Since the news on May 28th reported the death of Maya Angelou, my Facebook account, TV newscast, papers and magazines have been filled with her quotable quotes and stories. Like many other people, I went back to a memory. My eighth grade language arts classes read an excerpt from I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. The episode begins with Maya’s grandmother looking for a way to help her out of the dark place that has plunged her into silence after she was raped. Her grandmother turns to Mrs. Flowers, the most elegant lady in their community, for help. Maya says Mrs. Flowers was the first to throw her a life line.
Mrs. Flowers treats Maya as a special person making lemonade and tea cookies [AKA tea cakes] for her and reading aloud from her favorite book, A Tale of Two Cities. Her words of wisdom foreshadow the woman Maya is to become. Addressing Maya’s unwillingness to talk, “Bear in mind, language is man’s way of communicating with his fellow man, and it is language alone which separates him from the lower animals.” She admonishes Maya to be intolerant of ignorance but understanding of illiteracy and points out the truth of homely sayings of country people called “mother wit.” Many of those quotes that made the news are couched in those wisdom patterns translated into elegant English by the woman she became.
In the course of the class discussion, one of the students inevitably asked, “Mrs. Butler, what are tea cookies?”
My reply was, “I’m so glad you asked.” Then I pulled the tea cakes I had baked from their hiding place and passed them around as samples. I swore them to secrecy so the next class would be equally surprised. After the treat, they returned to the story with new interest in finding its message.
Occasionally in days to come, some bright junior high student would ask, “Mrs. Butler, I’ve forgotten. What are tea cookies?” I assured them that only worked once.
The number of lives Maya Angelou touched with her words of wisdom and her openness to share her own life and its message of survival could never be counted. There are some takeaways I hope my students have brought into their adult lives. I hope they remember that one person like Mrs. Flowers can make the difference in a child’s life that will help them become all they were meant to be. I hope they will see that a person like Maya Angelou can survive the worst life offers and go on to have a real influence for good in the world. And I hope they will remember that someone who makes tea cakes and reads to you from A Tale of Two Cities thinks you are very special.