Just a few years back I was invited by a PTO to speak to parents at a local grammar school on the topic of raising children with strong self-esteem. As the topic is somewhat amorphous, I was curious to see how many moms and dads would be motivated to come out on a snowy evening to indulge in a discussion on self-esteem. By the time my lecture began, there were more than three hundred people in the auditorium.
With growing vigor, I launched into the latest theories on child development, positive discipline, building motivation, and encouraging responsibility; enough to satisfy most intellectual curiosities on a mid-winter’s night. As the evening was drawing to a close, I asked for questions from the audience. After the usual flurry of concerns ranging from kids resistance to doing chores, to how many after school activities are appropriate, one more hand reluctantly raised from the back of the auditorium. A small, quiet voice began to speak with a strong accent.
“My name is Indira. I am a professor at the University. I came to this country three years ago from my native India. My son is seven. He is the reason I am here. I came to this land of opportunity for his future. I wanted him to know the benefits this country could offer. But every day he comes home from school in tears. There are boys who are not kind to him. They make him feel small for being different from them. They do not include him in their games. Every night he asks to go back to India. I fear I have made a terrible mistake. In trying to provide the best for him, I fear I have hurt him irreparably. After I dry his tears, I cry myself to sleep. I do not know whether to stay or give up and return to India.”
Silence swept the auditorium. She stood, subtly shaking, awaiting my response. The theories seemed hollow. My own experiences felt privileged and therefore empty to offer advice or consolation. From the back of my memory, I felt the tugging of a story. Not knowing where else to go, I began to speak from the distance of a memory that seemed somehow connected. I began.
A STORY FOR INDIRA
My roommate in college wrote for the school newspaper. One evening, when she was responsible to cover a lecture at a neighboring college, she erupted with the flu. As it was very last minute, she begged me to go in her stead. Reluctantly, I headed off into the night with notebook and pen to hear a speaker I had never heard of discuss her poetry. I was to remain afterwards to interview her for the paper. Her name was Maya Angelou.
For two hours I sat spellbound in the darkness, mesmerized by the melodious voice of a woman who presented herself with an unassuming grandness. The story of her life was daunting. Born as a black female into the poverty of the pre-war south, she was molested at the age seven by her mother’s boyfriend. She did not speak again for five years. Shuffled between her grandmother in Arkansas and her mother in St. Louis, she experienced both the unfailing love and overwhelming deprivation that were to be the hallmarks of her growth and later life’s work.
At the age of sixteen, young Maya conceived a child. Through the ensuing years she managed to find her way as a single child-parent to support and raise her son in a segregated, poverty-stricken environment. Maintaining her dignity in the face of prejudice, harassment, and violence, she did not give in to the despair of those surrounding her. She clearly stated that it was the consistent, loving support of her mother and grandmother, strong women who believed in her potential, which enabled her to reach inside and find the courage to continue.
Maya Angelou did more than survive. She expressed her spirit in poetry. She sang. She danced. She wrote autobiographies of her journey, essays on living, and poems to inspire both individuals and nations. She celebrated the gift of life in every way she could imagine. Little did we both know at that time, but she would go on to be honored by universities, presidents, and world leaders.
During her speech that evening twenty-five years ago, Maya Angelou gave thanks for life’s hardships which shaped her character, taught her mettle and challenged her to give her all to everything she attempted. “We all enter this world as lumps of coal,” she said. “It is the heat and pressure of our lives that enable us to become diamonds.” Listening to her message, I was dumbfounded.
After her lecture, I met Ms. Angelou backstage for an interview. In her presence I grappled with my own fledgling sense of self. As I took her hand to shake it in thanks for her inspiration, I mumbled, “Does every clod have the potential to become a diamond? Aren’t some lumps of coal just broken further into dust by the heat and the pressure?”
She gripped my hand harder. “The first miracle has already happened,” she said. “The first gift has already been given. You are here, alive on this earth on this precious day. Take all it has to offer you and give back everything you’ve got. When you feel the heat, honey, look inside and see the shining.”
As my story ended, I looked up into the auditorium to find Indira, still standing, with tears running down her cheeks. “Thank you. We will stay,” she said. The lecture was over.