What Maya Angelou taught me

"I am convinced that most people do not grow up. We find parking spaces and honor our credit cards. We marry and dare to have children and call that growing up. I think 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." ~ Letter to My Daughter,  Maya Angelou 

The great poet taught me that we are all children inside, regardless of the many birthday wishes we've made. That we feel safest when we go inside ourselves. She taught me that inside of me there is magic, and poetry, and that there is a wondrous world that is truly safe, where I can breathe, and feel free, and protected.

For an immigrant child, this lesson on the meaning of home is epic. Immigrant children, you see, grow up feeling like they never belong. But home, the physical place where we are born stops being home once we leave. It took me a while to understand and come to terms with the truth that the Caribbean, where I was born and America, where I was raised, are not my homes. They are parking spaces. Home is much closer and deeper. Angelou's words hit close to my heart because she taught me that home is not a physical place per se-- home, where I belong, is within.

And just yesterday I was talking to my youngest son about belonging, about feeling safe, and being brave. We were on our way to school and I was telling him about my fifth grade teacher, Mrs Rose. My son is in the fifth grade and so this year, I suspect we will be having many conversations about my life as a 9 year old girl.

I'd just arrived to this country with all my polyester tropical dresses in a tiny suitcase, my English broken, the kind of ebonics learned in on the hard scrabble streets of Jersey City. I was a scared little girl in school when I entered the fifth grade. But Mrs Rose was patient. She had a compassionate heart, a beautiful caramel face, with a radiant and warm smile. She looked like me. She loved Johnny Mathis. And once, when I was afraid to read out loud, scared of my accented English, scared to be laughed at, she called me to her desk and whispered that she really wanted to learn to speak Spanish. She loved the language she said, she wished she could speak it. She made me feel so smart because I spoke a language that not too many kids in my class spoke. The next day I got her a Spanish-English dictionary I could hardly afford. We shared that dictionary. It's how we communicated. Years later, as I am sharing this story with my boy, in English because he hardly speaks Spanish, oh the irony--I realize Mrs Rose was conveying to me that I belonged, that in her class, in a school named after one of my heroes, Martin Luther King, I was safe. I was home, too.

Feeling safe is a constant battle for all of us--feeling safe for immigrant children in this country in certain regions, is even a larger battle. Just imagine the fear of the many undocumented parents feel each time they drop their kids off at school. The fear that the kids carry. That fear never ever leaves.

But this is the thing, it's not just immigrants who feel unsafe--it's all of us because we are all children at heart and we carry the battle wounds of our childhood experiences. Above all, all of us yearn to feel safe, in love, at our jobs, in relationships. And the beauty of what Maya Angelou taught me is that that safe space can be accessed at anytime and it resides inside of each of us.

"...We may act sophisticated and worldly but I believe we feel safest when we go inside ourselves and find home, a place where we belong and may the only place we really do."