What Maya Angelou Did on the First Day of Class

What Maya Angelou Did on the First Day of Class June 2, 2014

By Margaret Feinberg, who had Maya Angelou as a professor:

I wish I could to tell you that the first class I sat in on with Maya Angelou was filled with an unforgettable poetry reading and rich stories about her textured life, but for the next hour, each of the students circled the room introducing themselves, stating and spelling their names. In this class, I was no longer Margaret, I was Ms. Feinberg, and everyone else would recognize me as such.

At the end of hour, Ms. Angelou explained that what we were learning was very important. This formed the basis of our first test. Our first testI should have been paying more attention. Sketching a seating chart, I recorded as many people’s names as I could from memory….

Why did we just spend the last three weeks getting to know each other’s names?

She pressed it further:

Why did I just spend nearly 20% of our very valuable class time together making sure you knew each other’s names?

The room stewed in a kind of deafening, molasses-thick stillness that only the presence of Maya Angelou could command. She explained:

Because your name is a sign of your dignity.

When you recognize someone’s name, you recognize them not just as human but as a person. One of the greatest ways you bestow human dignity on someone is by calling them by name.

For the remaining weeks of class, we read a wide range of African American literature—including works by Maya Angelou. We listened in reverent awe as she read and recited poems that shook the soul. We laughed when she shared colorful stories from her childhood, personal adventures, and movies. We held back tears when she told of her painful past. We dug deep to create a final project that answered the granddaddy of all questions:

Why does the caged bird sing?


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