Each year, I offer my students many gifts in the form of literature.
I offer them Holden Caulfield and his battered heart, his sense of confusion and loneliness in the world. I offer them the fierce lunacy of Lady Macbeth, a woman trapped by her society and broken by her own frustrated ambition. I offer them words to express their own dreams and rage, and I offer them the tools to make those words heard and understood by others.
Each spring, I slip Still I Rise into a packet of poems and ask one girl to read the poem aloud. The first time I did this, I chose a girl new to our school, a girl still deciding whether she would find a place in our community, a girl with inner treasures she had not yet discovered. Did she read that poem? She read that poem, her voice gathering power with each repeated line, instinctively hitting the words like piano keys and bringing forth her own melody from the music of the poem. When she finished, we all sat there, and then the students began clapping.
I’ve taught “Still I Rise” ever since, and each year, I see it unfold itself for the students, the lyrical quality woven through it like a golden thread, the frank and confident sexuality and power that this woman feels. Each year, girls are struck by the sense of actually understanding a poem, seeing the power in it and feeling their own powers enhanced by it. Each year, I watch them discover it, and I feel enriched all over again by what Maya Angelou has achieved in this beautiful piece.
Today we lost a great voice, a powerful member of the choir of African-America, one of the many writing a new history, truly reconstructing what it means to be American, to be a woman, to be the descendent of slaves. Today we cannot lose what she offered us, the value of her story, and the wisdom she embodied and espoused.