I’m struggling today. I woke up to the news that one of the true shining lights of literature, Maya Angelou had passed peacefully away. Regarded as one of the greats of American literature, the ripples of impact from her writing were felt all over the world. I feel unutterably sad. I’m in black, I’ve wept and I’ve thought about the millions of us who will feel her loss, from Barack and Michelle Obama, to Oprah, to little old me. I then thought about her family of which she was so proud, and wept all over again.
She has been a stalwart of my life since my late teens. Never assigned reading, on one of my frequent forays to the library, I found her books as though called to read them. I brought the autobiographies, the poems, devoured microfiches of her news cuttings and wondered how strong you’d have to be if someone else had lived her life.
As my son crawled into our bed at 2am this morning, not feeling well at all, he cuddled up against me, my arms around him. I thought of when Ms Angelou was woken by her mother, telling her to wake up. Not to move, just to wake up. She woke to find her arms protectively around her newborn son, and her mother reassuring her that she was doing ok. Why I thought of that, last night, when I’ve not thought of it in years, I do not know.
Reading her books gave me an insight into a world I’d never see, but gave me courage when I felt afraid. She shared and opened her heart with us, allowing us to see that no matter what, you can begin again. Pick yourself up, start over. Some of the sagest, wisest quotes came from her, the internet, Facebook and Tumblr will have lots of them for you to read at, but these two:
When people show you who they are, believe them the first time
When you know better, you do better
I hold these two highly over my head and my heart, reminding myself time and again, pick yourself up. Start over. You are ok. You are enough.
I was given an education. That I wasted. My brother went to university, I didn’t. I couldn’t bear to be in education after three grandparents died in my teens. I wanted to be out of school, I hated it. Hated that I didn’t fit in, no matter what I did, I felt clumsy, awkward, stupid. Teachers I didn’t respect, because they didn’t respect me. Teachers that stood by and watched myself and others be bullied. Teachers that didn’t inspire me to greatness, because they appeared to me to have settled, so why should I try harder to make a difference? When the Head Boy wrote his name on the top of an exam paper, crossed his arms in protest at the standard of teaching and refused to answer any more questions, yet still managed to get 2% – just for getting his name right…
Then in my late teens, when I found Ms Angelou and realised that education was the ticket to getting out, getting on in life, will take you anywhere. I was angry. And her words lead me on to read, and read and read. Educating myself, each book pointing the way to the next in my journey. Most of my books have underlined passages, words that spoke so loudly to me, it was like a siren going off over my head.
This week I read this story, a boy who knew that if he worked hard, studied hard, he could achieve anything, despite being homeless, despite his life struggles, he was made Valedictorian of his class. I felt ashamed of giving up on myself, letting myself settle, not pushing myself harder when I had the access to free education. Not that I would give anything up in this life that I am living now, as I’m happy with where I am. But on the other hand, in my home country and in my adopted country we have two conservative governments who are demanding that university fees go up. Leaving people with a potential $500,000 debt to become doctors in Australia. If you are truly inspired to become a doctor, and you push through to the end of you university degree, how do you begin to pay back that amount of debt? Well, it will take years, you’re likely to take the highest paid job you can, charge the highest amount you can to pay it back quickly, leaving the people who will need your services the most unable to access you. That also saddened me beyond words too, that we’re pricing education, the only true ticket out of poverty, out of the reach of practically everybody.
When I packed up my books to move from the UK to Australia, I hesitated packing Ms Angelou’s biographies and poems that had kept me company on the course of my teenage to adult life. Reluctantly, I consigned the well-loved, well-worn, dropped in the bath, bashed and battered books to the charity pile. How I wish I had them with me now to re-read.
“The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – that you’d thought special, particular to you. And here it is, set down by someone else, a person you’ve never met, maybe even someone long dead. And it’s as if a hand has come out, and taken yours.”
― Alan Bennett, The History Boys
Maya Angelou, for the amount of times you held my hand, held my heart, I can never repay you.