“Can I be a dog?” | Maya's Gifts

“Can I be a dog?”

I recently reached out to Valerie Hughes, one of the organizers of “Rise Up & Write.”  This summer program is offered through the Hudson Valley Writing Project.  Students will be encouraged to research issues of social justice that touch them and write about them.  I am moved to know that this workshop is taking place in Maya’s honor.  In a recent correspondence, Valerie shared some words that she wrote in October of 2015.  I received permission from Valerie to post them here.  It is with a full heart that I am sharing some of her memories of Maya with you.

“I taught Maya during my first full year of teaching. She was in my third period class, a great class full of very bright and enthusiastic learners. Maya stood out. I remember the first moment I met Maya – taking roll on the first day of school. Maya had very short hair and I couldn’t help but think how cool it looked. Not many middle school girls are confident enough to have short hair like that. I thought she was beautiful.

On the first day of school I pulled a typical teacher move – I asked the kids to tell me something interesting about themselves. I realize now I was putting the kids on the spot by doing so. Maya, though, really did have something interesting. She shared the fact that she had just attended circus camp. “Circus camp!?” I exclaimed, “Tell me about that.” She very coolly and casually told me she had been learning the trapeze, as if it were the most normal thing a kid could do.

Throughout that year Maya continued to impress me. Maya’s English assignments were always top-notch. Not only did she care and put great effort into her work, but as her English teacher, I was able to see her creative side. Maya had a unique outlook on the subject material and often wanted to approach assignments differently. I remember, specifically, I assigned a writing piece asking the kids to take the perspective of a character from The Miracle Worker and re-write a scene. Maya asked if she could be a dog, the family’s pet in the play. I told her “Maya, if you’re going to do this you have to make it great.” Maya made it great. I wish I still had the assignment, but basically she related a dog’s inability to communicate with Helen Keller’s inability to communicate and how frustrating that must be to go through. The level of insight and analysis, through the eyes of a dog, was fascinating. I think of it every time I teach the play.

Towards the second half of the year, Maya and a group of her friends (Halley, Vivi, Sophie, Grace, and Livy) started eating lunch with me in my classroom. They would sit and chat, study, sometimes watch music videos, eat. It was then that I learned of Maya’s passion for veganism. The girls all took French that year and would quiz one another. I do not speak any French, but Maya made it her mission to teach me. She would write words and phrases on the board and give me lessons, quiz me the next day. It was a joke that I would try to cheat by having the other girls give me the answers. Maya disciplined me and held me accountable. She was lovely when she was speaking French.

Maya was a member of my book club for Little Princes, a book about a young man who traveled to Nepal, volunteered at an orphanage, and helped reunite children with their families. Maya was a leader during our meetings. She read carefully and put in extra time and effort to follow up on any questions she had. She came to each meeting an expert on the assigned section and facilitated the discussions. It was then that I truly became aware of the power she held. The power to empathize, the power to motivate others to empathize, the power to create change. People say that middle schoolers can be selfish or narcissistic. In my experience this isn’t true at all and that experience started with Maya.

I continued to keep an eye on Maya when she was in eighth grade. She was the type of person I wanted to watch. She was always busy, taking those few minutes in between classes to perfect an assignment, check in with a teacher, help a peer. That year I had front desk duty during her lunch period. I would see Maya passing by, often late to lunch because she would spend her time finishing her work, debating with a teacher or friend, proving a point. A small detail I remember – Maya and her friends did a holiday gift exchange that year. She asked for eyeliner.”

I hope reading these memories is not painful for you, but rather an unneeded reminder of how special Maya was. I am sorry for not sharing them before this.

Thank you again for sharing your insights, passion, and your Maya.

Valerie Hughes

English Teacher

All of the photos are from the 2012-2013 academic year:  Maya practicing her unicycle skills learned at Circus Smirkus Camp, at a museum in Montreal, at a rally in Albany, flying trapeze on a NYC rooftop, at Mathew’s graduation and Cape Cod with Adin.


  • I always read and enjoy all the comments about your beloved Maya and of course grieve with you. Love, Lorraine

  • I commented on FB but the graduation cap and gown photo. I’m thrown back. On my heels. Love to you Mathew and Adin at this very difficult time.

    • Yes. The cap and gown.

      And for those who did not see Linda’s comment:
      Many thanks Ms. Hughes. We all knew Maya from where we stood but your memories just underline that the world lost a brilliant and meticulous person who is so needed in the world. And in each of our lives. Thank you.

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