Reaction to the Michael Jackson Memorial: One Teacher’s View

By Barbara Bornet Stumph (ISI 65-66, OG 90, et al)

Beijing Review Magazine reporter, Zan Jifang, writes 260,000 Chinese have responded to an on-line survey saying they were shocked at the death of Michael Jackson: these sites are and, the latter a Jackson official web site. He never performed there. Chinese fans heard Michael, when their country first opened up, as he sang the co-authored, “We Are the World.” Now, Sino-fans place Chinese-style candles and paper boats in Houhai Lake, near where tourists are relaxing, to express their sorrow.

A second Chinese publication, Beijing News, has a headline that reads: “There Will Be No More Legend That Thrills People on the Earth.” As a student of Chinese language and culture, I am interested to learn Chinese fans loved to watch Michael’s dancing.

It seems a bit odd that I am caught up in the Michael Joseph Jackson Memorial. As I crumple Kleenexes, having already promised myself not get too emotionally involved, I believe we, Americans, have a right to rejoice that the unique talent of Michael flourished here. Jackson worked and fought his way to the top while opening doors for other African American artists. As I listen to his friends’ testimonies, I realize, how long the road is for us, Americans, as we learn to respect people who are different from us. Michael commanded respect and eventually earned some measure of it — worldwide. It is reported that even people in Lebanon stopped work to view the service.

Michael Jackson was different. I believe he was born different, as an artistic genius and, as a man. Although I am ambivalent about him, as one of my friend says, still I am watching the tribute to Jackson with concentration. How did this happen? How is a sixty-three year old teacher affected by Michael?

We all know there were “tragic aspects” of Michael’s life, as Barack Obama says.

Michael sang love songs but he was not a Rhett Butler-type lover (my mother’s generation); Michael danced, but was not Fred Astaire (my granddaughters love Singing in the Rain); Michael composed music, loved by listeners world-wide, but was not Rogers and Hammerstein, Elvis, Beverly Sills, or John Denver (my generation).

Zhang Yuan, a famous Chinese Director, said when he produced MTV for Cui Jian, known as the godfather of rock-and-roll on China’s mainland, he learned from watching Michael on MTV videos. Another view reported by the Review is from a thirty-seven year old IT engineer, Zhao Bin, who said, “Jackson and Madonna were the only two superstars to admire among youngsters in the 1990’s in China.” Zhao played drums with a band, so he was attracted to Jackson. Even though most of Jackson’s songs have not been heard by ordinary Chinese, he was popular there anyway. The same is true with me.

Here was a man, who was “wise, as a young man and childlike as a adult,” according to his Motown record maker. Another friend described Michael as having “two personalities”: one persona was “shy off-stage,” a second was explosive on-stage.

Michael—it seems to me, was his own, unique free spirit with tons of innate talent.

I wonder: Is there room in our hearts for other free spirits, known to each of us, who live next door? Or in our schools? Would hate crimes go down if we make sure our children are tolerant of kids who are different? We, high school teachers, work at this every day.

Jackson’s meteoric rise like a “comet blazing across the sky,” was largely ignored by me. Gradually, like other Baby Boomers, I danced to Michael’s music in aerobics class in the sixties; sang with Michael on the car radio; hummed Michael’s, “We Are the World,” a fund-raiser song with proceeds to combat HIV-AIDs in the 1980’s. That song brings “tears to my eyes,” says my friend, even now.

I was thunderstruck by Michael’s moon walk. Still am. His original choreography routines rivet me. As a child, my Palo Alto, California dance teacher, Mrs. Maryann Crowder, now a hundred years old, taught me and thousands of others the art of Martha Graham-style modern dance; university dance instructors let me use the entire gym floor for amateur routines, where I loved delving into a natural dance zone. However, no one teaches me to move like Michael.


Does he have to use those highly provocative motions? He turns private behavior into public dance. Is that necessary, given his depth of talent? There is a parallel to comedians who begin to insert off-color language that we hear in high school hallways. That is disrespectful “street talk,” I teach my students as Rap dominates their lives.

We can’t escape the double entendre of his lyrics.

Eventually, I turn away from Michael Jackson. He becomes “weird,” as my friends say. What’s with the face lifts? The whiter and whiter skin? (He apparently had a disease, says the mulatto grocery store clerk.) Red lipstick? Hiding behind a stringy veil of hair or scarves? What’s with the Presley marriage? Neverland? Does he think he is Peter Pan? He is reliving a childhood he never had– they say. It is easy to stand in judgment of people like Michael.

Meanwhile, Jackson’s fame lead to cameras and strangers in tow every waking second appearances. As I grow into a grandmother of seven children, Michael is sued for possible pedophilia; found innocent; yet he eventually pays out millions. Over time, his music disappears from the high school where I teach to be replaced by Heavy Metal and Rap. My long-playing record of “We Are the World” lays tilted among dusty stacks.

Computers are here.

How to use a CD player?

What’s an I-pod?

I join the You Tube crowd for Chinese brush painting studies. Among the 152 Chinese art videos I bookmark, not one is a Michael Jackson video.

Until now.

Michael dies. Unexpectedly.

My routine stops. I dial up You Tube, locate young Michael and the Jackson Five, and get re-acquainted with the vibrant voice of that vivacious youngster. “Billie Jean” is heard from my study. Here I sit in tears, not for the “greatest entertainer in the world,” as stars at his Memorial claim, but rather feeling empathy for the lonely man like Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, John Lennon, and John Denver, to name a few, who struggled with fame and sorrow, yet continued to change the world with their art.

Here was a true artist.

We assume Michael Jackson died a man of gigantic wealth. He surely could have, no doubt. We hear Michael “gave more money to charity than any other entertainer who ever lived,” according to the Guinness Book of World Records. We cherish his sense of responsible philanthropy. Michael’s Last Will, they say, left forty percent of his money to his mother, forty percent to his children, and twenty percent for charity. He founded the “Heal the World Foundation” for donations to the poor. John McLaughlin’s staff estimates Michael gave three hundred million dollars in African relief. Did he die a rich man? He died deeply in debt. What a contrast: Michael, a musical genius of international stardom, died owing a fortune. Yet we know he continued to work with self-discipline on a show called, “This Is It,” where European tickets sold out in four hours. They say his dance rehearsals were as lively as the old days.

Michael grew into an American icon while I was a working. He and his nuclear family fulfilled the poor-boy-makes-it- big-dream, during a generation when African Americans still struggle with overcoming the shameful legacy of slavery. One Chinese in Zan Jifang’s article put it this way: “Jackson shows the pursuit of an ordinary child of his dream and a better life. His experience told me that everyone could create a miracle….”

We revel in his stardom, as Michael rose above limiting views of the society he called home. Yet, we Americans know our work is not done.

When his autopsy is revealed, I ponder the possibility Michael died a full-blown addict. There are reports of prescription drug usage. Having lived with two, teen addicts in my family, I bleed for Michael Jackson’s mother. If, as a teacher, I had known Michael was abused by his father, as Jackson claimed, I would have been required by law to report him. If true, “Why didn’t his mother and family members speak up?” asks my friend.

Michael shared his smile with the world. As his older brother, Jermaine, sings his tribute song, he breaks down: “Smile, though your heart is breaking,” becomes a metaphor for Michael’s daily life.

Now I realize how fragile this iconic rock star was. That zenith entertainer, who annoyed me with some of his lyrics, one or two dance moves, and peculiar personal life, must be “seen clearly,” as his close friend, Brooke Shields says. From one of my favorite French books, The Little Prince, Brooke quotes Antoine de Saint Exupery, “What is essential is invisible to the eye; what is important can only be seen clearly with the heart.” For many, Michael’s stage persona was sort of androgynous, that is neither male nor female. I am reminded that Southeast Asian and Chinese cultures have androgynous statues of Buddha. Zan Jifang reports that Jackson inspired young people in China: one Chinese observer reported that he had “ no idea a male could dance that way” until he saw Michael.

Michael is beloved not only for his music but for his stated belief: “There is nothing we cannot do if we all work together.”

Don’t worry, Michael: we will keep on, keeping on.

As I read about the Chinese Uighurs, a Muslim minority people living in Xinjiang of the western region, as they demonstrate for autonomy, I am applying Michael’s famous lyrics:

If you care enough for the living,

Make it a better place for you and me

and the entire human race….

2 thoughts on “Reaction to the Michael Jackson Memorial: One Teacher’s View

  1. Pingback: PianoFan

  2. This is by far one of the most beautiful articles I have read so far about MJ’s death! I have a similar approach to MJ, we used to make fun of his crotch-grabbing when we were kids, and I was not sure what to think about his relationships to children/boys.
    And still, he is maybe the last great Entertainer that we ever had. If you listen to his music or watch his videos, you feel the magic. I do hope he can now rest in peace, because he deserves it! Thank you for this article!

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