by Robyn Stone-Kraft
It almost seems as if anyone who can string words together is writing in memory of Maya Angelou; from those who knew her, to those who merely knew of her, tributes are cropping up everywhere. It would be easy to be cynical about it, but I prefer to look at it another way — she was an amazing woman who touched many lives, and all these tributes are just the world saying thank you for the inspiration.
Now it’s my turn to write a tribute. While I’d read her famous I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings in high school, like so many others did, it didn’t catch my interest like Edgar Allan Poe did, or even Shakespeare. I don’t think there was much I could have done about that. In a way, Angelou’s writing, and her words of wisdom, can only be fully appreciated once an individual has lived a bit, seen a bit of pain, and done a bit of struggling of their own. Only then can her words of encouragement find the proper reception, and only then can a reader fully understand the magnitude of what she managed to accomplish in her life.
When I heard that she had passed away, I was both surprised, and yet not at all shocked by the news. I was surprised in the way that one is surprised when they hear that an institution, something that’s always just been there, is gone. On the other hand, I had seen her in November of 2013 and she had looked her age, which was an impressive 86 years old.
She had come to Cincinnati to perform Copeland’s “Lincoln Portrait” with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. Before the symphony she was helped out to the stage where she was asked general questions and encouraged to speak, and speak she did. Mostly, she talked about teaching and how she loved to inspire her students, loved to make them use their brains and ask questions and arrive at their own answers. She loved to challenge them, and, more than anything, she loved them. As a teacher myself, what I found most impressive was that she was still teaching, and still loving the experience, long past the point where most anyone would have retired. Even the most dedicated teachers I know are looking forward to retirement. But this amazing woman wasn’t ready to stop sharing her wisdom, and I can only imagine how she touched the lives of all of her students, those lucky enough to know her personally. When she was done speaking, she received a standing ovation and I found it quite moving that this one woman, this one woman who had managed to attract a crowd both thicker and more diverse than any other I’d ever seen in those seats before, could touch so many with what appeared so little effort. Inspiration came naturally to Maya Angelou.
And yet, despite that, when she was reading her part of the “Lincoln Portrait,” reciting the words of one of our most loved presidents in a voice no longer as strong as it once was, she got so caught up in the music and the meaning that she missed one of her cues, despite having done so the night before and being on guard against it. It wasn’t a problem with the sharpness of her mind, which was still strong and vibrant in her. It was that, despite all she had accomplished in her life, all the lives she’d touched, and all the people she’d inspired, she was still able to be moved to silence by the wisdom of another who had gone before her. And that, more than anything else, is what sticks with me about Maya Angelou. Truly, she was a remarkable woman and the world has lost a treasure, but we were so lucky to have had her and her teaching for as long as we did.
Robyn Stone-Kraft is an English professor at the College of Mount Saint Joseph in Cincinnati, Ohio. She also heads the upcoming poetry division of Oloris Publishing. When she’s not grading, reading or writing, she’s usually out hiking, knitting, or serving as warm blooded furniture for her two cats. She is incredibly spoiled to have a husband who supports her writing habit, though he’s still not sure about the cats.