Last weekend my best friend, James Forman, published a beautiful tribute to Dr. Maya Angelou, who died May 28. James recounts how the school we started for court-involved and at-risk teens from Washington came to bear her name, how Angelou joined us for our annual fundraisers 17 years in a row and how she embraced our students (in every sense of the word) at those events.
I know one of the reasons James wrote that piece was to make sure that Angelou’s commitment to our students would be recognized as part of her legacy. In that spirit, I feel compelled to add a few paragraphs to supplement James’ account.
In the spring of 2007, 10 years after James and I had started the Maya Angelou Public Charter School in Washington, D.C., our nonprofit was asked to take over the school inside Oak Hill, the district’s long-term youth correctional facility. Oak Hill had a long and troubled history as one of the nation’s most notorious juvenile prisons. But in 2006, Vinny Schiraldi took over the agency in charge of Oak Hill, and he was determined to reform it. At his invitation, we created the Maya Angelou Academy.
I served as the school’s principal for four years, working with an incredibly dedicated team of teachers, many of whom are still there today. In the spring of 2009, with our organization’s annual fundraiser approaching, I decided to call Angelou and ask if she would be willing to come to Oak Hill, located about 20 miles outside of Washington, to spend some time with our students.
In his tribute, James remembers hesitating to ask Angelou for permission to name our initial school after her. Well, I felt similarly wary 12 years later when I called to ask another favor. I remember trying to describe Oak Hill over the phone, wanting to make sure she knew that she’d have a long drive, that she’d be meeting with us at a youth correctional facility and would have to come inside a razor wire fence. “David, honey, stop it,” she said. “Do you think I’m afraid of some razor wire? Tell your children I will be there.” (I always loved how Angelou called all of our high school students “children,” but I remember feeling particularly giddy when she used that term to describe kids that most others called juvenile delinquents.)
Angelou arrived at Oak Hill mid-afternoon on April 29, 2009. She was 81 years old. Many of the students just didn’t believe us when we told them she was coming out to see them — and right up until she arrived, students were telling us she would find a way to cancel. Nobody like Maya Angelou had ever come out to Oak Hill — and they all knew that.
The scene was totally electric as her car drove through the sally port and onto the grounds. One staff member described the scene this way to me in an email: “There was a chill in the air the day Dr. Maya Angelou came to Oak Hill. A barbed wire fence stood unrelenting and challenging adjacent the stage which Dr. Angelou would grace. Wearing shirts and ties, the scholars patiently awaited her arrival. Staff prayed to themselves that the scholars would be on their best behaviors.”
Angelou wasn’t feeling well. She had to be lifted out of her car into a wheelchair. She had an oxygen tank by her side. I remember thinking, for just a moment, that she looked frail and vulnerable. I had never seen her that way — she was always larger than life, imposing, when she was with us. But she was dressed to the nines, wearing a long, black sequin dress, lots of jewelry and high heels. She wasn’t going to dress down for her children just because they were locked up. Not a chance.
We quickly gathered together under a tent — about 100 students, staff from the facility, plenty of security guards and everyone from the school. We knew we didn’t have much time. Angelou sat in her wheelchair on a little stage we had set up.
Three students spoke. Darius Watts went first, and gave a brief welcome. He told Angelou that he was attending a real school, that he had just read “Animal Farm” and that his class was studying the Holocaust. She cheered him on. Then Johnny Sorto, a terrific artist, stood up and presented her with a wooden plaque he had made for her in his craftsmanship class. He had chiseled her name, her likeness and the word “Freedom” into the plaque. As Johnny made the presentation, Angelou could hear that he spoke English with a slight accent. She asked him where his family was from, and when he replied, she started speaking to him in Spanish right on the spot. There was this collective “ahh” from all of us gathered. She was there with us but also so much beyond us, and we felt that she was taking us with her, over and beyond the fence, for just a few minutes.
Next, Leonte Butler shared a poem he had written for her, entitled “Phenomenal Man,” based on her poem “Phenomenal Woman.” When Angelou heard the title, she smiled and then belted out laughing — thoroughly and all the way through, as she was prone to do. Now, as Leonte recited his poem, she looked grand and joyous, and right at home on our little wooden stage. Leonte was a big, strong kid, and his poem was candid and earnest. It started:
A phenomenal man is what I am
My heart is bigger than a creek, ocean or dam
I’m not the best looking, but I’m sure not the least
Not trying to be a thug, but a man of peace
Angelou raised her hands to her face, cupped her cheeks and rocked side to side when Leonte read that fourth line.
After Leonte spoke, Angelou took over. She was brief, her words coming out hard and choppy. I don’t recall too much of what she said, but two things ring in my memory. First, she said that she was the “mother of a black man” and the “grandmother of a black man” and that they, too, could have been sitting right there, locked up at Oak Hill. Second, she told the students that if they ever had the chance to come see her perform, all they would need to do is tell the people in charge, “Hey, I’m her nephew,” and they would be let in.
Dr. Angelou, thank you for coming to visit your children at Oak Hill. Thank you for letting them know you cared about them, understood them, were with them and wanted them to be with you.