Sunday, June 28, 2009

Remembering Michael

If you haven't heard the name "Michael Jackson" 9 zillion times this week, you haven't been in our stratosphere. All of the cliches are true - the world has lost a pop icon who made an immeasurable impact on the worlds of music and dance. I so wish that school was in session right now, so that I could talk to my students about the life and music of Michael Jackson and about the troubled lives (and tragic deaths) of some of the celebrities that my middle schoolers adore (think Kurt Cobain, Tupac Shakur, Biggie Smalls, Heath Ledger...the list goes on and on....)

There will be time for those discussions in the fall. But first...Michael...

Since I was born one year before the King of Pop, my life and his work have intersected on many occasions. My father's voice, which has been silent for almost five years now, rings in my ears whenever I hear "I'll Be There."

"Daddy," I said during a Sunday drive in 1970, "Don't you like this song?"

"Sounds nice," he answered. "But who's the little girl singing it?"

At thirteen, I thought that was hysterical... that my Daddy couldn't tell that the Jackson Five was a "boy band." I had Tiger Beat pictures of Michael (right beside Donny Osmond) wallpapering my bedroom. And my first slow dances with boys were awkwardly carried out to "just call my name...and I'll be there..."

I choreographed a middle school dance routine to "The Love You Save" and performed it for the neighbors (I charged a nickel) at our talent shows in the 'hood. Years later, Off the Wall would be the soundtrack for my first year teaching - "I Want to Rock with You" could be heard reverberating up and down the halls of that high school.

And it was pure destiny that I owned a dance studio and worked as a dance instructor in the eighties, the Thriller years. Although my classes always warmed up to "Don't Stop 'til You Get Enough" from Off the Wall, so many recital dances came from that Thriller album...including a stage full of ghouls and monsters. I remember studying the videos, particularly the one for "Beat It" as I worked on choreography. I couldn't discern the dance moves by watching Michael Jackson; instead, I watched the backup dancers in an effort to learn the steps so that I could teach them to my students.

In the next decade I would have the opportunity to sit in the audience and watch my nine-year-old daughter perform "I Want You Back" with fourth graders from all over the school district. Eight years later, she and her friends would become The Jackson Five at a Halloween Talent Show. They got some strange looks from other drivers as they drove across town to the talent show wearing their afros.

In this, the next decade, I have become "Nana" and memories of three-year-old Taylor bouncing in her car seat shouting, "Play 'Rockin' Robin', Nana!" are fresh. My iPod repeatedly blasts "Rockin' Robin" and "ABC" for a preschool soloist as we drive down the same "Sunday drive" roads from forty years ago. Little Taylor works hard to snap her fingers while the music of an icon from my childhood makes an impact on hers.

And now...the end. The intersections of my life and Michael Jackson's have come to an abrupt halt...but not before one new memory: I have spent the past month making several trips a day to the retirement home where my mother is recuperating from a fall which resulted in a broken hip and elbow. After the permanent residents are dressed every day, they're lined up in front of a huge television in the lobby. I have to walk right in front of them to get to the elevator from my mother's room. In the past few days many have asked me, "Did you hear about Michael Jackson?" as I pass by. One resident told me, just as the local news reporter was delivering the tragic news, "I dreamed last week that Michael Jackson died." I begged her not to ever dream about me.

A wonderful memory of the music of Michael Jackson I'll always remember - as I was leaving the retirement home tonight, I walked in front of a row of senior citizens, lined up like weary wheelchair soldiers. One after another, they appeared to be in varied stages of consciousness, some sleeping, some slumped over the sides of the chair, some alert. But all...ALL of them were tapping a foot or gently smacking a leg to the music of the video on that television screen - a catchy little tune named "Smooth Criminal."

That's what Michael Jackson was...before the odd behavior, before the Neverland Ranch and the monkey and the hyperbaric chamber....when he was just little Michael singing "ABC," that's what he was....smooth. And, in some ways, he was a teacher. Who hasn't tried to do the moonwalk? Who hasn't held a hairbrush as a would-be microphone and belted out, "Billie Jean is not my lover..."?

Rest in peace, little Michael. I've enjoyed sharing the timeline of my life with you.

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