When I was a kid, there was this one Christmas when I really needed a win. It was the first Christmas of middle school, just three months into what would become a three-year ordeal in nearly daily bullying. Somehow, Santa really came through. Along with a Coca-Cola jersey shirt and a Swatch watch (with three interchangeable plastic face covers!), I got what, to this day, is still one of the coolest gifts I have ever received–a purple boombox with a sassy strap. Somehow, Santa had gotten word about my coming gift to one of the coolest people I ever knew–my Uncle Ken, who lived here in Atlanta. He got me a couple of cassette tapes so I’d have something to play in my new music maker, including Whitney Houston’s breakout self-titled album.
That Christmas, I took my boombox and two cassette tapes straight down to my grandmother’s basement and didn’t come out for hours. I learned all the words to every single song. I was definitely too young to appreciate some of the things I was singing along to, such as “Saving All My Love For You, ” about a woman having an affair with a married man. I very much enjoyed the dance routine I created on the little mini-trampoline to “How Will I Know?” as I pretended I was in a Jane Fonda-style workout video, or perhaps a sequel to Footloose.
The song I took most to heart, though, was “The Greatest Love of All.” I walked around the basement belting it out, voice cracking, mouth-wide and earnest, as I drank in her words like so much life-giving water.
I was a child; Whitney was saying that “the children are our future.” I was being tortured by bullying; Whitney was preaching: “they can’t take away my dignity.”
The ultimate message:
Learning to love yourself is the greatest love of all.
Easy to sing along to, harder to really hear and learn. It was the greatest tragedy of Whitney’s life that she couldn’t live out her own lesson. Sometimes, we are smarter when we are young. Before the world gets to us.
That boombox went on to live for many years as my noble sidekick. It became the sound system and ride-or-die friend for the truck I drove in high school, hiding under my seat. I could reach behind me to put in a tape, and even fast forward and rewind through songs without looking, still shifting gears with precision. Sadly, I took it with me on a high school mission trip, offering it to our group as a means for entertainment as we painted a house. A group of guys thought it would be hilarious to douse my long-time friend with a paint roller. It was never the same again. So, I guess the bullies won in the end.
As we enter into this capitalist-created season, with all its messages about Cupid’s arrows, I hope you take a moment to remember that you can’t really love someone else unless you have the greatest love of all. Your story is yours, first.
Post production edit: After publishing this article first on my MailChimp newsletter, and then on the blog, I found that Hulu has dropped an amazing new documentary about Whitney Houston’s sad and tragic life. It’s not for the faint of heart, but very helpful to understand her journey even deeper.