A Phenomal Woman, A Bird Uncaged

In my lifetime, I have been fortunate to become acquainted with phenomenal beings: people who challenge me, inspire me and remind me who I am at my very most core. What I find to be most fascinating about this trend is that many of the people who I hold most dear are not beings I can hold in my arms or share a meal with. They are not even true acquaintances of mine but rather people I have gotten to know and have come to love through the art and literature I have interacted with throughout my lifetime, and yet they are as inextricably a part of me as my mother and father.

My innate curiosity and quest to understand the complexities of the world led me to many beloved characters and authors at a young age, it was in high school that I was introduced to person after person through a series of invaluable English teachers. My sophomore year of high school, in the midst of an all-consuming depression, I was advised to write a paper of Eleanor Roosevelt: the first leader who would allow me to put into words my definition of leadership. The famous words of Eleanor Roosevelt, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent” resonated with me in a time when I felt utterly isolated from my own humanity. Little did I know that I would meet a woman whose mere existence epitomized everything I was striving to become.

At the end of my junior year, I was assigned I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou for my senior year English class. As we read through page after page of her story of triumph and failure, I found myself resonating once again with this woman I had and would never speak a word to. I found, in her story, leadership as I had never experienced it before: leadership that was so subtle yet so utterly palpable that it could not be ignored. Most prominent was her decision to keep and raise, on her own, the child she had conceived at the age of sixtee

As I explored further the way that Angelou stitches her love of humanity and commitment to its service into everything she does, I stumbled across the line that would define my “Why?” and become the filter through which I assign my core values:

I would like to be known as an intelligent woman, a courageous woman, a loving woman, a woman who teaches by being.

Upon reading these words as I searched for a quote to be read about me at my high school’s senior awards, I simultaneously understood Angelou’s commitment to abolish ignorance at every opportunity with kindness and compassion rather than a heavy hand. I admire her for her ability to share the most vulnerable parts of herself in the form of art and literature, her courage and faith in herself in pushing her own boundaries as well as those of society and her resilience throughout the many seemingly insurmountable barriers placed in her way.

I treaded lightly through the last few weeks of high school, knowing that soon I would be forced into a new environment filled with new challenges and obstacles. However, I found immense comfort in the energy that radiated from every form of Angelou I interacted with: from her poetry to any one of many speeches she has given throughout her life. I felt confident that my pursuit of Maya Angelou and her existence as an inhabitant of the Earth would embolden me through my transition. Unfortunately, my beloved mentor of sorts brought my world to a halt the morning of my graduation. On a day that should be filled with joy and excitement, I awoke to a hysterical phone call from my English teacher informing me that Dr. Maya Angelou had passed away. I am not one to become emotional over the passing of those I do not know, but it was in this moment that I understood how someone you have never physically encountered can feel like a life-long friend and confidant. As I spent the next few hours attempting to understand this news, I found myself drawing back to one of Angelou’s most famous phrases:

People will forget what you did, people will forget what you said, but they will never forget how you made them feel.

Maya Angelou is, simply put, the embodiment of every one of my core values and my reason for continuing to exist. She is the metric by which I measure leadership in any and all forms. She is, in all senses, a phenomenal woman and one whom I am fortunate to know.