Saturday, May 31, 2014

Discovering the ‘Mayas’ among us..

I am firm believer that for everyone who makes it, like Maya Angelou did…there are countless others who need to be ‘discovered’ and provided every support possible to help them realize their potential. – jldavis, 5/31/14

Dr. Maya Angelou’s remarkable life prompted millions to recognize her work, her legacy and her meaning to us as individuals on Wednesday of this past week when we learned of her passing. Most know her story: Maya Angelou was a profoundly gifted and prolific African American poet/author/inspirational speaker/artist/civil rights advocate.  Maya’s story starts as that of a young girl born in St. Louis in 1928, and later sent to live in the segregated town of Stamps, Arkansas with a grandmother.  At the age of seven, she was sexually abused by a family friend, who was later murdered by the men of her family.  The abuse and her abuser’s subsequent death was so painful that for years, Maya would speak to no one. Of course, many assumed that there was something physically wrong with the litter girl from Stamps until one day years later she began to speak again. Her first autobiography ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’ describing this painful story, struck the hearts of many worldwide.  In 2011, Maya Angelou won the highest award given to a civilian- The Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama.

Maya’s colorful life continued as she made every attempt to ‘find herself’ in varied art forms, through travels and later by embarking on the civil rights movement with some of our culture’s most infamous people- including among them Malcolm X, Amiri Baraka, Nelson Mandela, Former President Bill Clinton, President Barack Obama. It is said that she was mentored by the great James Baldwin and later she became a mentor to Oprah Winfrey. Maya Angelou has been called a ‘literary giant’.

Not unlike many highly gifted and productive adults – Maya Angelou never went to college. Her life as a young adult was spent discovering herself, dancing, acting, behind cameras, and traveling the world.

Since her passing this week, I’ve been thinking about all of the Mayas in our classrooms in schools across the nation. I’ve been thinking about how noticeable her gifts must have been early on in her school career (or if anyone paid attention to her gifts).  In Stamp as a child, it is said the Maya read all of the books in the library.  I’ve been thinking about the teachers who came in contact with Maya, the preadolescent and later the adolescent learner. How perhaps among her teachers there must have some who saw nothing noticeably different about this young linguistic genius and then, those who knew in their hearts that one day this little girl would change the world.

I also wondered about her family and believe that among her relatives there were some who saw her as ‘different’, perhaps more sensitive, compassionate, more creative, more determined to do what she ‘put her mind to’.  It is often within the family that gifted children are first recognized and identified as being wiser than the norm; a little ‘quirky’; and sometimes extremely determined, even at the risk of not being accepted by the wider community or doing something against the best advice of the elders in the family.

I can imagine that Maya was this kind of girl, extremely creative, with an arsenal of words and a universe of strong feelings welled up inside of her.  In communities and schools across the nation, there are so many Mayas. Some have already been discovered and well on their way to being productive, creating novels, poetry, writing plays, or even becoming leaders organizing other students around humanitarian issues. Some of them have taken the lead and created organizations to help fight community hunger or to collect funds and materials for those less fortunate.

But for every Maya who has already been discovered and participating in an advanced classroom for gifted learners there are two, three, maybe even four  or more who are sitting in a classroom with no blank book to jot down her notes, no computer to write her next story, with a teacher who is so busy looking at the color of her skin, the texture of her hair, and thinking about the poor neighborhood that ‘Maya’ lives in, that she overlooked the last creative essay ‘Maya’ wrote and gave her a blanket ‘C’ for a grade (with no feedback re: content, creativity, etc). This same teacher did not think of the ‘Maya’ in her classroom at all when asked to refer students for the gifted program or to provide a few names of students to participate in a summer enrichment program for budding writers.

You know the rest of the story-

One way that Maya Angelou's spirit can live on in our communities is for each of us to DO OUR PART to make Gifted and Advanced learner Programs more accessible to more children nationwide. There are countless highly gifted students who will not be discovered OR have the encouragement they need to pursue their dreams without substantial support from schools, communities, and families everywhere.

My appeal to educators, families, and community leaders is to consider honoring Maya Angelou’s life and her remarkable contributions to society by looking deeper into our classrooms for children who may be just like her.

Look deeper and work harder to make advanced programming accessible to more ‘Mayas’.

Acknowledge the inequities and unfair practices that persist in keeping students of color and others from low income backgrounds, from rural communities, from immigrant families out of gifted and accelerated classrooms.

Certainly there are many who will succeed without backing from institutions, but I am firm believer that for everyone who makes it, like Maya Angelou did…there are countless others need to be ‘discovered’, nurtured and provided every support possible to help them realize their potential. 

Together, we can do this!! Just imagine how great a community, neighborhood, school, nation, and world we could have if there were more ‘Mayas’ among us.

For more on Maya: