The year is 1987, almost 20 years to the day. I am eleven years old, a sixth grader, getting ready to graduate from Ann Blanche Smith Elementary School. That makes me a big girl on campus.
I am very, very much in love with words and music. Words because I’m a bibliophile. From Louisa May Alcott to BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA. I win the summer reading contests at the public library. Mom’s an English teacher — language is revered in my house. I also write poems and all kinds of stuff, and everyone’s always telling me I’m good at it.
Music because my Dad has a sweet stereo and tons of records. Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, Earth, Wind and Fire, The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Dolly Parton ─ they span the spectrum, and play often. Dad loves to boogie down, and I do too. My Godmother Ann works for a record label. She brings us new albums every time she leaves her glamorous, mysterious life in New York City to visit us in the suburbs of Bergen County, NJ. So the collection keeps growing and growing, and we keep dancing.
My cool teenage cousins (who can drive and who smoke!) are making me mix tapes and loving rock music in my midst. And the kids on my block are listening to Kiss FM, as Roxanne and UTFO battle it out. Roxanne Shante, you are my hero! Our neighbor Lon is scratching on the turntables, and we’re memorizing lines from RUN-DMC and making break boards out of refrigerator boxes. Rap music is love at first sound ─ words, music and rebellion.
When the talent show comes up, my idea is to lip sync and act out one of my favorite songs: Nightmares by Dana Dane. I tape it off the radio, and get my friends to listen. I assign parts and choreograph a routine. Mrs. Reddin, our six foot tall, 11-toed music teacher, is very leery of our choice ─ it’s that scary rap music! Initially she says no, but we protest. We’re sixth graders, it’s our last shot and we really want to do this. Plus we have talent!
I am a white, freckled, scabby-kneed, prepubescent Debbie Allen. We practice and practice and get it perfect. The big moment arrives and we do it. Gleefully. Man, how cool we feel. Later on we learn that she kept the volume down low so people couldn’t hear the words. But we had the balls to do it, and that’s what counted.