Photo Credit: Wake Forest University Office of Creative Services
As I type, I just released the biggest sigh of my life. My blog is my diary in which I allow readers to delve into my innermost thoughts. I can’t hide from my truth. Life experiences often weigh me down with a spirit of heaviness to the point where I feel as if I might explode if I don’t share the speed bumps I’ve encountered. But there’s one story I’ve kept hidden away in my mental hard drive; the day I was escorted by an officer out of the late, great Maya Angelou’s funeral service.
Yesterday, a good friend and I shared a few laughs on a phone call, both agreeing that I need some new material on my blog. I became a bit of an introvert in 2016, closing my mouth and opening my ears, giving total attention to the mighty works of God in my life. He revealed what the scripture calls, “exceedingly and abundantly above all that you could ask or think.” 2016, God showed me His power. I tuned out much of the world and drew closer to His incredible works.
Here we are in 2017 and I feel myself shutting down again, unsure of what I should share and what I should keep private.
Back to the call, I jokingly said to my friend, “I should write about the time I was escorted out of Maya Angelou’s funeral. It was a nightmare.” She screamed, “Whaaaat!?!?!?!”
Me on the other end responding to her disbelief:
She urged me to blog about it. I resisted. That was almost three years ago. No need to unearth old feelings. Then I looked at the calendar. Today would have been Dr. Maya Angelou’s 89th birthday. There is no coincidence in that phone call. The time is now. I gotta get this out.
So here’s what happened.
In 2014, I was in my second year as a news producer. I hadn’t rid myself of my longtime goal of becoming a news reporter, so I was hellbent on making my way on air. I figured it wouldn’t happen with my then employer which meant I needed to get a little more creative with making it happen. I began freelancing. My mentor, a veteran journalist who will remain nameless, was coaching me on how to become a freelance writer and I was ready to take the leap. The thing is, starting out, I knew it would be difficult working full-time overnight hours and trying to turn stories for a digital pub during the day.
I figured it out.
Come May, news began circulating that Dr. Angelou’s health was declining. Although I never saw her in person, I always felt a deep connection to her. I grew up watching Oprah every day and she frequently had Dr. Angelou on the show and quoted her in several episodes. Oprah used her platform to share their mother-daughter like relationship that always seemed so loving and genuine. At church, I recited Dr. Angelou’s great works in several plays and Black History programs. And in my high school hall of fame quote, I used her words.
“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
My life’s mantra. Some feelings you never shake. The news of her passing weeks later shattered my soul. Her home was in North Carolina and in the newsroom, the weekend crew discussed coverage plans. I worked on the morning show as a producer which meant I would write short scripts and find slots in my show to honor Dr. Angelou’s legacy. Going to the service wasn’t an option.
A few days later I got a call. My mentor had a scheduling conflict and couldn’t attend the funeral. She trusted my work ethic and judgment, referring me as her replacement to cover it for a national news organization (which shall remain nameless). I was astonished. Wow. Never had I been entrusted with a grand assignment, which would also give me an opportunity to pay my final respects to the woman I admired in my life and career.
Friday afternoon, the editor called me to set up the details. He gave me an assignment, the protocol, and other instructions to make the day seamless. My nerves began to get the best of me but I had to appear confident because I didn’t want him to give the job away because of my inexperience.
Stick a bookmark in here because we will need to revisit this moment later in this post.
That night I couldn’t sleep. I was eager, emotional, and nervous causing restlessness. After managing a quick nap, I woke up bright and early for my hour and a half drive. The moment I hit Wake Forest University’s campus a series of unfortunate events occurred.
I drove to the gate and recall seeing a sign that read something to the effect of, “Campus closed. Only guests with tickets allowed.”
My first instinct: I don’t have a ticket.
I bust a U-turn and pulled over to find the email from the editor. I remember reading online that security would be tight because the First Lady, Oprah, and other dignitaries would be on campus, therefore I had to make sure I was on point with officers. I pulled up to the gate again, let down my window, and the security guard asked me for my credentials. I showed him an email from the editor and my media badge from the station.
Him when I flashed the items he did not ask for.
My nervousness resurfaced but I knew I couldn’t blow it. I explained the assignment and the publication I was representing. The guy was unsure about me because he radioed his boss. In the meantime, I look in my rearview mirror and traffic was piling up. Finally, the man let me through the gate.
The gate opened and I drove through looking for the press pool. I parked my car in an open space, when a groundskeeper comes over to inform me that I needed to move my car which was parked beside a news van for a local station. He was super nice about it, but I told him I needed to be with the media and asked if he knew where they would be located. He radioed his boss who didn’t have an answer. After waiting a few minutes, he pointed me in the right direction.
Finally, I made it to the lot.
Just as I parked, a police officer was circling the lot. He approached me to ask if I needed help. I told him no, I was with the media. I walked up a hill and saw a grassy area where hundreds of reporters and photographers stood. I found an open spot and text the editor to let him know I was at my post.
Then it happened. The point of no return.
A man gently tapped me on my shoulder asking, “Ma’am can you please come with me?”. I didn’t know how to feel. Why was I being singled out? I looked the part. I was late, yes, but I was held up at every checkpoint. I get inside and a woman, the director of university communications, asked me who I was. I told her the same story that I had recited all morning, pulled out the email and showed my badge.
She did not care. Her response, “Where are your media credentials?”. I say, “This is all I have.” She simply responds, “No.”
Teaching moment, kids. Let’s go back a few paragraphs.
The day before, remember when I told you I spoke with the editor and he gave me instructions?
“My nerves began to get the best of me but I had to appear confident because I didn’t want him to give the job away because of my inexperience.”
I was not inexperienced. In fact, I knew better.
I’ve previously submitted credentials for reporters and followed media advisories closely. This nervousness stemmed from an unsettling feeling about him, not me. What he failed to do is request media credentials for me. I am a very thorough person. I cross every “t” and dot every “i”. When our call ended that day, I visited Wake Forest’s website to see if there were any special notes for the media. I recall an advisory stating that credentials were no longer being approved and that everyone on the campus must have a pass
. In this moment, I had one of two options a.) call the school and get my credentials or b.) call the editor and ask if he had credentials that he would email me.
The only action I took was emailing the editor to confirm the gig. Because I didn’t want to come off incompetent, I ignored both options figuring the editor had my back.
Three years ago, if only I knew then what I know now, I would have known that no one can have your back better than you.
Another reason why I was trying my best to fly under the radar was due to the fact that I didn’t want to lose my job for accepting a freelance gig without running it by my supervisor.
Back to the lady. She asks for me to contact my editor. I call the newsroom in New York, no answer. He was not at his desk. I called his phone. Voicemail. She walks away from me and returns with a big guy, standing behind her in a suit. I am not quite in panic mode, but I’m reaching that point. The editor finally texts me to say that he was on the subway, almost at work. I sat and I waited. A guy came over to me, sat down, and offered me food from the reception. And I’m thinking “Sir, you’re a guest too, how are you offering me food right now? You don’t know me.” He asked me why I was sitting alone, not giving me a chance to answer because he was too eager to tell me his life story and about his business. Then I interrupted his story, informing him of my credential debacle.
He looked down at the visitor’s pass around his neck then up at me like:
We both knew this wouldn’t end well. The guy did offer to make me his plus one, not sure how that would work, but I told him no thanks seeing as how I was already in hot water. Finally, the editor called me. I passed the phone to the lady.
She. WAS. LIVID. The lady chewed him out with good reason, of course. Then she used the words that took me out. “This is a security breach.”
My exterior showed a calm demeanor, but on the inside, I was calling on Jehovah-jireh.
Remember my urge to call the school myself? The lady told the editor that she approved credentials beyond the deadline the day before and there was no excuse for me not to have one. The lady eventually asked the editor why he would send me out here like this and to provide a good reason for his lack of professionalism. To this day, I do not know what he said but I will never forget her words in response.
“Since you feel that way, I was going to let her stay. Now she’s got to go.”
I didn’t know what to say. She pulled the plug on my glimmer of hope. I will say, the director was kind yet stonefaced in her dismissal. She said, “At this point, you have disrespected the Angelou family and this goes against their wishes. You cannot stay.”
I felt a dagger in my heart, but I also accepted responsibility for what happened. I picked up my bag and turned to the exit, but because the universe takes great pleasure in my humiliation, an easy departure was not in the cards. Remember the big guy in the suit? He told me to come with him. We move to a corner in the back of the room. Why? Because he was a Secret Service agent. Yes, I was investigated by the Secret Service.
He asked for my driver’s license. Phone number. My employer. I begged and pleaded for him not to contact the station as I was not on an official assignment for them. I look to my right, another Secret Service agent is taking my photo on his phone with one hand, speaking into a mic on his sleeve saying, “She’s clear.”
At this point, I can’t fight back the tears. I’m begging for mercy.
After 15 minutes, I am released. When he said, “You can go,” I responded accordingly..by saying nothing.
Me walking away:
I was struggling to make ends meet at the TV station and didn’t have a savings account at the time, therefore, I had no money to make bail had the agents placed me under arrest.
Then the grand finale. A lady officer approached me and said, “I can’t let you leave alone. I have to escort you out.”
Me one final time:
I responded to her, “But you’re not going to touch me are you?”
I was prepared to leave like this in handcuffs:
We walk outside and the service is about to begin. Remember the hundreds of reporters? They stared at me as I took the worst walk of shame.
Some turned their noses up at me.
As I am maintaining my last shred of dignity, holding my head high, one of my favorite actresses rolls by in a golf cart looking snatched to the gawds. (I met her last year, crazy, right?) After what felt like a walk on the green mile, the officer and I made it to my car. She says, “Where do you live again?”. I say, “Charlotte.” She responds, “You live in Charlotte but you have a South Carolina license plate? I should write you a ticket but you are already having a bad day. Get it fixed.”
She walks away as I stand there with a lone tear falling from my eye.
I got in my car and called the editor. He apologizes, “Yeah. Sorry about that. We’ll send you a check for your trouble.”
Me on the other end:
Afterward, I called my mom and cried my eyes out. Called my best friend, cried my eyes out. Got home, fell to the floor, crying my eyes out to my roommate. I felt sick. I was embarrassed. More importantly, I was told that I had disrespected Dr. Angelou’s family, which was never my intent.
I feared that my job would find out or even worse, an outlet would publish a story about the encounter. I could see the headline; Woman Impersonates Media, Escorted Away at Maya Angelou’s Funeral.
I took a nap, then woke up to go get a manicure to ease my pain. I sat down at my favorite nail tech’s chair and what was on the screen? CNN’s live coverage of the funeral. I broke down again. She’s used to my usually bubbly disposition but on this day, my broken spirit even made her sad for me. She said, “It’s okay. Things will get better.” Then she got up and hugged me.
The following week, I called the director’s office twice hoping to apologize to her for what had happened on Saturday. More than anything, I prayed no one lost their job for letting me through the security checkpoints. Each time I called, she was not in her office. Now I know it was for the best.
Fast forward to today. I literally just pushed my laptop away, wiped my face and took another sigh. June 7, 2014 is a day I will never forget. This traumatic experience taught me three valuable lessons.
- Trust Your Gut
- Trust Your Gut
- Always Trust Your Gut
Funny how life works. The following year, I submitted credentials and got approved to see President Obama in Charlotte. Who was standing at the door? The same Secret Service agent that questioned me at Dr. Angelou’s service.
This time I knew I was where I belonged.
When I became a senior producer, later a news editor, I made it my mission to never send any writers, photographers, or interns out on an assignment that could potentially cause them harm. I always try to make people who collaborate with me feel prepared and confident in their work. Dr. Angelou’s quote sticks with me daily.
My life’s quest to become a news reporter didn’t quite happen. In the last three years, I made it on-air, but not the traditional way. Still, I am thankful and humbled by my experiences in the news biz. I’ve now made it my life’s mission to tell impactful stories that remind people of why they matter through humor. No more hard news for me. I want to celebrate the sweet poetry of life, just like Maya Angelou.
When God finally blesses me with a TV show, I’ll make this low moment in my life into an episode providing a cautionary tale to young journalists.