Maya Angleou died today at age 86 after living a profoundly influential, inspiring, and beautiful life.
I taught her poem "Phenomenal Woman" to my advanced level 9th grade girls in Korea when I was teaching there in 2011. I wonder if they will remember it today as the news is carried across global air and social media waves.
The class was a small, twice-a-week-in-the-evening-for-two-hours affair, and that particular quarter it was basically up to me the foreign teacher to do whatever I wanted in that evening class. (The academy didn't seem to have a book picked out for that advanced level.) So, I created and cribbed a bunch of different activities over the weeks, but at one point decided to do a few weeks of poetry, introducing them to a few well-known English poems and poets, perhaps planting some seeds in these 14-going-on-15-year-old minds. Which seeds, then, to plant?
The first poem we studied was Robert Frost's "Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening." (Oh by the way, this ends up being a pretty USA-centric affair--sorry, Brits! Get you next time around!) With a few easily pre-taught exceptions ("harness," "downy"), the vocabulary is pretty simple and it is a good one for studying imagery, sentence structure, and evocative symbolism that leads to deep thoughts about life, as I previously blog-discussed. The week after we studied it, I had them write their own poems using its rhyme scheme to tell a story of a moment. It was challenging but rewarding, as poetry so often can be.
Next up was "Harlem" by Langston Hughes, perhaps most remembered by its opening lines: "What happens to a dream deferred? / Does it dry up / like a raisin in the sun?" This is another poetic gem, short but with some key vocabulary to learn ("fester," "sag," "crust," and "heavy load" in addition to the all-important "deferred") and a vivid image that stands for so much more. And this one lends itself even better to the students writing their own poems, which I of course had them do, grappling with the question "What happens to a dream deferred?" They started with that opening line and answered it in their own individual ways.
Finally, we moved on to Angelou's "Phenomenal Woman." I suppose this ought to be required reading for all eighth and ninth grade girls... and I think it was at this point that Brian started jokingly referring to the class as my "Mona Lisa Smile class." After we read this one and discussed its vocabulary and symbolism and evoked emotions and rhythm and so on, I noticed the students were a little quiet. I prodded them a little: "What's up, ladies? Did you not like this poem?"
One of them replied, "I'm just thinking that this one is going to be really hard when you make us write our own poem like it."
I laughed. She was right, of course. But the girls did write their own versions, playing with different adjectives (excellent, exceptional, amazing) compared to "phenomenal" and expressing in their many varied ways why they were, indeed, phenomenal girls on their way to becoming phenomenal women.
Maybe they have continued writing poetry; they've almost certainly continued studying English. One girl in that class had the brains, the drive, the scientific interests, and the parental financial capability to end up at MIT (an idea she was already considering). Another was a perfect student grade- and study-wise but so stressed by school and so desirous of more time to just be able to hang out listening to music and looking at magazines with her friends (I gifted them a few of my copies of Entertainment Weekly, after concocting another series of English lessons using the mags) that I hope she has continued to find new takes on things and ever more ways to express herself as she did when she took pencil to paper to write her poems. Another girl was quite mature for a 15-year-old and more of a non-conformist than she always let on, and she often talked about her keen interest in art and in film--real film, challenging film, varieties of film, not just giant explosion-filled action blockbusters. She was always surprising me with the classic movies she had randomly downloaded and watched. I have no doubt she continues to be creative, but wonder what she has chosen to do for university. Will she direct her own feature film one day? Will you hear about this exciting new Korean female cinematic voice in another decade or so? They are in their last year of high school this year. They must be making plans. I always wondered if they'll end up going to college in the U.S. and come across one of the poems we studied in some liberal arts elective at Harvard or at UC-Berkeley and have a flash of recognition that day. Or, if they roll their eyes at the mere thought of poetry, will they at least have a leg up having already delved a bit into these selections?
Poetry really isn't dead. It's not something that can die.
Caged birds are just about the saddest thing on this Earth I can conceive of, but they do sing.
Rest in peace, Maya Angelou.