January 26, 2012

Guest: Lori Hutchinson, Educator

Dr. Maya Angelou: An example of life lived to its fullest.
by Lori Hutchinson
When I was growing up, I never took the opportunity to read any of Dr. Angelou’s work. I knew she was a renowned poet and writer, but I was not aware of the greatness of her personal story or her many talents. When I decided to finally read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, I was blown away. Dr. Maya Angelou is more than a poet and writer; she's an all-around role model for wisdom and life achievement.
Dr. Angelou was born on April 4, 1928, in St. Louis, Missouri. When she was three years old, Angelou’s parents divorced. She and her brother were sent to live with their grandmother in Stamps, Arkansas, where racism and hatred for blacks was rampant. Angelou experienced the effects firsthand, something that shaped her strong determination for peace and good works. 
When she was eight, Angelou moved back to St. Louis with her mother. It was here she experienced something that nearly stole her soul; sexual molestation and rape by her mother’s live-in boyfriend. After the family went to court over the incident, her mother’s boyfriend was murdered by several angry family acquaintances. In the aftermath of these events, Angelou stopped speaking to everyone but her older brother, Bailey.
Angelou and her brother were eventually sent back to Arkansas to live with their grandmother. To help break her out of silence, a friend of Angelou’s grandmother, Mrs. Bertha Flowers, encouraged her to read works of literature out loud. It worked.
After experiencing several firsthand events of racism, Angelou’s grandmother began to fear for the children’s safety in Arkansas. She saved up enough money to send thirteen-year-old Maya to California, where Angelou’s mother had gone to live. Angelou's teenage years, living with her mother, was when she finally began to gain confidence and courage. 
Immediately upon arriving, she was awarded a scholarship to study dance and drama at San Francisco’s Labor School. Although she loved the arts, she dropped out within a year to become, at fourteen years old, San Francisco's first African-American female cable car conductor. At sixteen, she became pregnant—although she managed to graduate from high school just weeks before giving birth to her son.
To support him, Angelou worked as a waitress and cook, but her passion for the performing arts soon became her means of support. Throughout the 1950s, she studied dance and performed in several plays, including a European tour of Porgy and Bess. She recorded her first album, Calypso Lady, in 1957. In 1958, she moved to New York City where she joined the Harlem Writer’s Guild.
Always looking for opportunities to make a difference, Angelou moved to Cairo, Egypt, in 1960. There she worked as the English-language editor of The Arab Observer. She next moved to Ghana where she taught at The University of Ghana’s School of Music and Drama and worked as editor of The African Review. While in Africa, Angelou studied and mastered several languages, including French, Spanish, Italian and Arabic. This is also where she met Malcolm X.
In 1964, she moved back to the United States and began helping Malcolm X with his Organization of African American Unity. After Malcolm X’s assassination, Angelou was appointed as the Northern Coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, headed by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. On her birthday in 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. A poignant moment in Angelou’s life. 
In 1970, Angelou’s famous bestselling book I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was published. This was the beginning of a momentous and historic career. Today, Angelou has published more than 30 bestselling titles. In addition to writing books, she's also written scripts and scores for television and film. Her script for the 1972 film Georgia, Georgia was the first script by an African American woman to be filmed, and it was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. 
Angelou has also acted, directed, served on two presidential committees and received dozens of awards and honorary degrees. Today, Dr. Angelou is a professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
It’s awe inspiring to read about this gifted teacher, role model, survivor, artist. Maya Angelou is a woman who’s truly taken life by the horns. If you’re a parent, mentor, or teacher, I encourage you to introduce the youth in your life to Dr. Angelou. She’s a real-life example of making good with the time we’re given on earth.
Lori Hutchison teaches high school English and owns the site Masters in Teaching. In her spare time, she enjoys writing guest blog posts about various topics of interest; especially teaching! www.mastersinteaching.net

January 23, 2012

Learning To Think

In going through some very old files while getting ready to move, I came across two things that meant something to me: One, a sketch I’d done of John Cabot in the late 1960s and, two, essays I’d written for my civics teacher in grade nine at Slausen Jr. High in Ann Arbor, MI.

I sketched a lot growing up and was sad when, having moved to Arizona for health reasons my senior year of high school, my mother threw out my art work. To her defense, there was quite a pile in the basement of our Iowa house. The two years I was at Maurice-Orange City High School (my sophomore and junior years), I took Drawing; and this consisted almost entirely of sketching classmates very quickly. We might go through five or six models in the course of one hour. I suppose, if I were my mother, I’d have given the whole stack a toss, too. Still, I’ve often wondered how good I was. And so discovering “Giovanni Cabot[t]o,” I was surprised to see I’d developed a serviceable skill at least.

My second satisfactory find was a sheaf of essays written for my ninth grade civics teacher at Slausen Jr. High in Ann Arbor, MI. I’ve always credited him for teaching me how to think.

He did this by handing off a list of famous quotes and requiring weekly opinion essays utilizing one of these quotes. “Ask not what you can do for your country, but what your country can do for you” sort of thing. And so we’d write, he’d rebut, we’d rewrite, and he’d rebut our response. A single essay could go back and forth several times before being accepted, and not until he felt we’d sufficiently clarified and articulated our position. In this sheaf, I became intrigued by an essay using Thomas Jefferson’s “All men are created equal.”

“All men are created equal,” I began, quoting Jefferson in his preamble to the Declaration of Independence. “But what does it really mean? I believe that when Jefferson wrote this, he meant that all men were born with the desire to have liberty, an opportunity to live, and to seek happiness.”

I went on in what is clearly a very un-Republican way of thinking with respect to government. The government needed to afford opportunity for everyone, I wrote. Not just the lucky few. My teacher's rebuttal was extensive. “Why should the government supply these opportunities? What status is there in being a ‘mere working man’? If liberty is inalienable, how come some are taken away—or never granted by some governments? Why does democracy tend to not try to take them away, but rather to protect them? Or does it?”

I struggled to clarify. “It is up to the government to supply jobs, or how would anyone earn a living? The country would rot away. It is up to the government to keep it strong. One way to this is to have jobs for everyone.”

He pushed back. “Why can’t the government merely see that private industry is prosperous enough to have jobs for all? Isn’t this what we want?”

I had to rethink my position. Finally, I wrote: “I think it’s up to the government to create an environment where job opportunities abound and where everyone can earn a livable wage.” I remember being pleased with myself, the clarity ringing clearly in my brain. I’d gone from vague to specific. Government providing jobs, no, but an environment for jobs? yes—two very different things. This teacher not only taught me how to think—but how to say it.

I’m approaching sixty. These essays and drawing are more than forty-five years old. Do I throw them out? They’ve served their purpose, I know. I can’t imagine anyone else being interested. But still, their discovery reminds me of who I am. An serviceable artist. An articulate thinker. What if I forget? I am pushing sixty.

I think, if it's okay, I’ll hold on a bit longer. Maybe when I approach eighty, I’ll discover them again. And again be surprised.

Old Letters and New Revelations

People ask all the time, “How ever did you do it?” when referring to my being a single parent of three kids, ages 1, 3, and 6 for seventeen years. There's an assumption I did do it. 

The kids are grown and gone and two of them have kids themselves. Today it's January 2012 and I'm selling my house—and, consequently, going through old files. I just now came across a folder of Heather’s work. She was six when I left her dad, and she's suffered the most—her age of course, but the deeper impact undoubtedly was the responsibility I'd placed on her. Worse, because she gave me no trouble I tended to leave her to herself; there were so many other things to do. 

One of my most painful memories of her childhood was of her breaking her knee. I was gone. She was out riding her bike and was a few blocks from home when a neighbor kid, just to be mean, plowed right into her, dropping her straight down on her knee. Knee broken, she somehow managed to get the bike and herself home, hopping all the way, and get herself into my bed. She instructed her little brothers to pack it with ice and waited. And waited.

I was at a writers conference an hour and a half away. No cell phones then. When I finally returned, she’d been in pretty brutal pain for hours, watching her knee swell despite the ice and aspirin. I bundled her into the car and over to emergency, where they splinted her leg and suggested a surgeon. Amidst my sea of guilt, I was thunderstruck at how stoic and smart she’d been. 

So, no, I didn’t do it.  I couldn’t be everywhere—physically, emotionally.

In this file of Heather's today I found a pile of letters she'd been asked to write. “Are you wondering why I am writing you a letter? It’s because Mrs. Morris is making us. We have to do this every week on Friday and it has to be returned, signed by you. If we bring it back on Monday we get 25 points. For every day it’s late, we lose 3 points. I know you hate reading and signing letters...”

She’s referring to the inundation of paper work I was constantly receiving from the schools for all three of my children; everything had to be reviewed and signed and returned and, yes, I hated it. The clutter of it all in my head—while struggling to get the bills paid and food on the table and attend all the other things needing attention—was too much. I didn’t mind reading the material; it was the borage of signing and keeping track and reporting to the teachers ad nausea that I minded. Why all the falderal? When I was a kid, we did our homework and that was that. None of this running back and forth between home and school. As a kid, it would have driven me nuts. As a mother? It was all so meaningless and just one more thing to do.

But reading Heather’s letter today, away from the pressing needs of yesterday, I realize that my irritation had been hard on her. Not only did she have the responsibility of orchestrating the paperwork—her grade depended on it—she had my resistance. Stoically, she'd soldiered on. I'm bothered by this.

A second realization. “...it’s not my fault,” she wrote. She tried so hard not to burden me. A kid shouldn't be asked to do this. Parents should be able to deal with it. Plain and simple. I couldn’t. 

But if this first letter bothered me, it was the one dated October 9, 1989, that has really upset me. In the middle of her narrative, Heather wrote: “Now, I’m supposed to tell you what I’m doing this weekend. I’m going to Dad’s. I don’t think you care what we do.” Right in the solar plexus. Because I did care. The reports on weekends with Dad, though, usually triggered rage, disgust. My children’s lack of care was so profound and I so helpless that early on I’d begun to steel myself and eventually trained myself to remain passive when hearing about it. In later years? when they could fend for themselves? For instance, refuse to sleep in urine soaked sleeping bags? By then it was a habit to simply listen, to remain disengaged from their lives outside my sphere. Today I realize that Heather interpreted my passivity as “not caring.” I am remiss in the obvious and hidden as well.

Over the years I've often looked back to see if I could have been a better mother, better able to handle the crises, the mundane, the day-to-day. Every time I end up concluding that, no, I couldn't. I'd given it my best. Even though I knew at the time it wasn't enough.

So to answer everyone’s question, “How did you ever do it?” I am here and now answering anyone asking that I didn’t, obviously, and that my children suffered for my lack. 

But here’s the twist. Heather and her brothers seem to have forgiven my faults and negligence. And if I ever doubted it, one of Phil’s letters also came to light today, alongside Heather's. Apparently some really big crisis occurred in March 1999. I have no memory of it, there were so many. This one must have been a doozy, though. Phil was 21. He writes:
I had no idea this was going on, you say this started on the 30th? I have already prayed for you, and prayed again. Mum, I don't want you to scare me like that again.  You have been so strong for all of us our whole lives. I am not telling you to be strong now, because I can understand, no, I can’t, but I simply ask that you allow us to be strong for you now. Tears run down my face as I hear your distress, think about the beautiful things. Any year now you may be holding a grandchild in your arms. You can teach them to love themselves as you have taught me. Sending my children to grandma’s house is something I have dreamed of my whole life, to let them experience the love and encouragement I was so fortunate to have….Please always remember that I love you and that I, we, will be strong for you…
Their whole lives saw us lurching from one upheaval to the next while I struggled with poverty, poor health, and all the attendant worries that come with parenting. My faults speak for themselves—not keeping my distress to myself is just one. But if my children can forgive me? I didn’t single parent well to be sure, but it seems I did it well enough.

So here's my final answer to anyone asking "How ever did you do it?" My answer is simply this, "I didn't. But sometimes forgiveness intervenes."