Beccastone had the great privilege of speaking with Dr. Maya Angelou, one of the literary giants and artistic treasures of our time. Dr. Angelou gave Beccastone some of her thoughts on parenting and her mother’s and grandmother’s advice.
Q. What is the best advice your mother gave you?
A: My grandmother gave me one order that was two pronged: When you get, give. When you learn, teach. It was very important to her that I learn. That was true with both my mother and grandmother. By reading, you learn. Anything that is worthwhile, learn it and teach it. To your brothers and sisters. Each one of us teaches whether we like to claim the title or not. This means a lot to me today. My mother explained how lovable I was, maybe not so likable, but lovable. I was a good person and had a good heart. I was kind and courteous and that made me good and so I was lovable. Sometimes my temper had to be controlled when I was young, but she told me I could control anything about myself and remain lovable.
Q: You were a single mom at a young age — any advice to single moms today?
A: My mother could have done what some other moms did, which was throw me out of her house. When my mother found out I was pregnant, she asked if I knew who the father was. I said that I slept with him one time. She asked me, “Do you love him.” I said “No.” She asked, “Does he love you? and I said “No.” In that case, she said, I will not ruin 3 lives. She did not put me down at any time and she loved my son. After my son was born and I was home about 2 months, I found a job and room in rooming house. I told my mom I was leaving. You could see both pity and pride in her face. I said the landlady will be my babysitter and I had cooking privileges. ”Alright, my mother said, “but remember this — when you cross my door, you have already been raised. You know the difference between right and wrong. Do right. Don’t let anyone raise you as you have already been raised. And remember that you can always come home.”
My mother liberated me to life by helping me to realize that I could raise my son. It was hard at times and sometimes when I fell on my face, my mother always took me home. She’d say, “My baby’s home, I’m going to cook your favorite foods.” Then she would ask “How long will you be here.” She never put me down. She loved my independence. She encouraged it.
I’ve been all over the world and done many things. Some people would wonder because I’m black and female and 6 feet tall, that I couldn’t achieve this much. But my mother liberated me. That’s what the parents can do. Give the child enough education — education is imperative. And let them know that you’re always there, but don’t hold them in the house. Let them go. Encourage them to be self-reliant. Give them self-respect.
Q: Any thoughts on how to get children interested in reading and literature?
A: Read to them. Everyone loves to be read to, especially when they’re young 2 and 3 years. I did this with my son, then by the time he was 7, I would make up stories and not just read them. Then we would do it together. I would make up a story and then he would make up one. We did it together. We had a lot of fun and he remembers those stories to this very day. Read to your children, engage them.
Q: When you look around today, what inspires you and gives you hope?
A: People who work in schools, and people who care for the children. And then the children themselves. Let me tell you a story. Several years back, I was giving a graduate class at the University of Kansas.. There was one student working on her master’s degree who had a 5-year-old son. She came to me and said that sometimes she couldn’t get a babysitter, so she asked to bring the boy to class. I said yes, but bring a pad that he can sketch on, and if he gets restless, you can take him down the hall for awhile and then bring him back. She did this, and was able to take the whole course. At the end of the course, there was a ceremony and all the students came marching in together. The student with the son brought him to the ceremony and he was marching with his mother and the rest of the students. When he saw me up on the stage, he broke free of his mother and came running down the aisle yelling, “That’s my teacher! That’s my teacher!” and he ran up on the stage and wrapped his arms tightly around my legs. I was so proud at that moment, and he was right on so many levels. He was in the classroom and saw me teaching. He won my heart forever. I’m every child’s teacher. I’ll stop at any time with anybody. One of the things we have to do as parents is realize we have the responsibility of teaching kids– not chastising or scolding them but teaching. And sometimes, you have to soften your point and choose your words deliberately in order to teach.
Biographical note: Dr. Angelou is a celebrated poet, memoirist, novelist, educator, dramatist, producer, actress, historian, filmmaker and civil rights activist. She has authored many books including “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” “Letter to My Daughter,” and “Hallelujah: The Welcome Table.” Dr. Angelou wrote the screenplay and composed the score for the film, “Georgia, Georgia”; directed the film “Down in the Delta”; and composed poetry and narrated the documentary “The Black Candle.” Dr. Angelou has served on two presidential committees, was awarded the Presidential Medal of Arts (2000), and has received three Grammy awards. She was selected by President Clinton to compose and deliver the poetry reading at his 1993 inauguration. Dr. Angelou has received over 30 honorary degrees and is Reynolds Professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University. For a more complete biography and additional information on Dr. Angelou, go to www.mayaangelou.com