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Maya Angelou Speaks to Educators

March 17, 2013
Maya Angelou addresses ASCD Conference in Chicago, 3/17/13 (photo by the author)

Maya Angelou addresses ASCD Conference in Chicago, 3/17/13 (photo by the author)

“I’ll be 85 next month – and I’m already feeling it,” Maya Angelou told a packed ballroom at the ASCD Conference today. Delivering her keynote from a wheelchair, Angelou was nonetheless energetic and inspiring. Her address tied together a number of experiences from her childhood and adulthood, with the common thread of the power of education and caring adults. It wasn’t education in the school and classroom sense that she cited as most influential in her own life, but she nonetheless invited educators to see ourselves as “rainbows in the clouds” – with the potential to be a source of strength and hope to others.

In one sequence of anecdotes, she related how her Uncle Willie served as her teacher when she was a child working in the family store. His legacy is not only that Angelou now has 70 (mostly honorary) doctorate degrees and has spoken and performed around the world, in addition to her volumes of writing. It turns out that his legacy also included other young people who inspired and supported other young people, with a ripple effect that reached the Mayor’s office of Little Rock, the Arkansas state legislature, and the United States Congress.

Her own story served as a cautionary tale not to discount the potential of any individual. When she was about nine years old she was raped by her mother’s boyfriend, and became selectively mute after the rapist’s subsequent murder, believing she was responsible for his death because she named him. Living in poverty in rural Arkansas, and selectively mute, she had the odds stacked against her. By the time she was sixteen, she was a single mother in San Francisco. In these situations, there were “rainbows” – people who believed in her, supported and encouraged her.

Angelou closed by calling for educators to recognize their power: “We are the possible. We are the true. We are the miracle.”

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Maya Angelou on the stage at ASCD Conference, Chicago (3/17/13, photo by the author)

Disclosure: I’m attending the conference as media.

For more on the conference, see my summary of yesterday’s highlights.

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