The line started at the front steps of Derryberry Hall and snaked its way around the entire east side of the building. A huge bus with blackened windows occupied most of the visitor parking spots. Its uniformed chauffeur hovered protectively near the door, as though guarding a rock star. But it wasn’t a rock star these hundreds of people had come to Tennessee Tech to see.
It was a poet.
Not just any poet, mind you, but Maya Angelou. News that the renowned writer, civil rights activist, feminist, educator, actress, and producer was going to spend an evening right here in Cookeville was so exciting that hundreds of tickets for her presentation were all given away within half an hour of being made available.
I was among the many who didn’t get one.
My first reaction was disappointment. Maya Angelou was coming to town and I wouldn’t get to see her? No fair! But, really, this was good news. What if few had wanted a ticket and she’d been forced to speak to a near-empty house? How embarrassing would that be for our community? Then I began to feel curious and even a little hopeful. Would you really need a ticket to get a seat? Were there provisions for an overflow crowd? Was there any chance at all that I might get at least a glimpse of one of the most important literary figures of our time?
It was worth the fifteen minute drive from my house to campus to find out.
I lucked into a vacant parking place behind Henderson Hall and made my way toward the crowd. Two separate lines of fans stood outside Derryberry Hall—those with tickets and those without. By 7:00, everyone in the ticketed line had
been admitted to the auditorium. Then came the announcement the rest of us had been waiting for. The first fifty people in my line would get seats.
I was number twenty-four. Hooray! Double, triple, quadruple, hooray!
I took my seat three rows from the back wall of the balcony. Good thing
I’d worn my hearing aids, but too bad I hadn’t brought binoculars. The room darkened and almost immediately the crowd grew quiet. We were asked to
silence our cell phones and not to take photographs. We were told that there would be neither a question-and-answer period nor a reception following the presentation.
And then Maya Angelou walked onto stage to a thunderous standing ovation. She took her seat beside a long-armed microphone and cleared her throat.
“I’m never sure what I’m going to speak about when I do one of these programs,” she said. And then proceeded to talk for almost an hour without a single note. She reminisced about being raised by her grandmother in Arkansas during the Great Depression. She told of being raped by an uncle at the age of seven and not speaking a word for four years afterward. She spoke of “Roots” and Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. She recited reams of poetry, both her own and that of poets as diverse as Shakespeare and Edgar Allen Poe, completely from memory.
She opined that courage is the most important of all the virtues, because without courage no other virtue can be practiced consistently.
“More than anything,” she admonished the audience as the hour drew to a close, “I’m here tonight to remind you how important you are. Each person in this room has the power to shine a light on the darkness. Our society has succeeded in making cigarette smoking politically incorrect. If we can do that, think what we could accomplish if we put forth the same effort to eliminate sexism, racism, and ageism. The human race is counting on every one of you.”
Then, in as regal a manner as she had entered the stage, Maya Angelou exited. And every one of us in the audience was richer for having been there.
(April 1, 2012)