My best teacher

The story so far

1928 Born Marguerite Johnson in St Louis, Missouri

1931 Sent to live with grandmother in Arkansas, later educated in California

1954-5 Plays Ruby in Porgy and Bess

1964-6 Features editor of African Review

1969 Publishes first volume of memoirs, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings

1977 Plays Nyo Boto in TV series Roots

1981 Appointed professor of American studies at Wake Forest University, North Carolina

1995 Publishes The Complete Collected Poems of Maya Angelou

2002 Receives lifetime achievement award at Ethnic Multicultural Media Awards; publishes A Song Flung Up to Heaven

The greatest formal teacher I ever had was Miss Kirwin. She taught me civics and current events at high school in California. I had her for three years, and she always wore the same dress. But on Monday it would have a little pull in the seam, then on Tuesday it would be somewhere else. On Wednesday it would be near the hem. Obviously, she bought a gross of dresses and wore them as her school uniform. She also had a great old-fashioned girdle, and she'd stroke herself as she walked up and down.

She was so deliberate in speech, and so much like my grandmother in Arkansas - except she was white and in San Francisco. She'd call everyone by their last name and say: "Last week's Saturday Review printed an article on strip mining in Virginia. Speak to that." You couldn't hold your hand up because, if you did, she'd never call you - even though you had all this information and you were begging her inside: "Please call me."

A few years later, after I'd been touring in Porgy and Bess and the newspapers were full of "Home town girl makes good", I went to the school to see her. No one ever interrupted Miss Kirwin. I stayed outside the classroom until the class took their leave. She was sitting at her desk and she looked up and said: "Good morning." And I said: "Miss Kirwin, I've just come to say hello." And she said: "Hello." And I said: "I was a student of yours, you may have forgotten me." And she said: "No, I know you." I so badly wanted her to say well done, but she wouldn't. It wasn't something she did.

I also had a great voice teacher, Frederick Wilkerson. He taught voice so exquisitely. I can still do two or three lectures a day and my voice doesn't hurt. Wilke gave me that. He also taught ethics and fair play. When you went in, you put your money on the piano and then he'd start teaching. But if you'd partied the night before and couldn't do the exercises, he would pocket the money and say:"Go home." It changed my behaviour. Good Lord, I was a young person paying $10 an hour.

But my most influential teacher was my grandmother. By anecdote, she taught me all the important lessons. Some of her stories were the Aesop fables, or the Brer Rabbit tales. Through them she taught me to be honest, hardworking, and to put on no airs. She'd tell me stories so many times, and she had the most agile eyebrows in the world - when they went up, they were like exclamation marks.

When I was young, I was raped, and after that I wouldn't speak. So my grandmother gave me a writing tablet. She cut a groove in a number 2 pencil and tied one end of a piece of twine into that groove, the other to the spindle of the tablet, and I'd wear that in my belt and write on it. That's how I communicated with everyone.

There was a lady my grandmother knew called Mrs Flowers. She was a great teacher. She took me to the library in the school and she said: "I want you to read from A to Ch." And so I read every book. Through her, I began to talk again. My favourite novelist was Dickens because he taught me that not all whites were as brutish as those in Stamps, Arkansas, and I felt I understood his people. I felt I could really get under their skin. I never had a chance to talk to Mrs Flowers as an adult, but if I had I would have said: "Thank you. Thank you."

Now I love to teach. I love that moment when you look in those eyes and see that light bulb go on and they've got it. Wow! I used to think I was a writer who could teach, but I am coming to the realisation that I'm a teacher who can write. And you know what? Education is the most important thing because it is only through education that we can ever hope to reduce all the hate crimes there are in the world.

Author Maya Angelou was talking to Hilary Wilce

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