I was genuinely sad this morning when I checked my phone.
A CNN report told me that Maya Angelou had died.
My throwback Thursday came a day early.
I was suddenly sitting in the dimly lit room of my eighth grade English teacher, Mrs. Young. It was always dim in that room, as she had only two floor lamps lighting the cave-like classroom made of bright white cinderblocks. I was reading out of our textbook a portion of Maya Angelou’s “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.”
I couldn’t tell you what it was about without a quick refresher from a Google search.
But I’ll never forget a line I read.
“I was liked, and what a difference it made.”
Perhaps the reason I cannot fully remember the context of this poignant line was because whatever Maya Angelou was writing about was swallowed whole in the relevancy of my own life to this very epiphany.
I had just come out of a dark abyss called depression.
I had moved to Georgia, repeated seventh grade, reentered another day treatment and about a dozen different medications. It was not the best time for Emmilie Buchanan.
For part of my second seventh grade year, I was pulled out of school and put on what was called “Homebound.” Basically, I was deemed too sick to attend school, and had a tutor come to my home on Braidwood Run a few times a week.
I remember spending hours in my room playing Monopoly by myself and carrying on full on conversations with my cat, who ironically enough was named Chat.
Somehow, I can’t fully remember, I started to come out of it.
I planned to go back to school for eighth grade – what would end up being my last year in Atlanta.
It was with a newfound confidence that still bore the wounds of past fear and failures that I started school that Fall.
I was the healthiest and the happiest I had ever been.
I was just a little worried about the friend department.
All of my life, I had desperately wanted to be “cool.”
Well if you know me now, you can probably guess that back then I was about as awkward and goofy.
In fact, I vividly remember uttering more than one tearful prayer to God that I could be popular.
It’s funny how God has a better way of answering the deepest pleas of our hearts.
Which brings me back to Mrs. Young’s dimly lit dungeon.
One day, it couldn’t have been too far into the school year, we started studying Mya Angelou. I instantly loved her writing. Her vivid description made me feel physical emotion — something that few writers had done for me thus far.
Then came the day we read that immortal line.
“I was like, and what a difference it made.”
Somehow, it became my own words. I realized that I was loved by so many people. I had countless friends who knew about my struggle with mental illness, and many who didn’t. Those who knew had stood by me during the dark days of my struggles, and those who didn’t found in me a friend, despite what I felt were glowing inadequacies.
The fact that a handful of people at Lost Mountain Middle School could call me friend — well, that was more than I had ever hoped for. And it was real.
This moment in my English class was a pivotal one. For many reasons.
I started to realize my own self worth, I discovered the power of well chosen words and found that I had a knack for choosing them myself.
Looking back, I’m thoroughly convinced that Mrs. Young was a gift to me from God. It was Mrs. Young that first taught me to write. I mean, really write. Her editing process was called “The Wash” and I remember more than once, staying up late into the night perfecting my personal narrative or expository essay. It was Mrs. Young’s class that taught me to write about my life. My rich and blessed life has given me ample amounts of content over the years, and I have that dark classroom to thank.
Mrs. Young gave me great confidence, too. I wrote an expository essay on the Treble clef once, and got a 92 percent on the paper. I remember the grumblings of my fellow classmates as they got their papers back.
“Did anyone get an A?”
To be honest, it was the pride in her voice that made me beam. I had not felt that I was good at something in a long time. It was that moment that I knew I wanted to write. And write. And write.
I’ve never had the chance to say it, but thank you, Mrs. Young. You changed my life.
Mrs. Young loved Maya Angelou, too.
I know she will be just as affected by her death.
So thanks to the greats in my life. Maya Angelou, for connecting with a finding-her-way-back eight grader, and one of the most talented teachers I have ever met, for making a writer after all of this awkward, goofy girl.
The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.
I hope to meet you one day, Maya Angelou.
Until then, I’ll keep singing my song with outstretched wings. Thanks for giving them to me.