06/03/2014 03:45 pm ET Updated Aug 03, 2014

Maya Angelou: Words Can Change the World

It was pouring rain when I entered Catherine Carter Blackwell Institute last week. As usual, the elementary school, in one of the most impoverished areas on Detroit's east side, was warm and welcoming. Security and office staffers were friendly. Murals adorned the walls. African toys and dolls of famous African Americans, from the personal collection gathered from many travels and trips to Africa by the school's namesake, filled several showcases. The enormity - the pulse of that morning - had just begun to sink in. I had learned from my car radio that Maya Angelou had just died.

Feeling humbled, I went to the office to greet Principal Hines and then headed up to the classroom for a publication party celebrating Volume 3 of iO's Words from the Pharoahs, with Writer-in-residence Dr. Suzanne Scarfone and her third grade authors. The pizza hadn't arrived so while we were waiting I spoke to the children. Who knew of Maya Angelou? Hands went up. There were several who knew she was a poet and a whole bunch more waving their hands to also give the right answer, which they had just then heard from their classmates. Ah, third graders!

I told them about Dr. Angelou's many books and about her speaking at President Clinton's inauguration. And I told them that she was generous and loving, a world traveler, a social activist and, perhaps best of all, a person who had changed the world with her words. You can do that, too, I told them, change the world with your words, and I held up the books (which they would receive after the pizza, not before). Hundreds of people will read your words. Your words will mean something to people you don't even know.

Since they were third graders and a bit antsy, instead of having them listen to an Angelou poem, which I had thought to do, I decided to go with something more interactive. I love to recite this poem for children.


Went to the corner.
Walked in the store.
Bought me some candy.
Ain't got it no more.
Ain't got it no more.

Went to the beach.
Played on the shore.
Made me a sand house.
Ain't got it no more.
Ain't got it no more.

Went to the kitchen.
Lay down on the floor.
Made me a poem.
Still got it.
Still got it.

Eloise Greenfield

By the time we get to the 5th line, children are usually reciting it along with me, and this group was no exception. We went through it once, twice. They recited it as a group by themselves, and I encouraged them to go home and teach it to younger siblings, friends or cousins. So much language learning in such a small space -- the hypnotic spell of rhythm and rhyme, the symbolism, the way it makes you think. Why, I asked them, is the poem called "Things"? Candy disappears in our mouths; waves wash away what we have built. But we've still got our poem. Is a poem a thing? Noooo... So what's a poem? Hands shot up again. A poem is in your heart. It's your mind. It's your feelings, it's what you think. It's your nature. It's your soul. With utmost confidence, over a dozen Detroit eight-year-olds had defined poetry in a way that, on the day of her transition, I like to think would make Dr. Angelou proud. Perhaps they were sending her on, adding their voices to the outpouring that would swell across the Internet from the thousands and thousands of people whose lives were changed by her wisdom and her words.

As part of their year-end celebration, the children received magical rings and, in a few instances, crowns from Dr. Scarfone whose "Poetry Palace" classroom sessions create the safe space necessary for children's imaginations to soar. Volume III of Words from the Pharoahs contains many gems that capture the purity, freedom and tenderness of small children.

Ka'Terra Lanier answers the question "What Is Poetry?" in three magical lines:

The golden tiger's fur shimmers in my eye.
The leafless tree stands straight and still
As the sun hides behind the clouds.

Riffing on William Carlos Williams's iconic poem, "The Red Wheelbarrow," Jayvon Medley writes:

"So Much Depends Upon"

So much depends upon
a Snickers costing a dollar
or the flavor of a donut.

So much depends upon
if the monkey will eat the banana
if it will be cold today.

So much depends upon
a scary roller coaster
or if you will talk to me.

Finally, this wonderful embrace by DeCarlos Spears, which could be dedicated to Dr. Angelou herself.


The beauty of nature
The beauty of the light
The beauty of the stars
Speak to me.

The peak of the hills
The freshness of the air
The softness of the sand
Speak to me.

The faith of the heart
The thankfulness of the heart
The greatness of the heart
Speak to me.

As the children received their books, Principal Hines, who stopped in after I had spoken with the children, also praised Dr. Angelou. With a mural of Dr. King behind her, she encouraged and told them that writing could some day take them, too, to the White House.

This year's volume of Voices from the Pharoahs is dedicated to the school's namesake, beloved Detroit treasure, educator and storyteller Catherine Blackwell, who made her transition just a few months before Maya Angelou. As Ms. Hines wrote in the dedication, Catherine Blackwell's "love of children was invaluable and paramount. Thank you for the stories you told. They inspired us. Your faith and commitment helped us connect our past to our future dreams. As you dwell in the Spiritual Realm, we worry no more, for our Ancestor is home and watching over us always." Like Ms. Hines, I salute you, Catherine Blackwell. I salute you as well, Maya Angelou. I salute you. Asante Sana.