Coming to Stay: Teaching Angelou

Some books just lend themselves to the classroom. They’ve sufficient complexity, wit, style, and gravitas to carry students in the myriad directions students like to wander as they learn. Though they can be broken down, they can’t be broken, “formulated, sprawling on a pin,” killed through close reading. No matter what you do to them, they bounce back, smelling as fresh as newly washed babies. They are magnanimous, giving texts that, instead of erecting barriers against readers, invite them in.

One of these is I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou who, of course, died on Thursday. The book opens itself to students, teachers, and readers of all sorts from its first lines:

“What you looking at me for?
I didn’t come to stay…”

I hadn’t so much forgot as I couldn’t bring myself to remember. Other things were more important.

The things a student (or any reader, for that matter) can do with that passage! It can help us learn about so many things, from Angelou’s biography to the breadth of her talent, from cadence to crystallization. It can take us on our own flights, aiding our own memories and rankings in life and experience. Reading it carefully, we take new steps to becoming educated.

Every time we read it, if we read with thought, it brings us something new.

Yesterday, it gain additional meaning, once again out of the life of Angelou. This time because the lines she quotes once again move beyond the book. They could now be her question and comment to us after a completed life. What are we looking at her for? After all, she was merely passing through and is gone. Her person, that is, her being as a creation of memories and talent walking among us is gone. But that doesn’t matter so: Other things are more important. She left us with works and a towering message about humanity; it is these that, now, that are Maya Angelou. And we are all the better for them.

This teacher, this Professor Angelou, still teaches.

That’s why we’re still looking at her. And that’s why, belying the words she quotes, she is here to stay.

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