On a lovely spring afternoon in the late 1980’s or early 1990’s, I was sitting on one of the marble benches in front of the Folger Library. I was the Library’s head of education then, a high school English teacher from DC Public Schools creating and running the Library’s work for teachers of grades 3-12 and their students.
I was on this bench for a few minutes, waiting for a friend to pick me up for a lunch appointment. And as I sat, I looked up to see the Library’s front door open, and into the sunshine walked a woman of really grand stature and presence in a great-looking “grown up” suit. “OH MY GOD,” I thought, “WHY DO I THINK THAT’S MAYA ANGELOU?” Because it was Maya Angelou.
She walked down the few steps between us, sat down next to me on the bench, and in that completely unbelievable voice, commented on the beauty of the day, and on the fact that she was in a meeting at the Library but just needed to get a little air. I was completely useless: numb, dumb, breathless, utter disbelief.
This was well before her poem at Bill Clinton’s inaugural, way before Oprah, way way before her “Shakespeare must be a black girl” quote. She was not exactly a household name at that point. She was to me though. This was the woman who wrote I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings and Still I Rise… words that changed the minds, hearts, and in many cases, the lives of my students. And mine too. This was MAYA ANGELOU, for heaven’s sake.
She asked me about my work. I managed to answer something, I guess. She spoke about reading Shakespeare when she was a little girl. “I just saw a copy of the First Folio,” she said. “It was magical.” And then, “What’s wrong with people who don’t understand that Shakespeare is for everyone? They just don’t get it.”
I do remember saying, “Teachers and their students need to know that Shakespeare is definitely for them. That’s my job.”
“That’s important work,” she said. She sat for a few more minutes and chatted a bit, though I have no memory of her specific words. How could I not remember?! I only remember my own very loud internal monologue: “Maya Angelou is sitting RIGHT HERE NOW, talking to ME.”
And so she was. She stood up, said goodbye, and went back to her meeting. I guess I went to lunch. Regular life resumed. But as then… and ever more… still she rises.
Peggy O’Brien is the Director of Education at the Folger Shakespeare Library. Follow her on Twitter at @obrienfolger