I was in college and standing in the Student Life office when another student came in to say that they had extra tickets to hear Maya Angelou speak at a local business lunch. This person waved an envelope around carelessly and asked if anyone wanted to go. I gasped inside and tried to quell the rising excitement inside me. Kids walked around busily and no one seemed to know who Maya Angelou was or what this lunch was about.
Is that for anyone?” I asked.
“Yeah” came the reply. “You want a ticket?”
I looked around and wondered why people weren’t knocking each other over to grab one for themselves. Just a couple of years before Maya Angelou had been one of only two poets to have spoken at an Inauguration and the only African-American woman to do it. She was an accomplished and highly respected author, Pulitzer Prize winner, civil rights activist, friend of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King! She was Oprah’s friend and mentor, for heaven sake. I thought it was only a matter of time before these tickets disappeared and so I grabbed one for myself.
The lunch was that same day and I did not have time to go home and change. As I walked into the hotel lobby, I felt intimidated walking into the ballroom filled primarily with businessmen in suits. I increasing believed I really didn’t belong there in my shorts and t-shirt. I also knew I could not pass up this once in a lifetime chance to meet an icon who inspired my life. I wondered if the message of this poet would be lost on a room full of businessmen who thought in dollars and cents. After some preliminary speeches, Dr Angelou was introduced. She stood taller than many and spoke with a deeper voice than I had heard a woman speak with before; a voice filled with the conviction of the truth she spoke. She assembled her words differently than I was used to, and I had to adjust my ears to receive her message. In no time, the room was as one. We sat before this sorceress who wove words in an alchemy that cast its spell spectacularly. Ideas swirled and danced and with each rhythmic phrase, she pulled down walls and facades.
As this event occurred in 1994, I do not recall the details of her speech, however I do remember that the room was transformed and transfixed. There we sat, fellow humans, in awe of the greatness that was before us. Dr Angelou had an ability to speak to the soul, not the ego and we were humbled. For a brief time, we sat as children watching magic as her words came to life in hearts and minds.
After her speech ended and the applause and standing ovations subsided, Dr Angelou stood at a long table and graciously signed autographs. I brought along my paperback copy of I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, feeling unworthy and wondering if she would sign my little book. Dr Angelou took my hand, which was at once dwarfed by hers. Her long fingers coming to rest above my wrist as we shook. I honestly thought I would pass out. Although I was raised to see people as people and no better or worse than me, this was different. She was a force. I remember too, the single gold ring she wore which appeared to have been sculpted in the shape of an elegant crane. An appropriate symbol, I thought, for this most regal of women. Cranes represent good fortune and I could not think of anything more auspicious than having this gift of listening to the thoughts of Maya Angelou over lunch. Lunch! In sunny Ft Lauderdale, Florida and for only a roomful of people, as the rest of the world went about its business as if nothing extraordinary was happening! She signed my book in swirls of black pen and thanked me as I gushed and fumbled my way through a rushed introduction. I remember walking back out into the radiant sunshine not believing my luck and just wanting to be a better person. Such was the power of Maya Angelou.
I’ve not spoken of this event much throughout the years and until today I was not sure why. I think it was so special and her words so beautiful that anything I could have said would not have touched the depth and breadth of it. It goes without saying that meeting Maya Angelou was an experience I will treasure always.