writing feverishly, sloppily because I didn’t want to look down and away from her face. Maya Angelou smiles with her whole body. Tyra says smile with your eyes, but I’d rather smile like Maya. Shoulders squared and thrown back, eyes thin and tight, cheeks high, corners of mouth making a beeline for the tops of your ears. A smile that forces other’s to smile back.

For such a happy woman, I don’t smile as much I should. I’m blessed in a way some people will never be. I have the honor of knowing for sure that it is possible to overcome the conditions you were born into. Statistically speaking I should be dead/addicted to drugs/HIV positive/uneducated/impoverished (with children)/domestically abused. In this morning’s “Master Class” Maya said,

“Love liberates. It frees you and gives you room to grow. It will not bind you.”

What a revelation. Where I have bound myself with negative thoughts, doubts, and general feelings of unworthiness, I have been liberated by the love of family, friends, and educators who encourage me despite my inclination to engage in self-sabotage. How do you repay that? How do I say thank you for being feet, hands, and tongues? Thank you for falling on my neck and gathering me up? I’m still not sure.

Ms. Angelou you make me shed tears of joy and understanding. You are palpable inspiration in my thoughts and I am thick with your words.

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2 Responses to “Maya’s Girl”

  1. leeraloo January 23, 2011 at 12:31 pm #

    I really love Maya Angelou. When I was a senior in high school, I was going through a really crappy time at home and I ended up reading the first 2 or 3 books in Maya’s series of autobiographies (“I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” “Gather Together in My Name”) and it was one of those things where I couldn’t feel like my life was crap anymore because she’d gone through so much and handled it so much better than I did. It was really helpful.

  2. elysiasmith January 23, 2011 at 5:46 pm #

    I love that picture so much.
    I want to be a woman smiling like that and meaning it.

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