Every day before my eighth grade honors English class, this kid Rob would call me Shamu. Language was a weapon I'd wielded for years, both as a shield and a pedestal on which I hid, so I would respond with well-versed, witty retorts, even pointing out all the ways in which I was, in fact, nothing like a killer whale.
But fat was the worst thing you could be as a 13-year-old girl, so every day, he won.
I walked into class deflated and overcompensated by boisterously chatting with everyone around me, laughing loudly to keep the tears inside. For that reason, Mrs. Novinger never really liked me, and I never really liked her, but we did have a mutual respect for language, and that bonded us together in a way I am still uncovering.
Yesterday morning, as I woke my partner Alex up to cry in her arms about the death of Maya Angelou, I thought again about that seventh grade English class and the notebook full of poetry I held tight against my belly, not sure which one I was more afraid to show to a world full of boys like Rob.
It is impossible for me to mourn Maya Angelou without reciting "Phenomenal Woman," the lines of which covered pages of my own poetry books, reminding me of a world beyond teenage angst. It made its way around my middle school with a popularity that bordered on cliché and I am saddened, looking back, at how many young girls needed so desperately to hear that they were phenomenal.
We lived in a small border town, as south as is possible on the West Coast, but Mrs. Novinger was from The South, Louisiana to be exact, a world that held tension and history far beyond the issues we'd faced in our 13 years. We read Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, but I couldn't connect with young boys trying to get out of trouble they themselves caused. I felt like as a fat, young, queer girl, the world was causing me trouble, and it wasn't until we switched from Mark Twain to Maya Angelou that I understood I wasn't alone.
My privileged childhood was far from that of Maya Angelou's, yet I found my own will in her words. When Mrs. Novinger handed me I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, I immediately felt its power, the bird on the cover speaking to me before I even opened to hear its song. I read of injustices I hadn't ever imagined and learned what it meant to be an activist that day, for myself and for others.
Maya Angelou's life was the story of an injured girl who grew up to be a strong woman. Through her words, I found strength to do the same.
Angelou famously wrote, "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." Yesterday, as I cried for the loss of a stranger I never knew who changed my life permanently for the better, I found strength, once again, in her words, and the courage to get out of bed and share my stories.
I encourage everyone who is mourning to take a few moments to write poetry today. Write some life-changing, status-quo questioning, soul-affirmining poetry today, and every day. I can't think of a better way to honor the loss of this great American gem than to continue her legacy of sharing our stories.