African kids decode Michael Jackson

When I got to Bill and Igey's house on Monday afternoon, the boys had been watching TV all weekend and were full of questions about Michael Jackson. I had been out of town, and had caught bits of the coverage about his death; it hadn't occurred to me that of course the kids would see it too.

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    Igey Muzeleya, 7, shares much with the King of Pop: An affinity for dress-up and some pretty stellar dance moves.
    Mary Wiltenburg
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When I got to Bill and Igey's house on Monday afternoon, the boys had been watching TV all weekend and were full of questions about Michael Jackson. I had been out of town, and had caught bits of the coverage about his death; it hadn't occurred to me that of course the kids would see it too. Strange as the details of Jackson's life and decline are to those of us who grew up rollerskating to Thriller, imagine how confounding and disturbing they are to 7- and 9-year-old English-learners raised in a refugee camp whose parents don't challenge what they watch, and can't help them decode any of it. Bill, Igey, and their friends Lagos and Ritha were hanging off the railings outside Bill's apartment when I pulled up."Did you hear about Michael Jackson?" Lagos, 10, asked by way of hello. Before long, all four kids were shouting over each other to get their questions answered. They fretted about the baby-dangling, whether Jackson had gone to jail for it, and whether his son - "Why his name Blanket?" - was OK. They felt a kinship to "that boy from "Home Alone" and puzzled over the long-ago reported controversy about Jackson's relationship with him."They were kind of like married?" Lagos theorized. But before I could even respond, they were on to the Pepsi commercial where Jackson's hair caught fire.

"Why hair can get on fire?" Bill wanted to know, rubbing his own eighth-inch of fuzz. "Mine can do that?"

There was new vocabulary too, to make sense of. "What's plastic surgery?" Igey asked. He had minor surgery himself last week: an opening behind his ear that's still sealed shut with surgical glue - which, if you think about it, looks a lot like plastic.On this basis, he had positioned himself as the foursome's authority on Jackson's facial transformations. I explained that plastic surgery was when people had surgery because they wanted to look different. Ritha, 6, wanted to know why anyone would voluntarily cut his or her face. I said what became a refrain of the afternoon: that Jackson was "a very good singer and dancer but a very confused person."

"They take the plastic off, though, right?" asked Lagos.

They had all chosen favorite songs. Igey and Ritha, easily the naughtiest, preferred "I'm Bad." Bill, adorably, loved "We are the World," which he whisper-sang while the kids tried to scale a small tree. Then he wanted to know about heart attacks: "Somebody attacks you?" "Cardiac arrest" raised concerns too, about whether police give tickets for crimes like that.

But the thing that had them the most panicked, the one they returned to over and over, was Jackson's skin. Lagos was so freaked out by it that he remembered "vitiligo" - the skin condition Jackson said was responsible for his light complexion. All four kids were terrified of turning white.

Ritha took off her sandal to show me a suspicious patch she'd spotted by her big toe. I vouched as best I could for the condition's rarity."But how you know if you have it?" Bill insisted. I said he shouldn't worry, but I thought it started with spots on a person's skin.

"Spots!" Igey yelped, pointing to some freckles on my arm, "you have it!"

In the end, they seemed reassured by the fact that I couldn't moonwalk at all.

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