The other day I stopped by what remains of the Occupiers enclave at McPherson Square here in DC. Most of the tents are gone, exposing the castle brown of dirt and mud where there was once the greenest grass. The remaining tents, empty now with one flap open as ordered by authorities, stand like tombstones from a frenzied past. A few folks congregate near the statue of Major General James B. McPherson, a Union hero during the Civil War, immortalized near the southern entrance to the park. Both McPhearson and the horse he sits upon are locked in mid-stride, as though time, and not they, stood still.
There is a scent of unfinished business in the air, even as the surrounding businesses and lobby firms reclaim their rhythm. It is as though the issues once percolating there did not die, but just elected to hibernate and prepare for an early spring. Beside a deep blue tent with black handwritten letters proclaiming “No Justice, No Sleep,” I stopped to ask a middle-aged white woman in a brown parka why she was there. She just looked at me for the longest time with steel-gray eyes before finally asking, “Why aren’t you?”
It got me thinking about Whitney Houston. She had died the day before. I had been a fan of her mother for many years, going back to her days with The Sweet Inspirations. For some reason, I happened to see the Merv Griffin show back in 1983 when Cissy Houston introduced her daughter to the world. Whitney was twenty-one then, and as she performed a duet with her mother, I made a note to keep my eyes open for her debut.
When her inaugural album released in 1985, I too flocked to her sound. Over the years, I listened and sang along to so many of her offerings. Like most, her range, beauty, and class touched me. But what really moved me was the truth in her voice. Somewhere between the notes and instruments, her voice revealed its own purpose and story. I believed her as much as anyone I knew.
So I rooted for her unprecedented success. My album collection is heavily laden with outstanding black female vocalists whose astonishing talents never pierced anyone’s top ten list. But times had changed, and Whitney, like Michael Jackson, was too big to be contained. That both died at hands at least partially guided by their own volition is a difficult reality to process and to accept.
My wife thinks Whitney died from a heart broken by a ravenous world intent on gobbling every light in sight. Much as we covet and envy celebrity, we secretly long for recompense. We bottleneck at the scenes of their fashion miscues, misplaced loves, and sinewy addictions. Perhaps we find in the glare of their obstructions some road map for our own lives. Or maybe we just long for distractions as we clamor away in our own dungeons, waiting to be heard.
Whatever the cause, the consequence is the same. The pursuit of art has always required cost. Rare is the individual talent which remains unscathed by the unfolding. Whenever I consider someone whose name has become commonplace, I always wonder about the teachers they experienced.
As the young Whitney sat at her desk, that incredible voice and empathetic soul trapped in her uniform, did some teacher suspect the journey to come? As her English teacher read her essays and poems, did he pause to consider how he might help her find the means to release her spirit in a sometimes angry world? Did he know, as he must, that growing in his classroom was a miracle bidding her time?
Passion is not an easy thing to manage. It tends to burn where it might and obey only the wind and the whim giving it flight. I keep forgetting sometimes that every student in front of me is a gem waiting to be discovered by a knowing hand. Fame will, of course, elude most of them–and that’s not such a bad thing. But each of them will be celebrated by someone in their adult lives. There they will find both glory and pain. I must remember to give them what I can to carry with them on their travels. I must do what I can as a teacher to add morsels of sustenance for the long ride ahead.
I must remember to look into their eyes and see a young Whitney taking hold. I must choose my words with more care lest my clumsy attempts to bolster sound like nothing more than just another gawking voyeur in a thirsty crowd.
As scintillating as it might seem, no one should have to live his or her one life out loud. If you are not careful, you will become nothing more than a colorful diversion in a beige world, or an empty tent flapping in a fickle wind. Either way, you tend to expire much too soon.