Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Maya Angelou and the Meaning of Regret

Photo courtesy the SBC Alumnae Magazine, Spring 1999
In November of 1998, Maya Angelou gave a speech to the Sweet Briar College Community. I was a second year student who owned a complete compilation of her poetry and many of her autobiographies, and I was thankful for the chance to hear her speak.

Our Honors Program was hosting a dinner program welcoming our counterparts from Hampden-Sydney College students, and we would be attending the speech afterward as a group. For those unaware, Hampden-Sydney is one of the few remaining single-sex colleges for men, and, though it is over an hour away, it is affectionately known as Sweet Briar's brother college.  I had decided to attend this dinner, thinking that perhaps it was an opportunity to meet someone like-minded. After all, it wasn't crazy to believe a fan of Dr. Angelou's works who cared about women and minority rights would be attendance, was it? Also, perhaps not so far-fetched that he might look like he had been taken from a page of the J. Crew summer catalogue?

As I was getting ready for the dinner and pondering such possibilities, my former roommate, Alex, approached me with the gleeful news that the first few students in line for Dr. Angelou's speech were to be honored with the chance of sitting behind her onstage and perhaps meeting her briefly. We had planned to go to the Honors Program dinner together, but she begged me to ditch it and join her.

I hesitated, seriously considering her plan. In the end, I declined, deciding that the chances of making a good connection at the dinner were greater than those of meeting Maya Angelou. In my defense, I can only say that, in addition to being both nuturing and liberating, women's colleges can leave one more than a little lonely for male companionship.

The dinner was lovely, but, sadly, no one caught my attention. None of the Hampden-Sydney students seemed very excited to discuss Dr. Angelou or her works, and only the excellent food kept me from completely regretting my decision. I reasoned that Alex was probably in this very moment regretting missing dinner, standing in a long line with no hopes of sitting onstage.

When dinner was over, we walked over to the auditorium as a group, ushering our brothers to the speech. After I took my seat alone, I was shocked to look up and see Alex beaming and waving at me from the stage. On cue, my heart descended rapidly to my feet. A few minutes later, Dr. Angelou took the stage, shaking the hand of each student sitting behind the podium, including Alex, who beamed with pride.

I managed to coax my heart back into its proper place as I counseled myself that it was an honor just to be sitting in Dr. Angelou's presence. She took the podium, her voice suddenly arising, rich and melifluous. Her tones flowed like baritone honey from her statuesque, red-robed form. She smiled broadly - how her whole being seemed to smile! - as she scanned the room precisely, seeming to individually address us as beloved friends and family, more so than as a crowd. More than once, I felt as if she were looking and speaking directly to me. Many other students in attendance reported this effect, so I think this was more due to Dr. Angelou's warmth and her intimate style than to an alignment of the stars in my direction. To hear her speak felt like being pulled into the warmth of a grandmother's cloak, a matriarch who beamed as she showed you each patch and explained its origin, stitching history together as you watched in rapt stillness. I have yet to hear a more compelling speech.

I have thought about this lesson often in the years that have passed in between. After Dr. Angelou passed, I felt a familiar pang of regret. I would never have another opportunity to hear her speak, to shake her hand, or to sit beside her. Perhaps it is true that remorse often teaches us more than fulfillment, because that day, I learned a very important lesson:

Sisters before misters.

1 comment:

  1. What a lovely memory. We were so fortunate to have such excellent speakers while attending Sweet Briar. We get to be part of history....