I would be happy teaching almost any subject. Why English Language Arts?
Several years ago, after I had been teaching for about ten years or so, I sat between strangers in a back pew at an African American church in Louisville because Maya Angelou was there. So I had to be, too. She had changed my life. I needed to see here.
She was an older woman by this time. Her strong, tall frame stooped over a bit as she shuffled across the stage to her chair. But she still exuded strength with every step. Majesty with every move. Beauty with every bend. Oh, Maya Angelou. In the flesh.
It wasn’t a rock-star moment. This was different than seeing Celine Dion or Pink perform. This was spiritual. Magical. This transcended time and space.
I took notes as Maya Angelou spoke. I needed to record every word she uttered. Of course I’ve lost the notebook--this was over a decade ago and I have more than fifty journals in my home. I’m sure it’s here somewhere. I’ve decided to rest in that for now, rather than using my energy to look and then be crushed when I can’t find it.
While I took notes, I wept at Angelou’s words. She told us not to apologize for who we were, and I knew she was speaking to me personally. Her poetry captivated me; I watched her recite line after line, her face animated and her arms outstretched, the words rolling over all of us in thunderous conviction and triumph. And she sang, her voice syrupy and deep, coarse with age, like an aged bourbon sweetened and drunk slowly. Maya Angelou’s voice, when she spoke or when she sang, was not tender or delicate, not gentle or light. No, no. At the church that afternoon, her voice poured over me with the strength of a heavy current reverberating against my chest, her notes held long and deliberate. And she let those notes carry so much emotion with them, with no shame! Her voice wavered with sobs, shook with delight, and slowed down with some secret sorrow. When Maya Angelou sang, I felt like she was offering part of herself to me.
The women on both sides of me rang out “Amen!” and “Preach, sister!” and waved their arms wildly above their heads. They let out great singing wails. I let my tears stream down my cheeks and kept writing quietly.
When I was in middle school, I read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. I don’t remember why I read it. It was not a school assignment. Maybe I got it from the thrift store or picked it up at the library. At that time, I read whatever book happened to be lying around. I had no idea what it was about when I opened it.
I also had no idea I would be an English teacher when I began that book. Since I was a young child I had been drawn to the idea of teaching, but I never knew what subject or what grade. I was in middle school; I didn’t have to know any of that yet.
Reading Angelou’s story changed me. It was almost immediately after I finished the book that I knew with a fair amount of certainty that I wanted to be an English teacher. But her book did more than provide me with a vocational choice. Her words affected me, and still do. Somehow Angelou was able to transport a white girl living in Kentucky in the 1990's to Stamps, Arkansas in the 1940's as a young Black girl. I learned more about American history and the human experience through her narrative than a textbook or lecture could ever hope to teach me, not to say that textbooks and lectures are unimportant. Angelou's powerful use of language engaged me through their rawness and their beauty. I saw in her character a realness that insisted I grow in empathy, and thus compassion. Her story made me a better person.
Angelou writes “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” After a series of tragic events, Angelou was mute for a long time during her childhood, afraid her words would kill people.
Quite the contrary. Her words have brought life in millions of different ways. I think she knew this. I think this was the caged bird’s song--her story.
So this is why I teach English--because I read Angelou’s book in middle school and it changed my life forever. Because I, too, know why the caged bird sings. Because I want to help my students understand how to read the stories of others in appreciation of the truth and beauty in the meaning, to learn empathy and compassion, discernment and wisdom.
Because every student has a story that must be told.
Because I want to teach them to sing.
Welcome to my Blog! I am a wife, mother of three, high school English teacher, and a graduate of the Bluegrass Writers Studio at Eastern Kentucky University. Before anything else, I am a woman of faith.