As we celebrate Black History Month throughout February, I can’t help but think back fondly on writer, poet, singer and civil rights activist Dr. Maya Angelou. Although Dr. Angelou passed in 2014, she’s someone who continues to inspire so many of us through her works and her legacy — including thousands of students who attended or currently attend her namesake schools in Washington, DC.
I met Dr. Angelou when I joined the See Forever Foundation board in 2003. The See Forever Foundation (SFF) is the organization that oversees the Maya Angelou Public Charter Schools in DC, which was founded more than 20 years ago by David Domenici and James Forman Jr. James and David believe that everyone deserves a top-notch education, regardless of one’s economic standing. Their steadfast belief led to the creation of SFF and a network of schools named after Dr. Angelou. What started so modestly has grown into academic programs that provide a stellar education for many in-need kids and teens across DC.
It’s hard to describe what Dr. Angelou was like other than to say that she was a larger than life presence who was strong, wise and incredibly kind. I recall seeing her sitting by herself during one of the many school events she attended. I approached to introduce myself and shake her hand. When I did so, I crouched down to be at eye level with Dr. Angelou who was seated. She shook my hand, smiled and said to me, “Honey, stand up straight and bow down for no one,” a statement I will always remember and advice that I still cherish today.
My favorite quote by Dr. Angelou has always been: I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel. And after meeting her, I realized that she embodied this sentiment. When meeting Dr. Angelou, you couldn’t help but to feel special and feel as though she held you in high regard, because she made everyone feel this way. I believe her ability to make people feel this way came from how she saw and embraced the world — with love, kindness and an ultimate faith in humankind.
When SFF and the Maya Angelou Schools’ students and staff collaborated on hosting events and open houses, Dr. Angelou would never miss attending and — even as her health declined in her final years — she made it a priority to be present. She also made sure to tell everyone — especially the students — how happy and proud she was to be there with them.
Many of the students who attend (and who’ve graduated from) the Maya Angelou Schools did not start out with the easiest lives. Some are from the toughest neighborhoods in the nation’s capital, and many have lost friends and family members in ways that leave scars that never fade. But they have always had big dreams and hopes for the future, in large part due to being part of the “Maya Schools family.” And they also find inspiration from Dr. Angelou herself, who always encouraged them to hold on tight to their hopes and dreams, and whose legacy continues to be embodied today throughout her schools.
I have so many great memories of Dr. Angelou talking with “her students,” memories that still make me smile. She lit up the room and lit up everyone’s hearts. And if anyone ever asked her what they could do for her, her answer was always the same, “I need nothing… help my schools… help my students.” It was clear that she inspired them and they, in turn, inspired her. Countless alumni from the Maya Angelou Schools have gone on to graduate from colleges and universities across the country, and to establish successful careers — many of them in the arts as writers, poets and musicians — following in the footsteps of someone they greatly admired, who admired them just as much in return.