What Two Phenomenal Women Taught Me

Today, the world lost a grandmother to us all.

This morning, when I learned about the passing of Maya Angelou, I immediately thought of my grandmother. While the two women experienced very different backgrounds and destinies, they are both phenomenal women—women who I look to as mentors—tangible examples of unconditional love and unwavering grit.

Who are your phenomenal mentors? Who in your own life is an example of the person you want to become?

I lost my grandmother on Valentine’s Day eleven years ago.

She was a first generation Slovenian immigrant and one of fifteen (12 boys and 3 girls) to grow up in the blue-collar, steel mill community of Pueblo, Colorado.

I was her first-born grandchild. And at the time of her death, I was a first year teacher.

I remember receiving a phone call from my mother with the news that my grandmother was slipping away. I was in the nursing home room with my immediate and extended family when she took her last breath.

I often think about what she would say if she visited my classroom today. I’m confident she would beam with pride to know I’m a practicing middle school teacher. She loved children and believed strongly in education, even though her own schooling ended in the seventh grade, when she was forced to drop out in order to work and take care of her family.

Today, the world lost a grandmother to us all.

This morning, when I learned about the passing of Maya Angelou, I immediately thought of my grandmother. While the two women experienced very different backgrounds and destinies, they are both phenomenal women—women who I look to as mentors—tangible examples of unconditional love and unwavering grit.

One helped shape my character; the other inspired me to do something of consequence through her prose, poetry and public service.

During the spring semester of my grandmother’s passing, my first class of eighth graders read excerpts from Angelou’s groundbreaking autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. The text served as a mentor for their own autobiographical essays. I worried that my students, mostly white, middle class, suburban adolescents who had never experienced true discrimination, poverty or adversity, would lack appreciation for Angelou’s experiences and craft.

I remember asking my students to promise me that they would reread the text in its entirety when they were older. We discussed how texts teach us different lessons at different points in our lives. We reflected on how authors who write from perspectives and time periods different from our own, serve as both historians and storytellers for future generations, surfacing patterns and themes that reveal common human experiences.

These are lessons and discussions that continue in my classroom today.

The works and words of Maya Angelou will inspire generations to come. And the spirit of these two phenomenal women, one from Pueblo, Colorado and the other from Stamps, Arkansas, will continue to drive me to teach with compassion and learn with fervor.

“’Cause I’m a woman

Phenomenally.

Phenomenal woman,

That’s me.”

— From “Phenomenal Woman” by Maya Angelou, 1928-2014

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