Bad Boy Diddy tells kids how to have a good life

I wasn't inside the auditorium of Winston Middle School for two minutes before I got the feeling editors might have sent me there to cover the wrong story.

Oh, sure, I was there to see what Diddy -- the artist formerly known as Puff Daddy, formerly known as P Diddy and known to his mama as Sean Combs -- had to say to an assembly of seventh- and eighth-graders. But no one had told me about the jazz band playing a smooth melody to the left of the stage.

A man worked one of three keyboards. I would later learn his name is Wendell Hairston. Two young men played saxophones and another a trumpet. A young woman blew into a flute and played a riff that was absolutely divine. The young man on the organ might have been better than she was. The drummer could have taught Gene Krupa a few things.

These young folks are known as The Winston Band. Hairston, the band director, told me they graduated from Winston Middle School in June. They are a group of musicians so superb that by the time Marc Clarke and Troy Johnson of 92Q introduced Diddy, I'd almost forgotten why I'd come to Winston Middle School.

Oh yeah, that would have been to report on what Diddy said to the pupils.

Basically, it was the same thing celebrities tell pupils. Diddy's appearance was to reward Winston pupils for academic achievement. Clarke and Johnson reminded pupils, as they teased them about who exactly would be speaking to them, that more than 78 percent of them passed the state algebra assessment test, and that they had the highest reading score and third-highest math score of all noncharter middle schools in the city.

Combs -- there, doesn't that sound better than "Diddy"? -- started by telling the pupils that he grew up in a neighborhood not unlike the one near Winston, which is in North Baltimore.

"I didn't buy into all those statistics about what's supposed to happen to us," Combs said. "I didn't listen to that. I don't want y'all to listen to it. Y'all need to take responsibility for your own futures."

As is often the case, there's a wee bit more to it than that. More biographical details about Combs can be found in Randall Sullivan's Labyrinth, a book about the killings of rappers Tupac Shakur and Christopher Wallace. Wallace was known as the Notorious B.I.G. He was on Combs' Bad Boy record label and a close friend of Diddy's.

According to Sullivan, Combs' family moved to the suburbs in Westchester County when he was 11. He had two paper routes and attended an all-boys prep school in Manhattan. While his family was still living in Harlem, Combs went to a predominantly white Roman Catholic school and became an altar boy.

Bad boy, my foot. Combs mother should get the credit for seeing that he wasn't raised as a bad boy. And Combs did say his mother was his main inspiration.

This was a message youngsters needed to hear. When Combs said, "Today I'm here to talk to y'all about no excuses. Y'all are in control of your own destinies. It's up to y'all to believe in yourselves first," I would have sworn he was channeling Bill Cosby.

At one point, Combs seemed to be challenging those who have been called -- with obviously satirical intent -- school leaders in Baltimore.

"You can't go home with no C's," Combs told the pupils. "That's not a hot look. Go home with some A's."

No one had the heart to tell him that at least six members of the school board think D's are a hot look.

But all good things come to an end. Inevitably, a question-and-answer period arrived. Combs let three pupils ask questions. None asked the questions I wanted to ask, because no one wants to have fun anymore. Questions like:

"Mr. Diddy, Jamal 'Shyne' Barrow says he's doing a 10-year bit for you as a result of a 1999 nightclub shooting. Any comment?"

"Mr. Diddy, do you support the efforts of Voletta Wallace, the mother of the Notorious B.I.G., to sue the Los Angeles Police Department for failing to disclose all it knows about the murders of Christopher Wallace and Tupac Shakur?"

"Mr. Diddy, Suge Knight says a cousin of yours killed one of his bodyguards and that you ordered a hit on him. Do you worry about reprisals?"

The past is the past, I'm sure Combs will say, although some will question why city officials let someone with Combs' checkered past speak to pupils. But hey, it could have been worse. They could have had Snoop Dogg -- who still raps about the glories of gang-banging and being a Crip -- speaking.

Still, you had to love the irony in the words with which Combs ended his speech.

"Stay focused. Stay out of trouble. Stop the violence."

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