Friday, May 30, 2014

A Tribute to Dr. Maya Angelou

Photo courtesy of the Maya Angelo website.
My Morning with Maya

Nervous and expectant, I stood outside the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in the rain waiting for Maya Angelou’s car to arrive. I had been corresponding by mail and phone with Professor Angelou’s assistant for months making sure everything was in order for this speaking engagement. Ms. Angelou would need a private room with fresh fruit and bottled still water where she could wait alone before she spoke, and retreat to later, for there was to be no interaction with the audience before or after her speech. Each week’s phone call with Professor Angelou’s assistant outlined new criteria and demands for the visit. I had begun wondering, and worrying, that one of my life heroes was a high maintenance prima donna.

—Later, I was to learn why her assistant had wanted a private room for her after her speech. The crowd that gathered in the lobby, awaiting her after her presentation, was like my Uncle Mike who when overjoyed, grabbed you, crushing you in a huge bear hug, completely unaware that his embrace was so tight you couldn’t breath. I had grown up around a lot of politicians and was used to crowds, but I had never seen anything like this. I knew I had to get Dr. Angelou out to her car fast. I nabbed my friend and assistant Sally Truslow and told Ms. Angelou I wanted to get her to her car swiftly and safely. She was trembling, the emotion from the crowd was that intense. Sally and I put one arm around each side of her, a wonderful security guard held an umbrella aloft, and we pushed through the crowd out to the car for her get-a-away. It was my first experience with crowd crush, I gained a whole new respect for those who work to protect notable people and dignitaries.—

The event being held was The National Children’s Book and Literacy Alliance’s first major production, a national symposium entitled “Children and Books at Crossroads," Friday, October 9, 1998. I had worked hard to get a high quality venue—the Kennedy Presidential Library— and worked even harder to get First Lady Hilary Clinton on board as the Honorary Chair of our event. I knew I needed a major presence, a person of depth, quality, and experience to anchor our roster of speakers, a person who knew and understood the power of the written word, a person who understood the transformational power of story and books in young people’s lives. I had long admired Maya Angelou and when I first mentioned to our board that I wanted to go after her as the morning keynote for our symposium, they were enthusiastic, but doubtful of her availability. But I knew if I could “get” Professor Angelou, she would be the solid cornerstone upon which I could then build the whole day’s quality content.

Thankfully, miraculously, Maya Angleou said yes. And because she said yes, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David McCullough said yes. And education activist and author of the powerfully moving book, “Fist, Stick, Knife, Gun,” Geoffrey Canada said yes. And CBS “Sunday Morning” host Charles Osgood said yes. And Harvard astrophysicist and literacy advocate Margaret Geller said yes. As did author Sven Birkerts, and Harvard professors Catherine Snow and Jeanne Chall, publisher Lisa Quiroz, and literacy advocates Dr. Perri Klass, William Truehart, and Elizabeth Segal. And Mrs. Teresa Heinz-Kerry honored us by personally chairing our symposium. They all joined the party because Maya Angelou was the first to say, yes, I will come.

A big black sedan pulled up in front of the library’s main entrance. I opened the door for Professor Angelou, introducing myself, welcoming her, helping her from the car, reaching high to hold an umbrella over her head. She immediately engaged me in conversation as we walked into the library and up the elevator to her private room, asking me in-depth questions about our organization and our goals. I get rather passionate when I talk about kids and books and reading, and as I shared information not covered in my correspondence, my nervousness disappeared. It was only later that I realized her interest and considerate questions were meant to put me at ease. The room the Kennedy Library had provided for her was lovely and quiet. She asked where everyone else was, and I explained our board members, with family and guests, were in a large, communal “Green Room” downstairs. She asked me to take her there, to meet everyone, and suggested we bring the bowl of fruit along with us. Before we stepped back onto the elevator, she stopped, placing her hand on my shoulder—even though her posture was curling forward and she leaned on a cane, she was so very tall. Why, you’re passionate believers, she said, a grassroots group reaching up, reaching out.

She entered the Green Room quietly, without fanfare or drama, but everyone riveted toward her anyway. She chose to sit at the table’s end, between a charming young intern from the Kennedy Library and my two daughters Elizabeth and Emily. Introducing herself, she engaged all three young women in conversation, asking them about themselves, their interests, their schools. They were entranced, and my mother heart overflowed with emotion, my mind and eyes making a mental snapshot of the moment for a life memory. CBS’s Charles Osgood was good-humouredly helping my husband Dick and our son Patrick hand-letter panelist name plates—a last minute rescue of an overlooked detail. The room was filled with board members and their spouses—Katherine and John Paterson, Patty and Bob MacLachlan, Sally and Bob Truslow, Natalie and Sam Babbitt and their daughter Lucy, David Macaulay, and Stephanie Loer, and dear friends and supporters Libby Rock and Grant Oliphant. Our organization, the NCBLA, has always been a family affair. Everyone mixed and mingled, introducing themselves and each other to Margaret Geller and Geoffrey Canada and other panelists as they joined us. Maya Angelou was just one of the NCBLA gang.

When Mrs. Heinz-Kerry arrived; it was game time. I escorted both Dr. Angelou and Mrs. Heinz up to stage left, where they could have a bit of privacy before their presentations. I got them some comfortable chairs, then headed to the podium. My job was to welcome attendees, set the tone for day, hopefully providing a bit of humor and inspiration, then introduce Mrs. Heinz-Kerry. Beyond teaching in front of my class at RISD, or giving a presentation at an SCBWI conference, I had very little public speaking experience. There I was, the girl from Cleveland’s West Side, standing at the podium in the Kennedy Presidential Library, in front of Congressional aides, literacy activists, children and family television producers and executives, professional educators, academics, major magazine editors, reporters, and one of my heroes, Maya Angelou—and I was terrified. Without a typed copy of my speech, I would never have remembered later what I said. I only remember that when I finished, after greeting Mrs. Heinz as she walked to podium, Maya Angelou was waiting in the wings. She cupped my face with both her hands, soft and warm, and told me, nicely done little chicken. Always, always follow your heart. We stood there together, her very tall, me very short. She held my hand tight as she waited to go onstage for her speech. And of course, she soared, the tempo and beat of her words and wisdom creating a song of inspiration and hope.

Thank you Maya Angelou for your courage and the many gifts you shared with the world. You were an incandescent flame of hope in weary world. Thank you for a morning of lovely memories.
Mary Brigid Barrett
President and Executive Director
The National Children's Book and Literacy Alliance