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


Phenomenal woman,

That’s me.”

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

Related categories: ,
  • Cindy Andrews

    Simply beautiful

    Simply beautiful

    • JessicaCuthbertson

      Thank you!

      Thanks for reading, Cindy! 🙂

  • BillIvey

    Beautiful piece, Jessica. Thank you!

    History, despite its wrenching pain 

    Cannot be unlived, but if faced 

    With courage, need not be lived again. (…)

    Give birth again 

    To the dream.

    Those are the words from “On the Pulse of Morning” that best sum up what that poem brought to my life. They are, of course, even more deeply meaningful in full context, especially when Dr. Angelou reads it herself (courtesy; William J. Clinton Presidential Library). I so needed to hear that message back in 1993; I so needed to feel hopeful, and her reading was both balm to my spirit and inspiration to my future. At some level, and I suppose with a fair amount of overlap to begin with, the principles of that poem have fused with my own and have become just the way I try to live my life every day. 

    Phenomenal indeed, that six minutes could have that strong an effect on my life.

    You ask who are my phenomenal mentors; who in my life is an example of the person I want to become, and oddly enough I am hard-pressed to answer. I think that’s because I’m acutely aware that I’m stuck being me, and whatever major shortcomings and failings I most certainly have, I would do an even worse job trying to be anybody else. I suppose that could mean that someone who worked hard to be 100% true to their authentic self would thus be an example of who I want to become, and as I think about it, that probably is the unifying factor in the people I most admire and respect. As long as respectfulness and kindness are part of that authentic self, anyway.

    Making every possible effort to be objective, then, I have to say that my wife and son are both outstanding examples of this, though “mentor” wouldn’t thus be exactly the right word. Shining example of the possible maybe?

    • JessicaCuthbertson

      On Authenticity….

      Thank you for reading and commenting, Bill. I love your commentary about authenticity and I prefer “shining example of the possible” to the term “mentor” any day! 🙂 I can’t think of very many public figures that are/were as authentic as Dr. Maya Angelou. And I concur that a deep level of authenticity is definitely worthy of exploration in this world of so many selves (virtual personas, physical personas, professional personas, personal connections, etc.) 

      I also think that the people closest to us — our families and long time friends — are the truly phenomenal forces in our lives — the people who know and understand us at the deepest levels.

      P.S. Extra thanks for sharing “On the Pulse of Morning,” — definitely words worth revisiting, especially in Angelou’s voice.

  • SusanGraham

    My Mentors

    So many mentors who taught me so many different things!

    • Memie, my grandmother who taught me  that it was grand to be “different” while she taught me to sew when I was an odd little kid.
    • Mrs.Burnett, my 6th grade teacher who shaped my random curiosity to intellectual curiosity and taught me to love language when I was twelve.
    • Mrs. MacMillian my junior English who introduced me to philosophy, intellectual discourse, and the pleasure of pursuing questions as much as answers when I was sixteen.
    • Betty Lambdin, a VEA director and Brenda Long, my former CTE Director, who modeled identifying, encouraging, and passing leadership to others.
    • John Norton who told me I could be a writer and helped me become one.
    • My colleagues here at CTQ who have the courage, the perservance, and the savvy to be changemakers rather than martyrs.
    • Theemergent teachers I had the honor to mentor who mentored me in return with their diverse insights, skills and energy. 

    But the best mentors of all are children:

    • My own–one who always did and still does ask “Why and what if…” and the other who always did and still does ask “Does it really matter if..”
    • My students to who taught me more about teaching than any college course, professional development, or academic reading could ever offer.
    • My three year old grandson who says, “Look at ‘dis Gigi!” and introduces me a fresh perspective and wonder. 
    • JessicaCuthbertson

      Great List!

      What a list, Susan! Thanks for sharing.

      And of course I hope this goes without saying — you are certainly one of my phenomenal women mentors and a source of inspiration — thanks for teaching me that teacher leadership and feather boas can coexist in meaningful ways ;). 

  • LetienNguyen


    Thanks everyone for sharing and how lucky that you all had great mentors throughout childhood and adulthood.

    As for me, a 10th daughter of a total of 12 brothers and sisters, I had to learn to fight for my place in a large family growing up in a war torn country. At the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, our family was uprooted and had settled in Maryland since. The daily struggle to rebuild our lives in a new country with limited resoources left my parents with little time to support my siblings and me with any school endeavors.

    I had pursued a career in teaching despite of the struggle to learn English from scratch. I mentored myself for that was the only way to a better future as my mom often reminded me and  all of my siblings. I cheered myself on, learned to be disciplined, picked myself up as needed, did it all through perseverence and grit. I was my own force ! Had we then the technology at the finger tip and the abundance of resources, mentors available, my journey would be less lonely.

    Today, when working with my ELL students, if I could instill in them the same desire to succeed in face of all the struggles, it would me feel that I did a great job!