Michael Jackson revisited on Wednesday the childhood he lost at Gardner Street Elementary School in Hollywood--the last public school he attended before becoming a superstar.
Jackson, the enigmatic pop star and Gardner's most famous alumnus, returned to his old school for the dedication of the newly refurbished Michael Jackson Auditorium.
And his agreement to be there guaranteed that the occasion would be more than just another ribbon-cutting. It became a Hollywood production in Hollywood.
The school was spruced up and security tightened. Media advisers herded the crowds of television and newspaper reporters. Glossy programs were prepared for school district officials and invited dignitaries.
One of the Los Angeles school district's top music coaches perfected the Gardner school choir's rendition of "We Are the World," a tune Jackson co-wrote. And The Boys, a new group that Motown Records hopes will duplicate the success of the Jackson Five, were there to sing and share the limelight.
Laura Gerson, Jackson's sixth-grade teacher, introduced her former student.
"I remember seeing Michael for the first time on the playground. I remember thinking he was a beautiful little kid," she said. "But I had never heard of the Jackson Five."
It wasn't until later she learned that he was a talented singer. "He never talked about himself; he just settled down and was one of the kids." she said. "But occasionally, he would disappear now and then to perform on television. . . . I knew he would be great, but I had no idea how great a singer, composer and songwriter he would become."
Jackson, dressed in a tight-fitting black-and-red outfit with silver buckles and a thick silver belt, walked on stage to loud applause and scattered screams.
"I am deeply touched and honored that the PTA, principal, faculty members and students have been so kind as to dedicate the auditorium, where I sat as a child, in my honor," Jackson said. "We must all never forget that the children are our future and without them humankind will become extinct."
After receiving the key to the school, Jackson was escorted by security people through crowds of screaming children and onlookers to Room 8, his former classroom, where he autographed the wall. As he walked, he flashed the peace sign and blew kisses to the children.
Jackson was an 11-year-old lead singer for the Jackson Five when he moved to Los Angeles from Gary, Ind., with his four older brothers. They lived in the Hollywood home of Motown President Berry Gordy Jr.
He attended Gardner for only a few months before the brothers' first single, "I Want You Back," hit the top of the charts on Dec. 6, 1969. A few months later, the group added three more No. 1 hits, "ABC," "The Love You Save" and "I'll Be There."
Soon after that, Jackson switched to private tutoring and began his retreat into the sheltered world of the superstar.
"That's why he has been so excited about this whole event," said Bob Jones, a former Motown executive who has helped guide Jackson's career since soon after the family moved to Los Angeles.
"It brings back a portion of the childhood he never had," said Jones, now vice president of MJJ Productions, Jackson's management company.
Parents at Gardner considered it a stroke of luck that Jackson accepted the invitation.
"We just took a chance and wrote a little dinky letter asking him to come. He must receive thousands of letters like that," said Judy Drury, one of the parents who organized the event. "His time is expensive."
The Gardner of 1989 is a bit more cosmopolitan than the Gardner that Jackson attended 20 years ago. Today, the students come from 37 countries on six continents and speak languages such as Armenian, Tagalog, Spanish, Hindi and Ibo, a Nigerian tongue. "It is the ideal place for Jackson and his theme, 'We Are the World' " Drury said.
Last year, Drury noted, Gardner parents were protesting the failure of the school district to complete a long-delayed renovation of the school. "And now we are celebrating the completion with Michael Jackson," she said. "It is a fitting end."
Justin Permijo, a 10-year-old fifth-grader, saw some lessons to be learned.
"It is good to see that good people can come out of this school," he said. "He's not doing this for the publicity. I think he really likes this school."
Bobbie Moore, a fourth-grade teacher, included herself among Jackson's admirers. "I'm just of the senior citizen variety," she said.