Several years ago, I worked in the Human Resources (HR) department at one of the premier teaching hospitals in the nation. On a daily basis, I was surrounded by brilliant people trained to heal and save lives. It was a great job and one that required me to bring my A game everyday as I worked to exceed the lofty expectations of my super smart clients. Like playing tennis, when you play against an opponent who is better than you, it elevates your game. Similarly, when you work with smart people, you become smarter. In order to be most effective in my role, (and so as to not look dumb against a sea of science smart people) I forced myself to become familiar with medical terminology and concepts that were previously foreign to me. It was a winning strategy and endeared me to my clients.
Even my colleagues in the HR department of the hospital were smart; probably head of the class, front seat dwellers in school. One of my colleagues, I’ll call her Carol, was a card carrying member of the Mensa society, a society reserved for those who have scored in the upper 2% on an approved intelligence test that has been administered and supervised under strict standards. In her mid-thirties at the time, Carol had recently taken the Medical School Admissions Test (MCAT) and (although she did not share her score) she had been accepted to several elite medical school programs. Carol was super, scary smart, but to look at her, she seemed normal smart.
My theory is that there are two types of smart people. There are those who do well in school without having to study and then there are smart people who do well in school because they work hard at it. I’m not quite sure which type of smart Carol was, but something tells me that as a member of the Mensa society, she fell closer to the “didn’t have to work very hard at it” end of the smart spectrum, while I fell nearer the “had to work at it” end of the smart spectrum.
My mother likes to remind me that I tested gifted/talented in elementary school and was pulled into special enrichment challenge classes. This was before schools had a dedicated gifted/talented coordinator on staff or fully embraced the “differentiated learning” concepts that schools follow now. On a weekly basis, a group of us were bussed to another school in the district where we participated in special enrichment classes for a few hours. It was isolating and lonely, and I couldn’t wait for it to be over. Once in middle school, I sailed through my honors classes with some ease. Algebra, Biology and Humanities were as delectable to me as chocolate cake. I loved every bite of those classes. Geometry, Trigonometry, Chemistry and Physics were a tad trickier, but I was still able to navigate A’s without too much collateral damage. Calculus proved fun and enjoyable like Algebra II. I paid attention in class, took good notes and studied, unlike my locker neighbor who became our class valedictorian. He and I were in every class together, and because our last names started with the same letter, our lockers had been near each other since seventh grade, so I can confirm that he never took books home to study, even the night before an exam. We’d been classmates since third grade, and I know that he was definitely on the “doesn’t have to work very hard at it” end of the smart spectrum with my co-worker Carol. Carol used her talent to study medicine, while my high school class valedictorian used his to help make the IT world a better place.
That’s the funny thing about talent. Some have to work harder at their gifts than others. Some of those gifted with more talent than should be humanly allowed, (i.e. Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant) still choose to work harder at their gifts than their less talented and gifted peers. It’s what makes them super human. When described by teammates, Michael Jordan’s work ethic as a ball player was always discussed. He was often the first to arrive at the practice facility and the last to leave. Kobe Bryant demonstrated a similar work ethic. Was Michael Jordan’s greatness based on his natural ability or his work ethic or a combination of both? For people blessed with extreme greatness, it’s probably a combination of all three.
Beyonce, Denzel Washington and the late Michael Jackson are super talented entertainers whose work ethics are also legendary. In a recent radio interview, asked how he prepared for his latest film, “Safe House,” Denzel shared that he read several books on sociopaths. “Safe House” is Denzel’s 40th movie, and he has two Oscars on his mantel, yet he still does his homework to prepare for roles. He embraced excellence. Beyonce is known for knowing her backup dancers’ moves better than they do, and Michael Jackson was known for the same level of excellence. The best in their field do not want to be watered down by working with mediocrity. Greatness likes to be surrounded with greatness or people on the road to greatness. Which brings me to Whitney Houston.
As many are learning for the first time this week, Whitney initially hit national prominence as a fashion model. She was one of the first African American girls to grace the cover of “Seventeen” magazine. When I was in high school, “Seventeen” magazine was our teen Bible. My friends and I read the black publications “Right On!” and “Ebony” but “Right On!” didn’t feature fashion and “Ebony” was viewed as our parents’ magazine. “Seventeen” became our magazine of choice. Thanks to the “god” that is Google, I just peeked at Whitney’s first “Seventeen” cover and recognized it instantly! The gold ballet flats that she wore inspired me to purchase a pair for myself. I thought I was ultra-trendy wearing “similar” shoes as those worn by Whitney. I loved those gold ballet flats and wore them long after the gold ballet flat trend ended.
We loved Whitney as a “Seventeen” model long before we knew she could sing. In fact, when she came out with her debut album, my circle of friends and I were suspicious. “Whitney, the model, can sing?” This was pre-internet so we had no way of googling her to know that her mother was famed gospel recording artist Cissy Houston or that her godmother was Aretha Franklin and her first cousin was grammy award winning Dionne Warwick. We just knew Whitney as a model. And we were glad that a cute brown skinned girl with perfect teeth was finally appearing in the magazine that we worshiped, wearing clothes that we coveted.
When it was confirmed that not only could Whitney sing, but she could “blow!” that was a bonus. It was clear from the word “go” that Whitney’s talent was on the “doesn’t have to work hard at it” end of the musical genius spectrum.
Like most African American artists of that time, Whitney started on the Rhythm and Blues (R&B) charts, but she quickly became mainstream due to her incredible talent, beauty and smart producers. Whitney no longer belonged to us. She now belonged to the world. She was America’s golden girl. As a college co-ed, and in the height of Whitney’s fame, young white girls often mistook me for Whitney Houston. Although we really looked nothing alike other than having a similar jawline and being tall and thin, I would smile and thank the person for the comparison, which I viewed as a compliment. Later, I was told that I danced like Whitney Houston, which I knew was not a compliment because Whitney was not a dancer.
When she married the edgy Bobby Brown with the bad boy reputation of New Edition fame, my girls and I shrieked. We thought she was too good for him. She was America’s darling. Later, as we began to fall in love ourselves, we would learn that the heart often wants what it wants, even if the want of the heart doesn’t look like what the world thinks your want should look like. Glancing at wedding photos of Whitney wearing that white lace, fitted head covering on her wedding day, my fashion critic friends and I criticized her headpiece choice the same way we criticized her choice of a husband. It was then that we realized that even though she was dolled up and marketed as America’s darling brown girl, beneath the “image,” she was just a homegirl from Jersey. Whitney wanted Bobby, and it was clear that she was in love with Bobby Brown.
When Whitney and Bobby invited reality television cameras into their lives, we really got a glimpse of Whitney, the homegirl, and saw that Whitney the superstar was in crisis. It was clear that the ugly cloud of substance abuse had managed to find its way into her gated, entourage filled space. I stumbled upon the show purely by accident one day, and couldn’t make myself watch it again. It made me sad to see the fabulous, beautiful, talented Whitney Houston airing her demons on a reality television show.
Like many celebrities who choose to live their lives in the public eye, the world felt like it knew Whitney. I remember praying that whatever she was doing to damage her body, that she stop it for the sake of her child and her talent.
Not a daytime television watcher, I taped the Oprah interview featuring Whitney and was ecstatic when it appeared that she’d beaten her substance abuse demons. I teared when she shared some of the despicable abuse that she’d suffered as Mrs. Brown, and I was glad that she was rebuilding her life. She looked beautiful on the cover of her last album “I Look to You” and the song “I Didn’t Know My Own Strength” became one of my favorites. It inspired one of my blogs. Watching her perform live on “Good Morning America,” it appeared that for the first time, Whitney’s talent had moved to the “has to work harder at it” end of the talent spectrum. Nonetheless, her comeback voice was far better than many artists’ studio enhanced best day voice. Even in its more fragile state, Whitney’s voice was still strong, and now in her mid-forties, she was more beautiful than ever.
Whitney’s talent had generational appeal. My oldest heir shared that she became a fan of Whitney Houston as a toddler watching “The Preacher’s Wife” dvd with my mother who picked her up from daycare while I worked. My oldest heir was nicknamed “Songbird” at her daycare because she often sang herself to sleep and serenaded the group on field trips in the rented van. It’s not surprising that Whitney’s voice would grab her attention. My mother still praise dances at her church, and danced to Whitney’s “I Go to the Rock,” so my mother has been grieving Whitney’s death like the loss of a personal friend. My mother was watching the original movie “Sparkle” the day that Whitney’s death was announced, and ironically, Whitney will be starring in a remake of the movie “Sparkle” being released this summer. As the radio stations pay tribute to one of the greatest voices that ever lived, we’re all reminded of the magnitude of Whitney’s talent.
At 48, Whitney Houston was too young to die. It will be weeks before the toxicology reports confirm a cause of death, but to me, the cause of her death is irrelevant. She’s gone, and she will be missed. Her sparkle will forever live on in the music that she made, the movies that she starred in and the strangers‘ lives that she impacted with her talent and her charitable giving. The world was a better place because Whitney Houston shared her God given talents. We’ll miss you, Whitney.