When I was in 8th grade, I had this English teacher, Mr. Chilbert. I have an uncanny memory when it comes to my childhood- like I could pretty much tell you the name of every kid that was in that class with me and where they sat. My friend Alli sat just to my right. To my left and one row back sat the love of Alli’s 8th grade life, this quiet kid with a melancholy face who had the longest, darkest eyelashes you have ever seen in your life. I could go up and down the rows like that, naming all the names, and I could tell you what we did in class. What I don’t remember a lot about is Mr. Chilbert. I remember what he looked like- he had a very square torso and weepy blue eyes, and he seemed an affable sort of guy. Well, except there was this one time where Alli may have called him “Flat Face” which, to be sure, was not cool, but he retaliated by drawing this really unflattering, huge picture of her in chalk across the chalkboard and spent a good part of class time taunting her with it and trying to draw the rest of the kids into the taunts. Which, I don’t know, maybe not the best response to 8th grade sassbacks? I don’t know.
Anyway, one day that year I was in the school library, a tiny little place run by Mr. Bowfinger, who wore a sort of leveled off blond toupee, tinted Buddy Holly glasses, Scandinavian style wool sweaters, and competed in rollerskating partner dancing in his off hours. I swear, shitting you I am not. In fact, now that I think about it, Mr. Bowfinger may be the very first person that I ever really was consciously aware was a librarian in my whole life. I may need to just go sit with that realization for a quick minute after I write this. But I digress. While browsing in that library one day, I picked up a copy of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou. I had never heard of the book before, didn’t know anything about it, but it had a cool rainbow design on the cover. I started reading the book that night and was hooked in immediately. It was so honest, raw, and compelling. The depictions of the effects of the Jim Crow south on Maya and her family tore me up. The scene that describes her experience of being abused and raped as an eight-year-old girl tore me up more. Reading that book gave me one of my first, if not the very first, reading experiences I ever had where depictions about the most difficult of things somehow, in the way she wrote about them, brought dignity and illumination to the people in the pages, just by witnessing their experiences through beautiful prose.
One day during this time, I was sitting in Mr. Chilbert’s class. In that class, we had these little wire shelves hooked onto the legs of our chairs so that we could put our extra books or notebooks underneath us during class. That day, I had my Maya Angelou library book on my wire shelf. During class, I got called out of class for some reason. I don’t remember why. What I do remember is that when I returned, I walked in to find Mr. Chilbert holding my book. He looked at me, disappointed. I sat back down in my chair, and Mr. Chilbert began lecturing the class while holding up the book. “This book,” he said, looking around the class solemnly, his eyes stopping on me as he talked, “is not an appropriate book for anyone in my class to be reading. I have read this book, but only when I was in college. There is a filthy scene in here. A sexual scene that is not for kids. Where did you get this?” He looked at me with his weepy eyes. “The library,” I replied. Mr. Chilbert looked shocked. “OUR library? In school?” he asked. I nodded. Mr. Chilbert did not return the book to me. He said he was going to return it to Mr. Bowfinger and talk to him about it.
I went home and didn’t tell my parents about getting in trouble for having the book. I didn’t feel ashamed for having been called out in front of the whole class. I knew the book wasn’t “filthy” so I wasn’t humiliated by what happened, although I knew that I was supposed to be. I got my hands on another copy of it from the public library that same week, mainly because I wanted to finish it, but also I knew that my teacher had been wrong. There was nothing obscene about me reading those pages. I knew it was beautiful, artful, and it had moved me.
I read more Maya Angelou through my childhood into high school, both poetry and prose. I learned more about her in my performing arts days too, as she was also known as a stage actress and dancer. Once into adulthood, I didn’t read much more of her work, and she had fallen off my radar for many years. When I heard about her passing today, it made me remember that first experience of reading her book in 8th grade though. That experience drew a line down the middle of my young adulthood, and helped me to see which side of that line I was on. When it came to art, I was on the side of the beautiful, compassionate kind. When it came to those who wanted to police books, I was on the side of reading them anyway. When it came to heartbreaking, difficult themes, I was on the side of wanting to understand rather than look away. When it came to honest communication about sexuality, I was on the side of honoring that. When it came to people like Mr. Chilbert, I was on the side of not allowing myself to be shamed.
These are all sides pf lines that I still stand on as a woman, a reader, a lover of art, and a librarian. They may not have come singlehandedly from this experience with Maya Angelou’s work when I was a wee 8th grader, but it for damn sure helped. Thanks, Maya. I’m grateful.