Maya Angelou - a champion of charter schools
I was afraid to pick up the phone and call Maya Angelou. It was 1997, and my friend David Domenici and I had just started a school in Washington, D.C. for kids who had been arrested. The school was less than a year old, but one thing was already clear: We needed a new name, a real name.
…this would be a big ask. I wanted her to lend her name to a brand-new school, one whose only admission requirement was a past arrest. David and I had good intentions but no track record, and there was no guarantee that our school would bring glory to her name. As I dialed, I told myself that she would likely let me down easily; she would say that she needed to think about it, to talk to her people, and that she would get back to me. But then she wouldn't, and her silence would be the answer.
Instead she responded: "Of course, dear. I would be honored." That was all — seven words, each resonant and measured. And with those words, by saying yes, she told our students she thought they were worthy.
Her name was more than I had the right to ask for, but it was only the beginning. A few months later she came to our first fundraiser, where we unveiled the school's new name. Sherti, who was invited to speak, told the crowd that Angelou had suffered terribly as a child, that she had experienced violence and rejection. Yet she hadn't been defeated by anything, and neither would Sherti or her classmates.
Dr. Angelou arrived at Oak Hill mid-afternoon on April 29, 2009. She was 81 years old. Many of the students just didn't believe us when we told them she was coming out to see them—and right up until she arrived, students were telling us she would find a way to cancel. Nobody like Maya Angelou had ever come out to Oak Hill—and they all knew that.
She showed me, personally, something that I was not fully aware of — that my voice was steeped in the cadence and mysticism that comes with Southern storytelling, told by women in straight-backed chairs and men with reed-stemmed pipes.
She gave the people I knew — and the person I was — value, and she did so with a phenomenal power of presence, her words lingering and her voice swelling.
She demonstrated to me, even as a child, the overwhelming power of a great story well told, the way it could change hearts and change history. I am forever in her debt for that.