Dixie Darr

In creativity, Learning on April 25, 2007 at 7:34 am

Maya Angelou

“My confidence and sense of curiosity—you can trace it back to just that I loved reading.” Bill Gates

If you need an argument against classrooms as the ideal learning environment, look to Maya Angelou. Unschooled, but hardly uneducated, Angelou is universally admired and respected for her wide-ranging accomplishments. Bill Gallo of Westword has this to say about her:

“The talents of Maya Angelou – she is or has been a teacher, memoirist, prize-winning poet, actress, civil-rights activist, editor, playwright, composer, dancer, producer, theater and TV director, and advisor to three presidents – range so far and deep that no feat she accomplishes could come as a surprise.”

The theme for the life of this legendary woman may very well be “One thing leads to another” which is, fittingly, the first rule of independent scholarship. Starting her adult life as an unwed 16-year-old mother led her to a series of sustenance jobs to support herself and her son. These jobs couldn’t engage her mind, however, and she always loved reading. “Since childhood,” she wrote in Gather Together in My Name, “I had often read until the gray light entered my room.” As an adult, “I could be seen haunting the libraries.” I could, and often did to myself or my baby, recite whole passages of Shakespeare, Paul Lawrence Dunbar poems, Kipling’s “If.”

Reading wasn’t her only love. She had studied dance and drama starting at age fourteen. This eventually led to a role in the international touring company of Porgy and Bess. When she returned, she decided to try writing. The Harlem Writers Guild, “a loosely formed organization, without dues or membership cards,” which gave her important criticism.

“Making a decision to write was a lot like deciding to jump into a frozen lake.” But Angelou threw herself into it as she did with everything she undertook. As she wrote about an earlier job managing a restaurant, “I didn’t entertain the thought that I wouldn’t do the job well.”

Following other interests and using mentors, colleagues, and chutzpah, she added playwright, producer, civil rights leader, and newspaper editor to her growing list of accomplishments.

Although Angelou has no academic degrees, she has become one of our wisest leaders. She has been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for poetry, a National Book Award, and Emmys for her acting and writing and has received numerous awards for her vast array of accomplishments. Her debut directing the feature film, Down in the Delta, was yet another in a long list of startling successes. Ironically, a woman who learned everything she knows outside the classroom, now teaches in a classroom as a Reynolds professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University in North Carolina.

©2007 Dixie Darr. All rights reserved

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