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Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Dear Michael

Dear Michael,

Your death has helped me remember so much of what I had tried so hard to forget.

From the time I became aware of you in 1974 ("Dancing Machine"), I - like so many other people in this world - identified with and felt connected to you through your music and your life.

Everyone always told me how shy I was, but I never understood what that looked like (because I cannot see me). When I saw you in "Right On!" magazine swinging in the tree, and you said you were shy, the fearful look in your eyes helped me to understand what other people saw in me.

You were my big brother, role model, and the friend I always wanted to be - but for so long was never quite brave enough to branch out and become because I feared rejection. Your strength and complete command on stage and wax have now become my strength and command in words and deeds. People thought we were both strange, but as long as you were doing your thing, I knew (as Al Sharpton said so boldly to your children in his eulogy today) that we were not strange ... that what we had to deal with was strange.

My sister got The Jacksons' album "Triumph" for Christmas in 1980. Those songs played and played on our huge console stereo on Christmas Eve as our parents argued throughout the night. The dark chords of "This Place Hotel" still resonate with me today, as does LaToya's blood-curdling scream. So what if the title did not make sense? You did not know Elvis had recorded "Heartbreak Hotel" in 1956, and neither of us cared or remembered after we were told.

I remember the mild obsession I had in the 70's with sports (especially baseball) and statistics, and how that spilled over into tracking the progress of the singles from "Off The Wall" on the Billboard Pop charts. The Elloree, SC, library did not get Billboard magazine, so I had to wait for Casey Kasem's weekly syndicated TV show "America's Top 10" to see if you could outduel Billy Joel and Paul McCartney (whose music I love now, but I hated them when your respective albums and singles competed for chart positions).

"Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough" and "Rock With You" went straight to #1, but "Off The Wall" and "She's Out Of My Life" peaked at #10. "Girlfriend" (which was ironically written for you by Paul McCartney) was released as a single in the UK only, but did not chart.

I loved "She's Out of My Life" so much I wanted to sing it in a school talent show. Because I was rather overweight, I was steered away from that performance to a corny lip-synching, air-guitar duet with my cousin to The Beatles' "Day Tripper". That gave me another axe to grind with Paul McCartney.

Then came "Thriller" - the game changer - during my 8th-grade year. We had no cable or MTV, so I tried to stay up until midnight to watch the debuts of "Billie Jean" and "Thriller" on NBC's "Friday Night Videos". I could not hang back then (still cannot now), and fell asleep on both debuts. I did not have a VCR yet, but I was loyal to you, so I kept tuning in until I saw them both. When the sidewalk lit under your feet in "Billie Jean", I was simply stunned.

"Motown 25" was another game changer in 1983. I do not scream, but if I could I would have. We were all trying to moonwalk back then - as a matter of fact, the dance move had been around for a few years already before you "debuted" it and made it yours.

"Bad" was released in 1987, my freshman year at Clemson. I wrote positive reviews of the album's songs for my Honors' freshman composition classes. Your songs (and my writing) were skewered by one professor (whose name and shame escape me), but were praised by Dr. Mark Charney in a way that made me a polished and confident writer. For that gift to my gift, I will never forget him or you.

"Dangerous" came along in 1991 - my senior year at Clemson. You and I were starting to grow apart by this time. I was fully focused on becoming the world's greatest engineer (a dream I have long since abandoned in favor of something more purposeful and grounded), and you seemed to be drifting in search of self. As it turned out, though, you and I were very much on the same journey.

I remembered feeling disconnected from 1995's "HIStory" because of the allegations against you, and because of the turmoil in my own life from those times. I tried to connect with the album on a Greyhound bus ride to Tallahassee, FL during that Summer, but it just was not happening.

Reading the police affidavit in 2001 regarding the new abuse allegations at that time is one of the most painful memories of my often painful life. By that time, though, I had matured in much of my gifting, and could discern spiritual causes and natural effects.

I could see how lonely you were, because when I saw your countenance, I encountered mine. God grants us the gift of insight to others only to the degree that we accept His chastening insights to us about us. I did not think that I would ever meet you, but knew that if I ever did, we would have had a lot to talk about. I would have told you about my own struggles with loneliness and the times I had fallen. I would have told you that this unresolved search for self-identity could pervert even the purest gift.

Alas, I never got to tell you anything, but I at least got to listen to and learn from my own experiences. I know I will be better for having done so, just as I know that the world will be better for having had you grace it. Be well, my friend, and rest in peace.


Love,

Derrick

Friday, June 26, 2009

The Course of One's Life (Curriculum Vitae) (WORLD PREMIERE)

The Course of One's Life (Curriculum Vitae)

A photoessay / letter to my family on the first 39 years of my life set to a soundtrack of original compositions.

This version contains a couple of edits per audience feedback (Thanks, Aunt Cynthia!).

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Hail To The Chief (Barack Obama) (WORLD PREMIERE)

Hail To The Chief (Barack Obama) (WORLD PREMIERE)

A photoessay chronicling the January 2009 inauguration of Barack Obama, the 44th President of The United States.

KnowledgeBase Video Catalog (2002-2007)

Johnny (August 2002)

"Johnny" is a didactic poem that I wrote to explain the mission and focus of KnowledgeBase. I wrote it to resolve frustration I was experiencing with resistance from all the schools and organizations with whom I was trying to partner. This film captures my first live performance of "Johnny" (or any of my other writing). It is a metaphor of me conquering my fears of not being taken seriously as an engineer-turned-educator - with my snickering KnowledgeBase Summer Academy students representing the world at large.

The Student's Pledge (February 2007)

An affirmation of purpose and power offered to the students, parents, faculty, staff, administration, and board of governors of Tech High School (http://www.techhighschool.org), a startup charter school in Atlanta, GA.

2006-2007 Student Activities Report

2006-2007 was Tech High's third year of existence. Help us celebrate with this commemorative video!

Wisdom Earned Through Lessons Learned (WORLD PREMIERE)

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As educators, we are often guilty of trying to teach lessons we have not yet learned well enough.

On one fateful afternoon in February 2005, I was reminded that to experience is to learn once, but to teach is to learn twice.

The pictures tell the story of a boys' mentoring group a colleague and I started in October 2004. We would periodically challenge the boys to teach each other lessons that they were responsible for preparing. On one Saturday, one of the young men taught me how to play chess. His lesson was one of the single most brilliant recollections of my career as an educator.

On this day in February 2005, a student was to teach on The Legend of Willie Lynch. He did not prepare for his lesson on this racially charged matter, and proceeded to "fake it" in a rather inflammatory manner. We had invited our principal to witness our meeting that day.

My colleague then jumped in to "clean up" the lesson, and probably made things just a bit worse.

During and after that moment I realized the irrevocable damage we could do to the minds we care so much about developing when we expose them to light that we ourselves have not yet seen.

I photographed the entire event, even though I felt like I was documenting my own funeral. We survived that day, though, and were made better for having learned the hard lesson.

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