Angelou: Chapter 12

Chapter 12: Education

Although my grades were very good (I had been put up two

semesters on my arrival from Stamps), I was unable to settle

down in the high school. It was an institution for girls near my

house, and the young ladies were faster, meaner, and more

prejudiced than any I had met at Lafayette County Training

School. Many of the Negro girls were, like me, from the South,

but they had lived in—or claimed to have lived in—the big

cities. They walked like they couldn’t be beaten by anyone, and

they frightened the white girls and those Black students who

weren’t protected by fearlessness. Fortunately I was transferred to

George Washington High School.

The buildings sat on a moderate hill in the white residential

district, about sixty blocks from the Negro neighborhood. For

the first semester, I was one of three Black students in the school,

and in that special situation I learned to love my people more. In

the mornings as the streetcar left my neighborhood I

experienced a mixture of fear and anxiety. I knew that soon we

would be out of my familiar setting and Blacks who were on the

streetcar when I got on would all be gone. I alone would face the

forty blocks of neat streets, white houses, and rich children.

In the evenings on the way home I felt joy, anticipation, and

relief when I saw the first brown faces on the streets. I recognized

that I was again in my country.

In the school I was disappointed tofind out that I was not the

most intelligent or even nearly the most intelligent student. The

white kids had better vocabularies than I and had less fear in the


classrooms. They never hesitated to hold up their hands in

response to a teachers question; even when they were wrong

they were wrong aggressively, while I had to be certain about all

my facts before I dared to call attention to myself.

George Washington High School was the first real school I

attended. My entire time there might have been time lost if it

hadn’t been for the unique personality of a wonderful teacher.

Miss Kirwin was that rare educator who was in love with

information. I will always believe that her love of teaching came

not only from her liking for students but alsofrom her desire to

make sure that some of the things she knew would find new

places to be stored so that they could be shared again.

Miss Kirwin greeted each class with “Good day, ladies and

gentlemen.” I had never heard an adult speak with such respect to

teenagers. (Adults usually believe that a show of honor lessens

their authority.) “In today’s Chronicle there was an article on the

mining industry in the Carolinas [or some subject about a distant

place]. I am certain that all of you have read the article. I would

like someone to explain the subject for me.”

After the first two weeks in her class I, and all the other

excited students, read the San Francisco papers, Time magazine,

Life magazine, and everything else available to us.

Miss Kirwin encouraged us instead of threatening us. While

some of the other teachers made an effort to be nice to me—to

be a “liberal” with me—and others ignored me completely, Miss

Kirwin never seemed to notice that I was Black and therefore

different. I was Miss Johnson, and if I had the answer to a

question she asked I was never given anymore than the word

“Correct,” which was what she said to every other student with

the correct answer.

Years later when I returned to San Francisco, I visited her

classroom. She always remembered that I was Miss Johnson, who

had a good mind and should be doing something with it. I was


never encouraged on those visits to stay long. She acted as if I

must have had other visits to make. I often wondered if she knew

she was the only teacher I remember.

I never knew why I was given a free place to the California

Labor School. It was a college for adults. At fourteen I accepted a

free place and got one for the next year as well. So in the

evenings I took drama and dance classes, with white and Black

grownups. My days centered around Miss Kirwin’s class, dinner

with Bailey and Mother, and drama and dance.

The people I was loyal to at this time in my life were a strange

combination: Momma with her determination, Mrs. Flowers and

her books, Bailey with his love, my mother and her happiness,

Miss Kirwin and her information, my evening classes of drama

and dance.

I was prepared to accept Daddy Clidell as one more faceless

name added to Mothers list of men. I had trained myself so

successfully through the years to display interest, or at least

attention, while my mind wandered freely on other subjects, that

I could have lived in his house without ever seeing him and

without him being aware of my behavior. But his character

encouraged admiration. He was a simple man who didn’t feel

inferior about his lack of education and, even more amazing,

showed no superiority because he had succeeded despite that


He owned apartment buildings, and was famous for being that

rarity, “a man of honor.” Unexpectedly, I looked like him, and

when he, Mother, and I walked down the street his friends often

said, “Clidell, that’s sure your daughter. Ain’t no way you can

deny her.”


Proud laughter followed those declarations, since he had never

had children. Because of his late-arriving but strong sense of

fatherhood, I was introduced to the most colorful characters in

the Black community. Daddy Clidell explained to me that they

were the most successful con men in the world, and they were

going to tell me about some games so that I would never be

“anybody’s mark.”

Then they took turns showing me their tricks, how they

chose their victims (“marks”) from the wealthy prejudiced

whites, and how they used the victims’ prejudice against them.

Some of the stories were funny, a few were sad, but all were

amusing or satisfying to me. The Black man, the con man who

could act the most stupid, won every time over the powerful,

arrogant white. My favorite story was about two Black men who

conned a white man into paying them $40,000 for a piece of

land in Oklahoma. The land wasn’t theirs; it really belonged to

the state. Those storytellers, born Black and male before the turn

of the twentieth century, should have been failures. Instead they

used their intelligence toforce open the door of rejection and

not only became wealthy but got some revenge, too.

It wasn’t possible for me to regard them as criminals; I was

proud of their achievements.

My education and that of my Black friends were quite different \

from the education of our white schoolmates. In the classroom ii

we all learned verb tenses, but in the streets and in our homes the \

Blacks learned to drop ‘Y ’s from plurals and endings from pasttense

verbs. We were aware of the gap separating the written

word from the spoken. We learned to change from one language

to another without being conscious of the effort. At school, we

might respond with “That’s not unusual.” But in the street, in the

same situation, we easily said, “It be’s like that sometimes.”

Angelou, M. (1969). I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. []. Retrieved from