In July, 2008, I, Princess Rachella, Intrepid African American Girl International Journalism Consultant, pulled up stakes once again and headed to Nairobi, Kenya. Through my various adventures, I've concluded that if I get any MORE explosively fabulous in these prequel years to "THE BIG 5-0," I will have to register myself with the Pentagon as a thermonuclear incendiary device.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

A New Be-GIN-ning

I'd like to take a moment to extol the restorative properties of the Kenyan gin martini.

That's my creative way of explaining that the past few days have dragged me through a knothole backwards. I don't know if jet-lag gets worse as you get older, but I've felt like somebody went upside my head with a snow shovel. I can't sleep more than a few hours, and forming words is nearly impossible. Sure, I've been able to drag my carcass out of the hotel, but the minute I return to my room, the bed sings its siren song, and I'm nosediving back into it.

The only true comfort I've felt lately has been found in the bottom of a martini glass. You see, they make 'em totally different over here. Stateside, I like my martini dry as the Sahara, with a crisp bite to it. Or filthy dirty, with plenty o' extra olives marinating in the elegant elixir. But all the martinis I've had since arriving in Nairobi (I refuse to divulge how many, but just don't light any matches around me) have been sweet. I shudder to think what they're putting in them, but it's almost like drinking Kool-aid with a gin kick. They slide down my throat like the nectar of the gods, and after a while, it doesn't matter that I'm a bloated, foggy-headed, pre-menopausal insomniac.

Okay, enough with the creative license. I'm actually doing rather well, considering. And I've experienced many, many moments of wonder and delight since I arrived. Starting with the first night, after my gargantuan suitcases had been safely stowed in my room, and I shuffled down to the restaurant to grab something to eat. Sitting there waiting for my spring rolls and chicken wings (I'm sorry, but a sister can eat some chicken wings in any time zone, as long as there's a tooth left in her head), I noticed a group of guys heading over to a bandstand. They picked up their various instruments and started playing......

Salsa music. I almost laughed out loud. Not because they were playing badly; they were actually quite good. But it was totally insane to be sitting in downtown Nairobi listening to six Kenyan guys play Salsa.

And then there was this afternoon, when I decided to take a quick tour of the Sunday crafts market at the Ya Ya Centre. I'd like to tell you I wore my "Obama for President" cap to keep the sun out of my eyes, but I was actually angling for the "Diaspora Discount" on anything I bought.

Worked like a charm. But more than that, I'll never forget the smiles, the handshakes, the thumbs up from just about every vendor. Everyone wanted to know what state I was from; I spared them my stock diatribe about being a disenfranchised DC resident. After a while, I felt like a rock star just walking down the aisles, smiling and waving and fending off offers to trade my cap for some carving or piece of jewelry.

It felt like I was being welcomed home by family. Sure, most people can tell right off that I'm American, and in every African country I've visited, that's always created an automatic barrier of sorts. But the excitement and pride Kenyans feel about Barack Obama must be eroding that barrier for African Americans, I think. Today, at least, it made me feel less alien, less like a vaguely familiar interloper.

Overall, things have been going really well. On Friday, I met with some of the staffers at the Nation newpaper, where I'll be working. It's in the Nation Centre, this really cool skyscraper about a half a block from the hotel. And the hustle and bustle of downtown Nairobi is just like any major American city. After Gulu, I freakin feel like Dorothy at the gates of Emerald City! Exploring downtown today, I realized that half the crap I stuffed into my suitcases out of desperate fear of a year long deprivation is readily available here. There's a coffee shop in the Ya Ya Centre that beats all hell out of Starbucks.

And here's the real kicker...after years of swearing I could never live outside of "The Big City," over here, I'll be living in the suburbs! The apartment I'm renting is in an area called Westlands, just outside the city. There's a gym with a sauna and a steamroom, and a pool convenient if I ever want to drown myself in a hurry. Last night, I had dinner in this Westlands hotspot called Gipsy's that serves some of the best grilled calamari I've ever eaten!

Clearly, I am rendered totally giddy by least for now. But I'm not hopelessly naive. It's never quite far from my mind that one of the city's nicknames is "Nai-ROBBERY." But I'm a big girl with a big job to do.

At least I'll be properly fortified. Syrupy martinis, anyone?

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

A Perfect 10

Okay, I'm sitting in Amsterdam's Schipol Airport eating a jamon serrano and olive sandwich, and my stomach is already reminding me that IT'S still on Eastern Time, or in other words, "What the hell are you putting inside of me at 2:15 AM???"

I'm halfway through the journey to Nairobi. And while I'm not exactly a slave to numerology, I'm thinking about the number 10 this morning. My flight is scheduled to leave at 10 AM. I am the 9th of 10 children. We arrived at Gate D-47; I'll be 47 in October, which is the 10th month of the year.

And this is my 10th journey from the US to Africa. I've been to Ghana once, Ethiopia four times, Nigeria twice, South Africa once, Uganda, and now Kenya.

Now, I'm not suggesting that I suspect everything to turn out perfectly because it's my 10th trip. But so far, I'm batting a thousand. Sitting at the table right next to me is this incredibly cute younger man named Malik, who's been flirting with me like crazy.

Sure, he's sitting in a stroller, and he's 14 months old, but my heart has melted and is puddling on the floor right about now. He looks like a human Hershey bar with big limpid eyes, and perfect little teeth like tiny Chiclets, and outrageous dimples. His mother is feeding him cereal with her fingers, but he barely notices because he's so busy grinning and peeking at me.

Looks like I still "got it like that" with men. At least men under the age of 2. But something tells me my luck may be changing.

Anyway, I'm scheduled to arrive at Jomo Kenyatta Airport at 7:00 PM. But by the time I get through Immigration, bribe some strapping young Kenyan to risk a ruptured disc lifting my deadweight luggage, and make my way to the Sarova Stanley Hotel in downtown Nairobi, it'll likely be 10 PM. Okay, I'm running out of 10 metaphors, so I should probably wrap this thing up.

Besides, I've got about 10 minutes til this laptop battery dies. More later, from downtown Nairobi.

Monday, June 23, 2008

We are the Champions

If you had told me, back in November, that I would be sharing brats and brews on a hot sunny day in June with my brother Peter and my brother-in-law Ron, I probably would have just sneered. But that's just what I did yesterday afternoon, at the annual DC Barbecue Battle on Pennsylvania Avenue. It's a memory I'll cherish for a very long time.

Back in November, it seemed as if every cell in my body was scalded by grief. That is, when I wasn't as numb as a fencepost. Shutting down emotionally was the only way I could move through life. Stretching my face into some semblance of a smile when required, putting one foot down in front of the other, those were Herculean feats for me back then. On those cool mornings in Gulu, it took at least an hour to uncurl from the fetal position and actually leave my bed.

I thought I would never laugh again, at least not like I had before October 19, 2007. I thought I would never feel happy again. I thought my world had narrowed so drastically, that I'd never see the full light of day again, never really feel the warmth of the sun, never even care about much of anything.

That's the trick grief plays on you. It floods your mind so completely that you almost feel like you're suffocating. But then it lets up a bit, and you tell yourself, "I can do this." Then...WHAM! You'll see something, or hear a tune, or think of some memory, and you're right back in the canyon, and you just can't see any way to climb out.

My entire family has battled loss, grief and ongoing post-traumatic stress just about non-stop since March of 2003, when my eldest brother took his life. Since then, we've lost both parents, and, last October, my sister Julie. Frankly, by November, I had pretty much resigned myself to feeling perpetually sad and shell-shocked. I decided if I just stopped pretending that life could ever be pleasant any more, it would protect me from life's inevitable flow of loss.

But then something changed. For me, it happened while I was paying my respects at Julie's grave last month. I think that's when I fully absorbed the concept that love never dies. I feel Julie's spirit every day. I still love her every day. Obviously it hurts that I can't see or hear her, but I still love her just as much as I did when I could.

I believe that's the powerful weapon we all have with when faced with tremendous grief and loss: the fact that NOBODY can kill the love you have, the love your loved one gave you, and fruits of that mutual love. For example, my brother Peter let me roost in his house for five months, half of which were spent being completely overwhelmed by memories of Julie's many visits to DC. There were many days when all I could do was drag myself out of bed, head to the gym for an hour or so, and then head back home and crawl back into bed. Bottom line, I wasn't exactly the most sparkling houseguest.

But Peter never once gave up on me, or sent me packing. I think he knows just how lost I've felt, and probably in some ways will always feel, without Julie. It's the kind of unstinting love and support she would have shown me.

And Ron has been the real champion. Since he got here last Thursday, I have to admit I've been kinda circling around him, keeping a bit of a watch for any cracks in the armor. But he's strong. We've laughed and shared our memories, and I truly believe he's going to be just fine. You couldn't begin to understand how much of a blessing that is for me.

So as we were laughing and strolling down Pennsylvania Avenue yesterday afternoon, I realized that we had won our many skirmishes with grief and loss. I felt so strong and sure, armed with the love and support of family and friends. I am so ready to make this next move in my life.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Locked In

Yesterday, I made the biggest commitment I've ever made in my entire life. I decided to never comb my hair again as long as I live.

I've spent the last year and a half wrestling with the decision to keep twisting my hair or letting it go all Rasta-far-I. I'm talking seriously hardcore Natty Dreadlocks. I've always been fascinated by the locked hair look, the way both women and men proudly sport those regal, matted ropes of hair. But I never really thought I could pull them off successfully.

The road to locks has been a natural (pun intended) progression for me. When I stopped wearing extensions in September of 2006 and switched to natural hair twists, it was an incredibly liberating experience. Even though twists require regular maintenance of untwisting, combing out, and then re-twisting, I felt so free from the tyranny of heavy, binding braids.

Slowly but surely, my hair began to heal. Granted, I'm not doing it any favor by using coppery highlights to mask the gray, but at least it's not being pulled out at the roots by synthetic extensions. And my head can actually breathe.

So what took me from twisting and untwisting to letting my hair fuse together into snaky, matted noodles? Well, 72 hours from now, I'll be in the air somewnere over North Africa, winging my way to my new home for a year, Nairobi. Last year I lived in a 20 year war zone, and this year I'll live in a post-election conflict zone.

Seriously, who has time to worry about combing her hair? Life is short enough as it is. My stylist, Gary, had been trying to coax me into letting my hair lock for months, but I always balked. I figured twisting gave me the option to change my mind, maybe return to the straight look someday if I chose. But during the past few months, I could not think of a single reason why I'd want to go back to permed hair.

But what if I was up for a big-bucks job as a company spokesperson, and my competition had silky flowing tresses? What if I fell hard for some guy who was turned off by locked hair? What if I woke up one morning and just hated the danged things?

That's about the point where I realized that I was giving my hair WAAAAY too much power over my life. It's just hair. And it's not exactly the most loyal appendage God gave us humans. It turns white, breaks off, falls out. droops when you want it to curl...why the heck was I giving myself an ulcer over it?

The last time Gary twisted my hair, he said that if I wanted to let it lock, I had to go at least two months without combing or washing it out. By yesterday, it had been a month and a half, and I was ready to take a garden rake to the rat's nest that was forming on my scalp. I pleaded with him to do something, but he was thrilled. "Girl, you're locking, it's beautiful!"

I don't know, maybe he was just saying that to spare my feelings. Or maybe he had two or three other clients waiting and didn't want to have to fool with untwisting my hair. Or....maybe...just maybe....I look okay. Maybe I can commit to this locked hair thing.

So, courtesy of James Joyce, in 72 hours, I "Go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race. " With a head full of Jamaica jammin' baby dreadlocks.

Me finished wid da post now.

Friday, June 20, 2008

My Broadway Buddy

I can't believe I was actually nervous and shy about calling my friend Christopher Jackson the other day! He's the New York actor, singer, dancer and overall "Master Thespian" who is featured in this year's Tony-winning best Broadway musical, "In The Heights."

A few posts back, I wrote that I've known Chris since he was five years old. I've known him through his schoolboy days, the early struggles in New York, the big debut in "The Lion King", the whole nine yards.

Watching him perform Sunday night was possibly one of the most thrilling moments of my life. It was such a tribute to the triumph of hard work, persistence, faith and belief. I knew this man had poured every ounce of himself into that one moment, worked harder and longer than most, fought back depression and despair, and negativity, and never once gave in, when so many thousands of others before him had let go of their dream.

And the coolest thing is, he's just as down to earth and REAL as he ever was. When he returned my call, I was a bit tongue-tied at first, but pretty soon we were laughing and joking like always. I've been teasing him about not forgetting the little people when he "blows up," as the young folks say. I tell him that if he ever stops returning my calls, I will publicly embarrass him with stories about his childhood in Cairo. He knows I'm just crazy enough to do it.

Christopher Jackson is my new role model. Sure, I'm 14 years older than him, but you're never too old to learn from a sterling example of achievement. And when Chris is up on a stage standing behind that podium one day real soon, picking up his Tony or Grammy or Oscar, or all three, people are going to think he's this overnight sensation. But I'll know exactly how many hours and days and nights and weeks and months and years he worked to get there.

But don't take my word for just how amazingly talented Chris is. Here's a clip from his appearance on the CBS "Early Show" the morning after the Tony Awards Program. Click on this link:

....go to the photo, then click on the video tab. I think you'll Cairo homey got skills!

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Dark and Lovely

For me, the concept of “Must See TV” ended when Mary Tyler Moore and Carol Burnett ended their weekly series on CBS. Since then, about the only show I ever turned down invitations to stay at home and watch was “Six Feet Under.” That probably gives you way too much insight into the inner workings of my psyche, but it’s true.

During the past decade, I’ve managed to resist the crack-ish Reality TV craze for the most part, caving only during the early episodes of “American Idol” each year. Watching delusional people croak and writhe for the world to see is comedy gold! But I am proud to say I’ve never seen a single minute of “Lost,” “Grey’s Anatomy” or “24.”

So why did I risk getting a speeding ticket trying to get home in time to watch “The View” this morning? Because I’d heard some radio talk show host mention that Michelle Obama would be co-hosting today. Trust me, I am not a regular viewer; I’ve only watched excerpts from that show about a dozen times, usually when somebody was having a meltdown or when Baba Wawa was strapping on her steel-toed bitch boots to kick a little co-host butt. There’s one sexist stereotype I proudly embrace in my pre-menopausal phase….I love me some estrogen-fueled TV!

I’ve actually watched more segments of “The View” than usual since Whoopi Goldberg joined the show. I have such a love/ambivalence relationship with my girl, the Whoopster, possibly stemming from something she was supposed to have said back in the day. When asked if she considered herself an African American, Whoopi allegedly condemned the term, arguing that nobody in her family had ever lived in Africa. I remember reading that and thinking, “Girl, that’s just crazy talk! And it’s flat out wrong, because even though it may have been about 5 or 6 generations back, SOMEBODY from your family DID come from Africa! Why deny it?”

I’ve written about this before, but it always astounds me when some black folk reject the term African American. I mean, Jewish Americans, Italian Americans, Asian Americans, Hispanic Americans….ALL of those groups seem to embrace those descriptors. Or at the very least, they don’t cringe and protest when it’s used. Maybe it’s because I’ve traveled to Africa so much during the past 5 years, but I have seen myself and my family and friends so often in the faces of people in Ghana and Nigeria and Uganda that it would be impossible for me to NOT think of myself as African American.

Anyway, who even knows if Whoopi really said it to begin with? I certainly don’t want to be dismissed as a mere hater for holding it against a woman as talented and accomplished--and funny as hell--as Whoopi is. Besides, watching her interact with Michelle Obama was really heartwarming. Both she and co-host Sherri Shepherd were absolutely beaming with pride, in a way I’m not even sure Joy or Barbara (and certainly not Elizabeth!!!) could understand.

Whoopi did a wonderful job of voicing that feeling when she thanked Michelle for being so beautiful and smart and funny. And girlfriend spoke truth to power when she said that usually when a black woman is on TV, she has about 4 teeth, and her hair is standing all over her head, and she’s talking about how some gang banger shot the neighbor’s kid.

Now, of course she was exaggerating, wildly, even. But Whoopi took it even further when she said she was thrilled to see Michelle Obama so front and center because she was a brown-skinned black woman. A deep chocolate sistuh. Just out there talking the talk, bold and bad and beautiful, toned and taut, in all her chestnut-colored glory.

Come on now, y’all know what I’m talking about! Don’t make me preach a sermon up in here! After all, so many African American men who reach the heights of prominence often wind up with a mate who is NOT African American. Or if she is, she has long hair, green eyes and cafĂ©-au lait colored skin. She’s referred to as “exotic,” or “multi-ethnic,” or “bi-racial,” but she usually ain’t “get down brown.”

I’m just saying, y’all. Don’t kill the messenger. You know I’m telling the truth.

Watching the conversation, I had to admit I’m just as proud and impressed by Michelle Obama for the same reason. Okay, now I can confess…..watching Barack Obama give his incredible speech during the 2004 Democratic convention, I braced myself for the obligatory close-up of him and his wife at the end, because I totally, TOTALLY expected her to be white. When the camera finally caught the scene, I remember gasping, “I can’t believe it…he’s married to a chocolate sister!”

I hope nobody out there is getting their feelings hurt reading this. I have too many dear white and light-skinned African American female friends out there who would snatch me bald-headed if I ever tried to jump out of some racist box. I’m not trying to say I’m glad Barack didn’t marry a white woman, or a light-skinned African American woman. Nor am I trying to suggest that Michelle is far superior BECAUSE she’s darker-skinned. (Although they didn’t come up with the saying “The blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice” for nothin’, people.)

I’m just saying that in the midst of this profoundly historic presidential campaign, when America is trying to stage one big-assed karmic intervention on itself because of the racial psychosis that’s been an undeniable part of our history, I believe the prospect of a beautiful, articulate (yes, I said it…even though I always bristle a bit when people praise ME for being articulate…like that’s some freakish anomaly), charming, funny, gracious, intellectual STRONG BLACK WOMAN as First Lady of the United States is possibly the most amazing thought my brain has ever harbored.

Quite a few times in my life, whenever some leering stranger was trying to pay me a compliment, it was usually accompanied by the phrase, “dark and lovely.” I can’t deny there were a few times when I wondered why the dude needed to make a point of noting my dark skin. “Can’t I just be lovely, dammit????” Obviously, I got over that brief annoyance. At 46, melanin is my dearest friend. I enjoy being able to say, quite often, “Black don’t crack!” I AM dark and lovely….and so is Michelle Obama, and so many other African American women who finally get to have their own high profile role-model who isn’t shaking her ass in front of a camera or crackin’ wise on some sitcom.

Naturally, this makes my imminent departure from these halcyon shores more than little bittersweet. There have been moments when I've actually agonized at the thought of being 6,000 miles away when/if American history is made in the most dramatic way possible this November.

But I'm comforted by imagining how hard I will be partying in Nairobi if that historic moment happens. I’m gonna be getting my groove on so hard, I swear, I will need a hip replacement after trying to keep up with the non-stop dancing in the streets. So I guess I’m covered whether I’m here or in the Motherland.

BLOGORIAL NOTE: This is NOT a political endorsement. I am NOT in any way, shape or form suggesting that I support His Righteousness, Soul Brother Number One Obama for President. Ooops, I mean…ummm......

Oh, never mind!

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Headed In The Right Direction

A year ago today, I was getting myself settled into a mostly empty, cozy little cottage on a post-colonial compound in the Senior Quarters of a Northern Ugandan village called Gulu.

I had landed in Kampala on June 6th, 2007, and on June 8th, I traveled the 6 hours north to the place that would be my home for the next 8 months. In a way, I still miss the little Pepto Bismol pink and pistachio green cottage behind the main house on Plot 26, Samuel Doe Road. I miss the quiet cool mornings, and the rooster next door crowing each morning, and the orange trees in the back yard.

But every time I order a root beer Frosty float from Wendy's, I am acknowledging that I DON'T miss life in Gulu. It was so very, very difficult....even though I have to admit I'm grateful for the borderline case of severe malnutrition that left me with a figure so youthful, I don't even remember what to do with it.

Last night, June 16th, 2008, I sat on the plush microfiber couch in my brother Peter’s house in Northwest Washington, watching a heavy rain fall. It felt like a bit of a dress rehearsal…. in exactly one week, I’m headed to a place where winter is just beginning. There won’t be any snow, but the cool, rainy weather over the next few months there will be an absolute blessing after the brutal heat we've had on the East Coast lately. And I’ll be returning to my “calling,” the work I’ve decided makes me feel most fulfilled and challenged and fully alive.

On June 24th, I will fly to Nairobi, Kenya to begin my one-year Knight Health Fellowship through the International Center for Journalists. I’ll be based at The Nation newspaper in Nairobi, which is part of the group of media houses owned by the Aga Khan. (If you don’t know who the Aga Khan is, Google him. Here’s the shorthand: when God needs a payday loan, he turns to the Aga Khan for help.) The Nation is trying to launch its first in-house training unit. I’ll be assessing the training and mentoring needs for reporters, and leading workshops like I’ve been doing for the past five years.

I’m really, really excited and happy about this new chapter. Yes, I know some of you are already thinking, “Umm, Nairobi??? Isn’t that where people were rioting in the streets as recently as 5 months ago? Weren’t there widespread, brutal attacks throughout the country following a disputed presidential election? Or, in “keepin’-it-real-speak,” weren’t people getting chopped up like coleslaw over there? And couldn’t it all happen again????”

“Yes, yes, yes, and YES.” Trust me, I’ve sorted through all of that in my mind and heart. I’ve embraced all the usual homilies…”Tomorrow is not promised to any of us, Life is too short, Step out on Faith….....and I can get shot and stabbed right here in good old DC almost as easily as I could in Nairobi.” I guess I’ve decided that if there’s a slightly higher chance that I could be brutally murdered, I’d rather have it happen while I’m doing something to help my fellow human beings, as opposed to coming home from a happy hour with friends in DuPont Circle.

I know, that’s a little too flip, but it’s really how I feel these days. Of course the danger stakes are a bit higher in a volatile African nation, but I’m ready to take my chances. And besides, I’ve got my own personal Archangel looking out for me every step of the way. I’ll be just fine, really. In fact, when I think about heading to Nairobi is just seven short days, I’m reminded of a song by one of the most righteous young songwriters on the charts today, Ms. India Arie. If I had to describe how my life feels these days, I would tell you that I am…..

Headed in the right direction
I can see the light of day
I've got love as my connection
There's an angel showing me the way

Been reaching for love all my life
I couldn't find it always one step behind it
Now I know it was mine all the time,
Finally I am

Headed in the right direction
I can see the light of day
I've got love as my protection
There's no need for me to be afraid

I spend so much time with my head in the clouds
Now that I've got my feet on the ground
I found that I am

Headed in the right direction
I can see the light of day
I've got faith and intuition
Telling me that I will be okay

Down the path that I walked there was lies
Somebody told me that I look like I'm glowing
They just dried all the tears from my eyes
Now I can see that I am

Headed in the right direction
I can see the light of day
Now I've found my pearl of wisdom
There's no need for me to be afraid

Headed in the right direction
There's an angel showing me the way

Headed in the right direction
I have found my inspiration

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

The Pride of Cairo, Illinois

On the evening of June 15th, I will be glued in front of somebody’s TV set watching the Tony Awards ceremony live from New York. I can’t remember the last time I watched the Tony Awards. That’s because I’ve NEVER watched the Tony Awards before. It’s not that I don’t like Broadway dramas and musicals…I ADORE them, and have often wished I could spend a month in the Big Apple just seeing plays and eating pastrami sandwiches from Katz’s Deli on the Lower East Side. (I swear, you will see the face of God upon your first bite of the pastrami at Katz’s.)

Anyway, I will be watching the Tony’s this year because an actor named
Christopher Jackson will be performing in one of the musical numbers from the play,
“In The Heights.” It was nominated for 13 Tony awards this year, and Chris is one of the featured performers. I can call him Chris, because I’ve known him ever since he came bouncing into the office at Cairo High School about 27 years ago.

At the time, the only thing I expected from Chris Jackson was that one day he would one day learn his ABC’s and 1,2,3’s and grow up to be a good strong man. After all, back then he was just an adorable little 5 year old boy with curly golden hair wearing a little white sailor suit. With his dimples and the devilish little grin, he was just too cute for words. Chris’s parents had just moved to Cairo, and his mother Jane would be teaching Home Economics at the High School. The whole Jackson family….Ron, Jane, Chris and his older sister April, all came to the school one day while I was in the office with my sister Julie, and I never forgot the impish, fearless little boy running around getting into everything he could get his chubby little hands on.

If you’d told me at the time that Chris would grow up to be tall and handsome, I wouldn’t have been surprised. If you’d told me he would not only learn his ABC’s and 1,2,3’s, but that he would be incredibly smart, funny and charming, I’d have been unfazed. If you’d told me that he would be extremely successful at whatever he chose to do in life….hey, no shocker there, either.

But at the time I just don’t know if I could have grasped it if you’d told me that 27 years later, I would be standing on the stage of the Richard Rodgers Theater on West 46th Street in New York City, after a Friday night performance of a Broadway musical that had just been nominated for 13 Tony Awards……and that one of the featured actors in that play would be none other than little Chris Jackson. Or I should say Mr. Christopher Jackson, seasoned Broadway veteran with an amazing voice, incredible talent, and a list of creative projects a mile long. (The first time I saw Chris on Broadway, he was in the starring role of the adult Simba in the premier of a little musical you may have heard of…..”The Lion King.”)

It’s not so much that I wouldn’t have believed HE could do it….it’s just that when I was standing on that stage a few weeks ago, I felt like I was in a dream. Only moments earlier, I had been mesmerized watching Chris singing and dancing before the footlights on this stage, and basking in the thunderous applause at the end. And now I was standing on that same stage. AND I had just met the actress America Fererra, who was taking a break from her “Ugly Betty” shooting schedule to see the play. (She is so tiny and cute, and just as sweet as her character!) I also got to meet the play’s director, Thomas Kail, and the author and lead performer, Lin-Manuel Miranda. Astonishingly, I was only briefly devastated by the fact that I own bras that are older than the director and most of the performers in a major Broadway production.

Anyhoo, you have to understand from whence Chris and I came to fully realize the enormity of this event. A few blogposts back, I shared my feelings about my tragic little hometown, Cairo, Illinois, where most young peoples’ dreams are crushed before they have a chance to blossom. I got out because I had a mother who insisted that I get an education and older siblings who had already left and made successful lives for themselves. Chris got out because he had a mother who loves him dearly and supported him fully. Oh, and because he’s got MAD skills as a singer, dancer, actor, lyricist…and he believed in himself.

It absolutely breaks my heart that so many of the children and teens of Cairo, Illinois don’t have any of those things. Many of them have never seen a parent get up and go to work every morning. Too many of them are exposed to drugs, violence, and criminal neglect every single day of their lives. And to top it all off, they live in a crumbling, hopeless, negative environment that offers not a single glimpse of the possibility of a better life.

That’s why I wish I could open up the gym at Cairo High School on the evening of June 15th, rent a huge flat screen TV and gather all the children and youth of Cairo there to watch Mr. Christopher Jackson perform during the Tony Awards. If just one of them sees this “kid” from Cairo, Illinois performing for an audience of millions, maybe it would unlock a door in their minds. Maybe it would make them believe in themselves….as much as I believe in the incredible talent of that little boy who came bouncing into Cairo High School 27 years ago, and who became a man who is truly “The Pride of Cairo, Illinois.”

To Sir, With Love

39 years is only 7 years less than I've been alive. (Actually 6 and a half, but who's counting?) That's about 4 decades. And that's how long my brother-in-law Ron Newell has been teaching in the Cairo Public School System.

Or I guess I should say that's how long he taught in the Cairo Public School System. Ron turned in his resignation today, right after a ceremony for two other retiring teachers in the school system. If he had wanted to give a heads up to his colleagues earlier, there would have been 3 commemorative school bells instead of just 2 during that ceremony. But I'm the only person Ron told about his decision to retire at the end of this year. I gotta tell you, it was agony for me to keep the secret and NOT try and arrange some sort of gala celebration of his dedication and commitment.

But considering all he has gone through in the past 7 months....and the past decade or so of Julie's serious health challenges....Ron knew he couldn't deal with the emotions and drama of saying a formal goodbye. And I had to respect that. So even though he deserves a big party with balloons and dancing and great food and bottomless Bud Light with Lime, Ron just dropped off his letter of resignation and drove over to Paducah, Kentucky to get himself a Big Mac.....and some roses for my sister Julie's grave. He says he gave her roses when she retired a few years ago, so he wanted to do the same for his retirement.

I could just go on and on about this man, who modeled for me how a man should move through life. Ron Newell remains the most decent, loving, strong, honest, courageous man I have ever known. In fact, I'm largely still single today because I can't find a man like him. Why bother with some schmuck who would bail on me during the hard times, or who won't stand up for what he believes in?

But rather than try to explain who he is, I want to include a link to his announcement of his retirement. It is written with more grace, honesty, and eloquence than I could muster in the same situation. It's yet another reason why I believe that God sent Julie to Cairo High School early one morning in 1968 to apply for a job, and this skinny white guy opened the door when she knocked to get in, and he seemed to know almost instantly that this petite little pixie would be his soulmate and beloved charge for the rest of her life. And DAMN, didn't he do his job well.

Oh, and he was a pretty darned good teacher, too. Here's the link to Ron's Cairo Association of Teachers blog, CATTracks:

And here's my personal tribute to My Brother-in-Law, Ronald Eugene Newell:

Those schoolgirl days of telling tales and biting nails are gone
But in my mind I know they will still live on and on
But how do you thank someone who has taken you from crayons to perfume?
It isn't easy, but I'll try

If you wanted the sky I would write across the sky in letters
That would soar a thousand feet high,

'To Sir, With Love'

The time has come for closing books and long last looks must end.
And as I leave I know that I am leaving my best friend
A friend who taught me right from wrong and weak from strong.
That's a lot to learn. But, what can I give you in return?

If you wanted the moon I would try to make a start,
But I would rather you let me give my heart,

'To Sir, With Love'