Tuesday, February 12, 2008

And Prince Is Your Uncle

Posted By on Tue, Feb 12, 2008 at 8:13 PM

These past four years, I’ve taught a class where elementary-aged public school kids learn to program beats on drum machines and pen original lyrics, plus write hilariously mean reviews of albums by New Orleans artists, which Gambit Weekly has been kind enough to publish. This teaching job’s part time nature has allowed me to, in my abundant spare time, chase my dream of becoming a professional author and freelance journalist. But this week I dumped both vocations; after seven years as a New Orleans bohemian, I finally caved and took a full-time job as assistant editor of a Metairie-based trade magazine that details the coin-operated game industry: pinball machines, video poker, crane games, etc.

My first day, I honest-to-god wrote a piece about the company that pioneered Whac-A-Mole.

But of course I gave the after-school program two-weeks notice and told the magazine that, until then, I would spend only half-days reviewing the latest gumball dispensing technology, before leaving to go teach. This delays my 40-hour-a-week sentence, plus gives me some valuable last days to crank out a few final songs with the smart kids of Behrman Elementary on the West Bank (watch upcoming issues of Gambit for the final album reviews by “Mr. Michael’s Class”).

And thus, I felt a renewed sense of purpose driving the crappy little car I’m lucky to even own over the bridge today. But in the cafeteria during homework hour, the sixth graders in my charge would barely speak to me. Per usual; on the cusp of puberty, that’s just how many sixth graders roll. Ariol however, asked what I did for Mardi Gras. This started a small discussion, in which only the smartest girl, S_____, did not participate. S_____ (whose name I will protect, because I promised her I would) generally never speaks to me no matter what. Won’t answer my questions or even acknowledge when I’m addressing her. I can’t help thinking this is my fault; since she’s so artistic and smart, and all her other teachers love her, I fear S_____ simply realizes something about me that the less perceptive kids do not.

But something strange happened with brilliant, distant S_____, when at the lunch table I mentioned last-night’s Grammys. Ariol replied that she had missed the Grammys’ beginning, “because I had to do my homework.”

“Oh man, I missed the beginning too,” I commiserated, “which sucks since Prince gave out an award at the beginning!”

S_____’s head snapped up from her spelling homework and her eyes met mine for what seemed like the first time ever: “Prince was on?!”

And there I thought I had her. Prince is my favorite of all time. He’s actually on this computer’s screen saver right now as I type -- not a pic from last night’s Grammys though, but from the seventies: a shot of Prince wearing only a small black silk speedo, and making a contorted sex face, while strangling a wood-grained Telecaster. He looks completely and totally metaphysically engrossed in the act of music-making, although if you look closely, his guitar is unplugged. “Prince is awesome,” I nodded to S_____. “You obviously like him too, no?”

“No, that's just my uncle,” she said quickly before stopping dead. Her eyes then darted away -- less like she was lying than that she’d simply screwed up and told the wrong secret.

“Wait, what did you just say?” I asked.

Nothing... I mean...” she stammered. “Nevermind.” This was not an act; she was obviously nervous, when usually she’s ice cold, far more together than me. Far more collected than I was now.

“Oh no. No, no, no. Repeat what you just said, S_____. You just said Prince is your uncle, didn’t you?”

“It’s not… I’m not supposed to…”

“Oh my god. It's true.”

“No. He’s not, OK?” she lied. While she and I haven’t communicated much, I’ve observed her enough to know she’s too mature and confident to play coy for my attention. Everything about her seemed to make sense now: her shy confidence, just like Prince’s; the silent way she communicated her whole cocky-yet-smart personality through simple sly shifts of her eyes.

“He is your uncle!” I accused. “Admit it.”

She sighed, irritated.

“Oh man S_____, you can’t do this to me,” I implored. “You completely ignore me all semester then out of nowhere you say Prince is your uncle and now you won’t even…”

The other sixth graders turned to her: “Prince is your uncle?”

"See!" she shouted at me, seeming really skittish now. “Just drop it Mr. Michael, please. Seriously. Drop it.”

I stared at her through another moments of awkward silence before we all lined up for one of my final ‘Music Writing’ classes ever. Prince’s niece happened to be the last one still stuffing her bookbag at the lunch table. I slid in beside her. “Listen,” I said quietly, “I can understand why you wouldn’t want people bothering you about it. Maybe someone told you not to mention it to anyone, and that’s cool. But if you tell me the truth I promise I will never repeat it to anyone, and I will never ask you another question about Prince. Just tell me the truth, please?”

“O.K.”

“O.K. what?” I beamed.

“O.K. Yes.”

“Yes what?”

“Yes, I will tell you the truth.”

“O.K. Go ahead.”

Silence.

“S_____! Tell me!”

“Not now!” she pointed to the other kids, who’d again tuned into us. Here she giggled for what seemed like the first time since I’ve known her, yet I still believe she’d meant what she’d accidentally said. “When no one else is around,” she promised quietly, passing by me to join the line.

By the end of the day’s recording session she still hadn’t admitted anything. It's unfortunate though, that whenever she finally does, I obviously can’t tell you…

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