On Maya Angelou, loneliness, and being the boss

I sat in my cap and gown for the first time- full honor chords, stoles and all- as my friend leaned in from behind to tell me that Maya Angelou had died. Right there in the middle of my Senior Awards Ceremony, stunned by the emotion of the news I had just received, I could think of nothing else but the very first essay in her book Letter to My Daughter. It is titled “Home.” In it she says “I believe that one can never leave home. I believe that one carries the shadows, the dreams, the fears, and dragons of home under one’s skin, at the extreme corners of one’s eyes and possibly in the gristle of the earlobe.”

Maya Angelou has a way of comforting. When I began to seriously read her work, towards the end of 10th grade, I felt as though I had found something that I did not know I needed. Dr. Angelou’s non-fiction makes me feel as though I am on the back porch of her home in Winston-Salem in late May drinking sweet tea and listening to the bees sing. This collection of essays, especially, feels like home, and I refuse to leave it. This year, I will carry it with me not in the gristle of my earlobe or at the corners of my eyes, but in my backpack, in my hands, and in my heart the whole way.

If I were to rank the responses I get when I tell people that I will be living in Ecuador, as opposed to a Freshman dorm, my first year of college, the number one response would actually be: a swift head jerk back, furrowed eyebrows, followed by a head cock of about 30° and the question “You’re going where?” in a high-pitched, rhetorical tone. The number two, however, is the question “Are you nervous and/or scared,” which I always answer with a confident “No.” This is not because I am trying to appear to have it all figured out, because I do not, but because I have not found anything to be afraid of yet. Now, this is easy to say from the comfort of my own air-conditioned room that I do not have to share with any other living creature, apart from my bamboo that I am barely able to keep alive. No, I am not afraid (yet). I think that loneliness would be the correct term to describe the primary emotion that I feel most days. All of a sudden I am no longer able to relate to anyone around me and it is isolating. I thought of so many things from the moment I found out about Global Citizen Year to the day I confirmed my participation: whether or not my lung capacity would expand while living in Ecuador, if they have siestas in Ecuador, or how crowded public transportation gets in Quito. I never thought about the preparations and excitement that I would feel, and being unable to share that with anyone close to me. I studied with the same 12 people for the past 7 years of my life and while almost all of us are going to different colleges, I am the only one taking this leap.

The decision to become a Global Citizen Year Fellow was difficult, but ultimately came down to one question that I felt I had to ask myself. I came upon it while mindlessly scrolling through Tumblr, and probably should not base many life decisions on it; however, I couldn’t help but think about the question, “Would your 9 year old self be proud of you?” I remembered instantly what I wanted at 9 years old. I told my teacher that I wanted to be the first black woman elected President. Nine years later, the thought of having to be President makes my stomach turn, but I am inspired by remembering how serious I was. My 9 year old self would be proud that I have worked hard to get what I want. She would be proud that I have decided to actively choose what I want and what I think will be best for me. I know this because that 9 year old girl, with the ambition in her head and fire in her heart, still lives in me. When I was 9 years old I did not know what the job of President would entail. All that I knew was that as President I would be the ultimate boss, all I wanted was to be in charge and be heard. I lost that somewhere between puberty and sophomore year, but luckily I found it again second semester Junior Year.

At the end of “Home” Maya Angelou says, “What we do is mostly grow old. We carry accumulation of years in our bodies and on our faces, but generally our real selves, the children inside, are still innocent and shy as magnolias.” I was often described as ‘shy’ as a child, but I never felt that I was. I simply did not have much to say. Now, I do, and the 9 year old girl in me still desires to be the boss, and she knows that desire is only part of the job. The other parts are comprised of natural talent and the acquisition of skills. While the 18 year old in my head feels lonely as all of her friends talk of dorms, roommates, orientation, and why rice cookers are not allowed in their rooms, the 9 year old in me is brimming with excitement for what is to come. She knows that this is the first step to a journey that she hopes will make a great story, one worth listening to while sitting on a back porch in Winston-Salem in late May, drinking sweet tea and listening to the bees sing.