Friday, June 26, 2009

Remembering Michael

When my husband read the breaking news alert from his Blackberry, I literally felt my heart sink. Michael Jackson was taken to the hospital. Then he told me he had died. I grabbed my heart.

“That’s my childhood,” I said.

My husband said he had not died. At that point it was just a rumor. I prayed that he would be alright. But later the rumor proved to be true. A sadness settled in my heart.

Michael Jackson was dead.

I never saw Michael Jackson in life, but he was so much a part of my life. I grew up with Michael Jackson. The year I was born, 1968, the Jackson 5 signed with Motown. Jackson 5 posters were taped to my bedroom wall. The first album I ever bought was “Off the Wall.” Who could ever forget the Black History program in high school when students recreated “Thriller” on stage? Who can forget the thrill of seeing the video “Thriller”? Who can forget the electrifying performance on the Motown 25 special when Michael moonwalked across the stage?

I felt a loss, almost like a family member had died. He was like a cousin who you grew up with but hadn’t seen in years and when you saw them they were a semblance of their former self.

Earlier in the day, I had been at my mother’s house, helping her clean out her basement, taking stuff to the Salvation Army. She had told me if I wanted any of my stuff from college that was taking up space that I should claim it before it was tossed.

I scanned through a box of papers from college and found some of my old columns from when I was a writer for the Daily Illini. The first column I ever wrote for the paper, “Beauty not defined by one set of standards” in October 1987 started out “Michael Jackson is a stranger to me.”

I went on to write: “Michael no longer looks like the Michael that I use to know. His nose is pointed, his skin is pale and his curly hair hangs down his back. He has changed. Some people say that he let success go to his head. Some say he’s on an ego trip. Some say he is a weirdo. I say he’s giving America what it wants.”

Besides his increasingly strange appearance and behavior, allegations of child abuse dogged Michael in his later years. Whenever I saw Michael Jackson’s face in recent years, I would feel a little sad. Gone was the beautiful, flat nose, brown-skinned African-American boy with the Afro, replaced by a frail ghost of man. A man who constantly seemed to be trying to be Peter Pan and recreate a childhood that was lost to celebrity and abuse. A man who was surrounded by people who would tell him anything he wanted to hear and squandered his fortune. A man addicted to plastic surgery, trying to recreate himself into I don’t know what but whose face seemed to be falling apart.

I told my husband this morning that at least it seemed that Michael had found some happiness with his children and being a father. I hope that was the case.

Such a tragic life. Such a musical genius who brought such joy with his music but who had such sadness and isolation in his own life. His songs rang throughout my head. I laughed when I thought about Aunt Marj thinking “Beat It” was a gospel song and that Michael Jackson was saying “Jesus, just Jesus.” I thought of the beginning of my wedding video where the music underscoring photos of my husband and me was “Remember the Time” by Michael Jackson. I kept humming “I’ll Be There.” I thought of high school and junior high school and how Michael Jackson’s songs were always in the background.

I shed a tear for Michael Jackson this morning. I will miss you Michael. But I’m glad that I will always have your music and memories. You have provided a soundtrack for my life.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Thank You, Mamie

On June 15 and 16th, my husband and I conducted a workshop in Pembroke, Ill. Last year, we did a two-week journalism workshop in Pembroke and established the iWriteADream journalism program. The workshop this year taught 5th-8th grade students how to do research and produce a powerpoint presentation. For their research topic, we chose "From the Maafa to the Presidency: A Change Has Come. "

Students researched African-American history from the Middle Passage in which millions of Africans died while being transported from their homeland to slavery (Maafa is derived from the Swahili term for disaster) to the election of the first African-American president.

While preparing for the workshop, we collected photos. Some of those photos were of Emmitt Till and his mother, Mamie Till Mobley. Emmitt's death was noted as one of the leading events that motivated the American Civil Rights Movement. Emmitt was 14 years old when his mother sent him to visit relatives in Mississippi. He was brutally murdered after he allegedly whistled at a white woman in a store. His mother courageously chose to have his casket open during his funeral so that the world could see the face of racial hatred.

Seeing those photos and recalling the struggle and the strength of my ancestors inspired this poem.

Thank You, Mamie

June 15, 2009
By Monica Fountain

Thank you, Mamie
For letting me see
Your baby boy

Thank you for opening
The coffin
So the world could see
A catastrophe

Brought by hate
A racial tsunami
That consumed your
Beautiful boy
On that fateful night

Thank you for giving
Us the courage
To fight

Thank you for letting
Us see
The human atrocity
The crime against humanity
On your beautiful

Thank you, Mamie
For a mother’s love
Courage and strength
To stand up for right
To fight
With love

Thank you

To read more about Mamie Till-Mobley, read her biography, "Death of Innocence: The Story of the Hate Crime that Changed America" written by Till-Mobley and Christopher Benson.

To see some of the work done by Pembroke students in the iWriteaDream Writing Workshop in Pembroke, click here.


Have you ever broken a glass while washing dishes? The shattered pieces are in the water and you have to be very careful or you may cut yourself. A broken glass can hurt you.

Broken people, people who have been damaged by life, can also hurt you. Broken people often damage themselves and others. People who have been broken by a parent, a spouse or even a child who has caused them immeasurable pain may actually cut themselves, seeking to end their own life. They might put drugs or alcohol into their bodies to ease their pain. Perhaps they give their bodies to others trying to find solace in sex. Oftentimes, they lash out at others, not even realizing that they are venting the pain pent up inside.

Broken by the critical words of a parent. Broken by the betrayal of a spouse. Broken by the disappointment of a child deeply loved. Broken by a violation of your body. Broken by an abortion. Broken by someone who should have been there, should have cared, should have protected or provided for you but just wasn’t there or didn’t seem to care.

It’s a cliché, but it is true. Hurt people hurt people. Most often, the person that they hurt is themselves.

Once a glass has shattered, it is impossible to put it back together again. And it is impossible by human endeavor alone to put broken people back together again and make them whole. We might patch them up and seal the cracks. But we cannot make them new again.

Only God can put broken people back together again.

Only God can heal some wounds. They are so deep. They are so devastating. The injury is so catastrophic. The heart has broken into so many pieces that it is like a shattered glass. It cannot be fixed or replaced in the natural. It takes the supernatural to not only put the pieces back together but to make us brand new. A new creation.

How does God do this? Through his Son, Jesus Christ. Why is Jesus able to fix our brokenness? Because he was broken for us.

“And he took bread, and gave thanks, and brake it, and gave unto them, saying, This is my body which is given for you: this do in remembrance of me.” Luke 22:19

Jesus was broken for us. And through his brokenness, we can be healed.

“But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed." Isaiah 53:5.

God wants to heal you. But do you have the faith to believe? Do you have enough faith to say, “Lord, help my unbelief.” Even if you have been broken so long you can’t believe that a pain-free existence is possible, just open your mouth and say, “Jesus, help me.” Open your heart. It’s scary because it’s been broken by people. This pain is impossible.

But with God all things are possible.

"Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new." 2 Corinthians 5:17

Saturday, June 20, 2009

A Cut Connects Father and Son

This beautiful essay by my husband, John W. Fountain, appears in the June 21, 2009 edition of the Chicago Sun-Times. It speaks to the importance of the time we make to spend with our children--those precious memories that children remember and that impact their lives long after the toys have been thrown away and the clothes and shoes outgrown.

Happy Father's Day to all of the wonderful fathers like my husband John who have been there for their children from the day they were born and also for those who have been a father to those whose fathers were not there.

Cutting my son's hair lets us share priceless, intimate moments

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Baggie Books

Every Thursday I volunteer in my son’s first grade class. I listen to the students read their “baggie books.” They are supposed to read their books which they keep in a plastic pouch every week. The books are on various levels from one to twenty.

“Are you coming to read with us today?” they ask me in the morning when I drop off my son.
At the beginning of the school year some of the children were on level one and could barely read “a”, “and” or “the”. Now some of those same children are reading fluently.

Over the school year, I have seen their reading skills and confidence improve.

One little boy’s face beamed with pride when I praised his improved reading skills and moved him to the next level.

“I am so proud of you,” I said.

“Could you show the teacher?” he asked.

To some of them, I say, “You read like a t.v. news broadcaster. “ To others I say, “That’s my doctor” or “You’re my lawyer.”

I know about the value of an encouraging word and someone taking time to work with a child and speak possibilities into their life. And I also know that at school may be the only place where some of those children may receive an encouraging word or have an adult read to or with them.
I also personally know about the lasting impact that learning how to read can have on a person’s life and the importance of first grade.

I remember being in the bottom reading group in first grade. And although it was a long time ago, I remember the shame. I remember the frustration. I also vividly remember my mother sitting at our kitchen table with me, working with me on reading. I remember the sting of her popping my hand with an extension cord when my focus had waned and her patience had withered.

In this day and age when corporal punishment is frowned upon, some may question her old school techniques. Trust me. It was not a beat down, just a quick rap on the knuckles to get my attention. But the message was clear. Learning and reading is important and I’m going to sit here and stick with you until you get it--even if I have to beat you until you get it.

I steadily moved up in the reading groups. I started making “A”s. I became a part of the academically talented or gifted program. Honor roll student. Illinois State Scholar, National Merit Scholar. Full ride to the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. Summa cum laude. Time Magazine College Achievement Award in 1989. British Marshall Scholar.

And it all started at that kitchen table in first grade.

I say all that not to toot my own horn, but to say what is possible. The honor really goes to my mother who sat at the table with me, who always expected excellence from me. My parents valued education and paid me money for every A (yes, paying kids for grades is an incentive—a good one). My mother came to the school and was a mother for other children when their parents never showed up. She had my P.E. teacher change my grade from a B to an A.

“Did she dress out?”

“Yes,” the teacher replied.

“Did she participate?”


“Then she gets an A.”

“ Yes, ma’am.”

What if I hadn’t had a mother who cared enough to help me overcome whatever obstacle was holding me back in first grade?

What would happen if more parents took the time to read to their child every day? What would be the impact in our neighborhoods and country if instead of marching and protesting pastors and their congregations went and read to a little boy or girl in their neighborhood school?

Marching and protesting are all well and good and often needed but what is absolutely necessary is that we take responsibility for our children’s education. As President Obama often says, we can and should spend more money in our schools, but parents also have to turn the television off and read to their children. We need to invest in books and computers instead of the latest fashions.

One little girl who reads beautifully now was in the lower levels earlier in the year. She expressed her frustration to me one day and said that so and so was on such and such a level and she was where she was.

I told her first of all to not believe everything someone tells you, because they might not be on the level that you think they are. I also told her my story of being in the first grade and in the lowest reading group. I told her to keep practicing and she would move up.

Now she is in the top reading group and one of the best readers in the class.

Maybe one day she will be a Rhodes Scholar and she’ll look back and say it all started with baggie books.

The class made me a special thank you book for reading with them this year. It brought tears to my eyes. They drew pictures of us reading together. I’ve read a lot of books since my year in first grade, but few have been as touching as the one from Ms. Curran’s first grade class 2008-2009.
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