I was cool just for a day.
Any other time, my classmates, most of whom were suburban white kids, ignored me. But on that spring day in second grade when I brought in Michael Jackson's Thriller LP for show-and-tell, seemingly everybody in class wanted to be my best friend. Some gladly sat near me at lunch and invited me to play at recess, which had never happened before. Even as I waited for the school bus that morning, standing alongside the potty-mouthed brats who lived in the projects with me, I was king.
"Look! He got Thriller!"
At the time of my show-and-tell, Thriller had been a monster album on the pop charts for more than a year, spending 37 weeks at No. 1. For a solid two years after its 1982 release, singles from the album, seven of which were Top 10 smashes, dominated radio. In front of the class, I showed off the LP's gatefold picture, which featured Jackson reclining in a sharp ivory suit, a tiger cub resting on his knee. "Oohs" and "aahs" rippled through the class. Then Mrs. Mathis, my teacher, put the record on, and the room briefly turned into a grade-school disco. After that day, of course, I went back to being the invisible black boy who sat near the back of the class and hardly said a word.
Thriller brought a lot of happiness to the Ollison household between 1982 and 1984. Even outside our apartment, I heard cuts from the album around the clock: blaring in the park down the street during summer night jams, booming from a neighbor's window, piping through the sound system at K-Mart. The vivacious beats and Jackson's spirited, idiosyncratic vocals made Thriller a revelation every time the needle dropped on the record.
In a way, the album was therapeutic for me. The year after it hit the streets and Jackson debuted the moonwalk on Motown 25, my parents bitterly divorced. I was crushed and missed my father, especially our weekend trips to the record shops in downtown Hot Springs, Ark., where I spent my first 11 years. Mama knew music was important to me even then. And after she came home with Thriller tucked under her arm, the exuberant music helped lighten my often somber mood.
It was the only record in my collection - which mostly consisted of Daddy's hand-me-down blues, funk and soul 45s - that my hip eldest sister liked. Dusa, who was eight years older than me, usually went out of her way to treat me like a filthy wad of gum stuck to the bottom of her shoe. But when she wanted to hear my Thriller album, her voice turned to honey, and she'd almost croon her request: "Little brother, let me play that Michael Jackson album. Please?"
Because my family moved often, a lot of things - photos, clothes, various toys and trinkets - were lost, thrown away or broken. During a move in the summer of '87, my Thriller LP was somehow nearly cracked in half. I was furious; tears even burned my eyes.
"Shut up!" Dusa shouted. "Don't nobody care about Michael Jackson no more."
By that time, the public had had its fill of Thriller, and Jackson was about to release Bad, a moodier album that didn't quite match the infectious glory of its predecessor. Popular tastes were moving toward more aggressive sounds. Hip-hop was beginning to edge its way into the mainstream. Years later, I replaced my Thriller LP with a clearer sounding CD version. I still put it on from time to time, and always remember that spring day when Thriller made me cool, and when musically, Michael Jackson ruled the world.