Updated: Aug 5, 2021
We look at an inspirational student in Part 3 of our series on Famous Tutors/Students.
So, if you’ve been keeping up with this little series, you’ll know that some of the best and the brightest throughout history dedicated part of their lives to tutoring - even if some of them (Mozart) weren’t so enthusiastic about it! But what about the tutees? There are many figures who have benefitted from private or one-to-one tuition throughout their lives, and our first famous tutee embodies the wonderful benefits a tutor can bestow on a student’s life.
This tutee, Maya Angelou, was an American poet, author and civil rights activist who is best known for writing a series of autobiographical books which detailed various portions of her life: from her experience as a young African American girl growing up in the Deep South, to becoming a young mother raising a son, to her involvement in the Civil Rights Movement. These works were highly praised within the literary community and beyond - especially Angelou’s first autobiographical work, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.
Upon the book’s release, Angelou was hailed as a revolutionary memoirist, as she was one of the first African American women who had been able to write freely and openly about her private life on a public platform. Previously, black women like Angelou were so marginalised and discriminated against that attempts to write characters who reflected themselves in their own works were not looked upon with any favour at all. Through her works, which were published towards the end of the civil rights era, Angelou wrote unapologetically and insightfully about black culture and life as a woman.
As a result of this, Angelou became an important figure in American history. It is thought that the increase in feminist writings by black women in the 1970s was at least partially influenced by I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, due to the fact that it strongly encompassed the spirit of the Civil Rights Movement. The beauty of her prose also helped her popularity, with critics often claiming that she was a “natural writer”. However, Angelou didn’t much appreciate this kind of comment, reacting to critics’ lack of appreciation for the effort that went into every word with humorous disdain:
“Of course, there are those critics — New York critics as a rule — who say, ‘Well, Maya Angelou has a new book out and of course it’s good but then she’s a natural writer.’ Those are the ones I want to grab by the throat and wrestle to the floor because it takes me forever to get it to sing. I work at the language.”
Clearly Angelou believed that it was hard work, rather than sheer natural talent or good luck, which got her the success she achieved in life. However, there was another early inspiration in her life which propelled her to follow her passion for literature. This was a lady named Bertha Flowers, an aristocratic African American woman to whom Angelou lived close by and greatly admired as a child.
After a traumatic experience in her childhood, Maya had been rendered mute for almost five years. Hearing of the child’s trouble in school as a result of her reluctance to speak, but of her keenness for books, Bertha Flowers invited Maya to her home to read with her. Angelou quotes Bertha in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings as proclaiming the following to her in their first meeting together:
“Words mean more than what is set down on paper. It takes the human voice to infuse them with deeper shades of meaning.”
Subsequently, through introducing Angelou to writers such as Dickens, Shakespeare, Frances Harper and Anne Spencer, Flowers was able to encourage the young author to read aloud, discuss the works and get her voice back. Maya saw this as a “life-line”, and was inspired to grow from her past trauma and believe in herself. Perhaps Flowers didn’t realise it at the time, but looking back her influence on Angelou was strong, and she undoubtedly deserves credit for providing one of America’s most important writers with essential early encouragement and broadening her passion for literature during a difficult time in her life.
Angelou, as a result of her prolific career, was awarded over 50 honorary degrees, was nominated for a Pulitzer prize, and was even awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama in 2011. Perhaps it wasn’t all down to Bertha Flowers’ tuition, but we know that Angelou treasured her time with her tutor, and that she was undoubtedly inspired by her.
So who knows, maybe one of you tutees out there are about to have a lesson with your tutor that you will remember for the rest of your life, and that will inspire you to pursue your dream life… Please just remember us when you’re famous!
If you enjoyed this article, you may also enjoy the previous post in this series, Famous Tutors/Students from History — Aristotle.
Blog Post Crafted by Madeleine
Madeleine helps to run our Admin Team. Despite the fact that she read Japanese at university, Madeleine’s main passion in life is opera and she hopes to become the next Maria Callas some day...
Madeleine manages the staff on our Admin Team, liaising with tutors, clients and applicants. She is responsible for processing the ID, Qualifications, DBS Check and References for all our newly joining tutors.