When my children were young, I told them a lot of stories. Some were about things that had happened to me. Others I just made up. My oldest son Michael developed a propensity for yarn-spinning at an early age. I would tell him stories late at night, getting him ready for sleep, and then he’d tell his own tales.
When Michael was four and five, he went to pre-school at Athens Montessori School. Michael Jackson in those years was at the height of his popularity. His album Thriller was selling millions. His music videos, which were truly innovative, and which brought to the music video format the imagination and energy of the best Hollywood musicals, were making a terrific impact. I remember watching Michael and his friends trying to do the moonwalk, the dance step that Jackson popularized. I tried it myself, with no success. Michael and his cousin Bill would sing the lyrics to “Billie Jean” and “Beat It” over and over. They had no idea what the words meant. They just liked the way they sounded.
Every afternoon I’d drive to Montessori to pick Michael up. One afternoon I drove over and got out of my car and headed for the building where I knew Michael would be. I soon found myself surrounded by a group of perplexed little children, starring up at me with looks that combined idolatry, disbelief, and confusion. I wasn’t sure what was going on. I saw those children every day, and they knew me. What was up? Finally one little boy walked up to me and asked, “Are you really Michael Jackson?” No, I assured him, I was not. Michael came around the corner. The boy turned to him, protesting, “But you said your dad was Michael Jackson . . . “
I liked to kid my children. When Michael was barely a year old, I trained him to respond to my question “Where’s Elvis?” by craning his head upwards and pointing to the sky. This was a parlor trick. I regretted doing this to Michael in later years, just as I regretted telling him one day when he had misbehaved about Hell (in which I don’t believe) and about how the sun would eventually burn out. Five year olds don’t need such knowledge. This is the kind of information that terrorized me as a little boy. I’d lie awake at night for hours worrying about tornadoes, earthquakes, meteors.
I used to tell my sons a lot of stories and jokes about Elvis in those years. He had been dead only a few years, and he was still prominent in the popular imagination. Everyone talked about Elvis as the King of Rock and Roll. “Elvis the King” was a phrase heard often in my house, and Michael knew it as well as I did.
When he turned six, it was time for Michael to enroll in first grade. We enrolled him at St. Joseph’s School near downtown Athens, conveniently located close by to where my wife and I work. Michael had a problematic relationship with the head nun at St. Joe’s, a forbidding woman named Sister Ignatia. She was a stern and unforgiving nun of the old school. She didn’t tolerate nonsense. Michael, like many of the children at St. Joe’s, had some run-ins with her, and had some stories to tell. One afternoon I went to pick him up. He climbed in the car and sat down in the seat next to me and sat there, silent, as we headed home. He seemed a little quieter and more thoughtful than usual. Finally he turned to me and said, “Dad, Sister Ignatia says Elvis is not the King. He is an earthly entertainer. She says Jesus is the King.”
In my imagination, I pieced together the encounter between Michael and Sister Ignatia concerning Elvis the King. She would know well enough where Michael got his information. I decided to avoid Sister Ignatia and the judgment she might render on me at all costs.