In 1998, I was SO fortunate to be able to attend a presentation by one of my heroes, Maya Angelou. When I arrived and was seated at the venue, my long legs with my 5’ 9” frame felt cramped, and I wondered how I was going to be able to get comfortable to really be able to pay attention to Ms. Angelou and her message. However… the lights dimmed… the spotlight lit up, and a statuesque figure dressed all in red entered the stage. She immediately began her presentation by singing part of an old slavery spiritual. Then, she challenged each member of the audience to, “Be a Rainbow in the Clouds” of whatever situation they may find themselves. I was entranced for over two hours without worry of cramped legs or any other superfluous concern. I knew of Ms. Angelou’s past and the tragic difficulties which she faced, endured, and how she made herself face those circumstances.
None of this is a secret: When she was seven years old, her mother’s boyfriend raped her. She told her older brother, Bailey, who was nine at the time, and Bailey reported the crime to the adults in the family. The man was put in jail and lasted one day and one night before he was found dead. A seven-year-old Maya believed her words had the power to kill. At that point in her childhood, she chose to stop speaking, she and Bailey were sent back to their grandmother’s (Mama’s), and Mama gave her a tablet and pencil so she could write any needed responses instead of speaking them. Mama did this without realizing the “why” of Maya not speaking; she simply accepted that it was a need that Maya required.
Eventually, Maya was taken under the wing (or mentored) by a woman named Mrs. Flowers. Anyone who reads Angelou’s, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings , will read a much more detailed story, but the basic premise is this: Mrs. Flowers was considered to be the highest class of the African-American people in Mama’s hometown. She took an interest in Maya and explained how important words were to any person. She taught Maya that, “You will never love poetry until you speak it.” Maya found her voice. She began reading everything she could get her hands on, much like the early American author, Jack London. Then she set out to live a lesson from Mama: “Sister, when you get, give; when you learn, teach.”
Ms. Angelou has spent the following years teaching in England, Rome, Israel, throughout countries in Africa and states in America. So many different venues exist where we can learn the same lessons she can teach. In the film, Where the Heart Is, Novalee Nation says, “We’ve all got meanness in us, but we’ve all got goodness, too, and the only thing worth living for is the good.” Ms. Angelou is an excellent example of someone who not only lives for the good but also uses the good to teach and mentor anyone who will be open to it. Ultimately, she tells her listeners to, “Be a Rainbow in the Clouds.” I can think of no better advice for teen mentors.