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It was a disaster. Right in the middle of the E. E. Jeter Elementary School Christmas concert, the power failed. The enormous gym was plunged into darkness as bewildered parents and children wondered what they were going to do. Suddenly a voice launched forth from the gloom. It was Justin Timberlake, aged eleven, singing "O Holy Night," unaccompanied. His friend Erika Ruch recalls, "He didn't freak out that the lights were out, he didn't stop, he sang and it was just beautiful. The whole gym was in tears."
Justin's school was little more than a mile from his house, but he took the bright yellow school bus like everyone else. It would pull into his road of superior detached homes, stop outside his driveway and wait for him to finish scoffing his morning cereal -- still his favorite breakfast as a music superstar. On the bus would be his many friends from this confined country community spread around the rambling roads of Shelby Forest. It is barely an exaggeration to suggest that half the children on the bus were likely to be related.
"Our family is really close-knit," explains Allison Hammett, who believes she is Justin's fourth or fifth cousin. "Justin's grandfather, William Bomar, is the first cousin of my grandmother, Judith Bomar. I am a year younger than Justin, so I guess I've known him since I was born." The Timberlake and Bomar clans were so pervasive that when Justin was a boy they would hold family reunions every year in the park.
The early days of Justin Timberlake have a very homely, picture-book quality. The community of Shelby Forest, where the bus stops at everyone's home, where grandparents and parents went to school together and where families attend church on Sunday mornings, is like a snapshot of fifties America, when the world was a much more wholesome place, with little crime and none of the urban tensions that bedevil big cities like nearby Memphis. The neighborhood may not have been an exact replica of the sort that inspired The Truman Show, but it was predominantly middle-class, financially comfortable and white.
E. E. Jeter Elementary, which was the only school Justin ever attended, had no more than 500 pupils and provided the sort of environment where a child could flourish and make the best use of his or her talents. The name of the school is pronounced Jeeter, which led to former students being labeled "Jeter Beaters" when they went on to high school. It was named in honor of the magnificently titled Squire Emmett Early Jeter in 1923, and is one of the oldest schools in Shelby County. Justin would barely recognize the place now if he dropped by while visiting his family. It is in the process of being completely remodeled, using money from his charitable foundation. Only the capacious gymnasium, the location of Justin's early triumphs in his twin loves of singing and basketball, remains as it was when he was there.
If Justin had been a schoolboy in England, he might well have had to bear the sobriquet of swot, spod or spanner. He was a naturally bright child for whom academic work came easily, a straight-A student with a bad haircut who, in a less forgiving environment, could easily have become the target for bullies. Unsurprisingly, he was selected as a gifted student for Jeter's Apex program. Ten or so of the brightest children in the school would meet every Friday for special lessons that presented them with challenges aimed at broadening their intellectual horizons beyond the normal curriculum. The state of Tennessee has specific requirements a child must meet in order to be considered a gifted student, including an assessment from a qualified educational psychologist.
The Apex group would miss regular classes on Fridays and meet up in a tiny schoolroom at the back of a corridor where their teacher, Renée Earnest from New Orleans, would involve them in a series of projects, IQ tests and mind puzzles. "She didn't teach us math, or English skills," recalls Erika Ruch. "It was more along the lines of expanding our intelligence. Ms. Earnest would decide who would be in the class. You would go along to the school office and take an IQ test and she would ask some questions and invite you to join the class.
"Apex was absolutely great. Justin was always amazing in class and they were some of the funniest times we had. We would make our own little commercials with Ms. Earnest filming it all with a video camera she always kept in the classroom. The funniest one was when we parodied the Calgon ads which were for a lot of bath products for women. Justin acted the part of the woman consumer and would shout out the slogan, "Calgon, take me away!" and we would wheel him across in front of the camera. He had a great comedic talent and was just one of the funniest guys." A talent for comic timing and impersonation has never left Justin and showed up well when he appeared on Saturday Night Live in 2003.
Ms. Earnest, a very jolly woman in her thirties with a hint of a slimmer Roseanne Barr about her, proved to be very popular, not just with Justin and his friends but also with the parents, especially Justin's mother Lynn. Another classmate, Beth Wendel, recalls, "She made everything so much fun. We would be learning stuff but we wouldn't realize because we were just enjoying it all."
Single-handedly, Ms. Earnest would organize trips for her students. The highlight of Justin's time as an Apex student was when Ms. Earnest organized an overnight trip to Biloxi for a marine study. Biloxi was on the Mississippi coast, west of New Orleans. All the children piled on to a huge Greyhound bus and were driven eight hours south to Ms. Earnest's home territory. She took them to a marine institute, where they dissected a dogfish. Erika remembers, "It was the coolest thing in the world for a seventh grader. And we all ate alligator. It tasted just like chicken."
Even on a school trip Justin could not help being the entertainer. He would make up little songs about his classmates to help take their minds off a particularly scary bus driver called Eugene, who drove them the wrong way down a one-way street, and backed into a car and tried to drive off without anybody noticing. He reckoned without the good young citizens of Shelby Forest, who insisted that he stop and leave his details.
Ms. Earnest devised pageants to liven up the evenings. Justin excelled when girls had to dress as boys and boys dress as girls. Ms. Earnest led things off by impersonating the American cartoon character Bubba, stuffing her shirt to make her seem very fat and drawing a beard on her face. Justin threw himself into his role with great enthusiasm. He clipped back his thick curly hair with one of the girl students' clips; he borrowed a Barbie shirt from another and wore a bra stuffed with tissue paper. His cousin, Nick Bomar, who was also in Apex, dressed up too and the pair of them were voted first and second. "They just did the best impression of girls I've ever seen in my life," recalls Erika.
Ms. Earnest's reward for being Justin's favorite teacher was to become part of Team Timberlake when his career took off in Orlando, Florida. She is now a key member of his management team and received fourth billing in his list of acknowledgments, after Lynn, Paul and his manager Johnny Wright, in the program for his sell-out Justified tour. Like many pop stars, Justin likes to keep people around him whom he likes and, perhaps more importantly, trusts to have his best interests at heart. Justin and Ms. Renée, as he has always called her, laugh at the same things.
They shared a fondness for Spree candies, an American sweet with a sharp taste. The problem was they both favored the red ones. Justin would carefully open up the packet, remove all the red sweets and then meticulously put it back together before giving it to Ms. Renee as a gift. Pleased, she would unwrap it to discover there were no red ones, declaring, "Oh, Justin!"
Justin's first principal at E. E. Jeter was a larger-than-life African-American woman called Mary Ann McNeil, who encouraged affection and respect in equal measure from the children in her care: "I first noticed Justin when he was just a little tyke at the school. I remember that he was a cute child, very charming, very polite and sweet. We didn't know at first that he had such a talent for singing as well as dancing."
Mrs. McNeil never had to have Justin in her office for any disciplinary action and never had to call his parents in for a conference involving his behavior. Her successor, Regina Castleberry, recalls only one occasion. Children in trouble had to wait for their punishment on the "black couch." Justin's offense was that he and another boy plaited their hair so that they had little pigtails sticking out all over. Mrs. Castleberry recalls, "They had little rubber bands just all over their heads. All the kids were going nuts. I asked them to take them out, and his mom came up and had a talk with him, but he was a good kid. You never had to worry about Justin. If he was with children who had a tendency to misbehave, he didn't. It's like he set a goal. I don't mean he was a Mister Goody Two Shoes, but he was more mature than a lot of kids and I think they kind of picked up on that. He just didn't get into all that silly stuff."
It speaks volumes for the perspective of this country school that Justin's mother had to make a special visit to E. E. Jeter because he tied his hair back in rubber bands. The punishment for such minor transgressions was copying out part of the dictionary. A large percentage of the students at Jeter knew how to spell "aardvark."
Justin's career as a potential school nerd was relatively short-lived. He liked basketball too much to be very academic. He did, however, join the Algebra Club set up by his mathematics teacher Jacqueline Lackey -- inevitably called Jacky Lackey by her pupils. She entered into the spirit of things by pretending she had a sister called Turkey Lurky. She still has the original sheet on which the students signed up for the class, although she had no idea how famous Justin would become. Justin was the twenty-first to join but one of the first to leave. She laughs, "The problem was that the kids found out it really was about math and they weren't real sure if that's what they wanted to stay after school for -- especially as it interfered with basketball! Basically the Apex students were of well above average ability in math and science. Justin was a very good student, but he did not have to work hard to attain that."
Justin finished first in the Jeter spelling bee but, despite his success in spelling contests at E. E. Jeter, he had his comeuppance in the Memphis-Shelby County Spelling Bee when he tied for 136th place in the first round after misspelling "wharf," a word that is unlikely to be appearing any time soon on a Justin Timberlake lyric sheet.
Surprisingly, Justin Timberlake was not the biggest thing that ever happened to E. E. Jeter. It might be different if he turned up now to sing at a graduation dance, but when he made his early breakthrough into show business he was still plain old Justin to his contemporaries. Tom Cruise, however, was the real deal. The Hollywood star stayed in a house not far from Justin's home while he was shooting the film version of the John Grisham thriller The Firm. Regina Castleberry observes, "Tom Cruise was a star. Justin's one of us." Every day the teachers would gather outside the school gates to catch a glimpse of the diminutive heartthrob Cruise as his limousine sped past. Justin's English teacher, Karen Toombs, recalls, "One day we were all there waiting for him to pass when the crossing guard stopped the car to let somebody cross. And we were like, 'Yeesss!'"
Mrs. Toombs and her fellow staff members were not as lucky as a girl pupil called Scarlet Hurt, whose father owned the Shelby Forest General Store. Scarlet held up a sign outside the store one day that said "Tom, we love you" and, to her delight, he instructed his chauffeur to stop. For days Justin and his classmates -- mainly the girls -- had gone to the store after school hoping he would pop in for one of the famous cheeseburgers, but they had begun to lose interest. On this particular afternoon it was just Scarlet. Tom chatted with her and happily posed for a picture that had pride of place in the store until the Hurts sold it.
That was the most exciting thing that happened in this backwater of the mid-South, although the afternoon when there was a bomb scare ran a close second. Justin and his friends were evacuated to a nearby baseball field while the school was searched. All the parents rallied around, bringing blankets, drinks and sandwiches, turning a potentially difficult situation into a picnic and a fun day out. Mrs. Toombs recalls, "The parents were right there, any time anything was going on. It was just a little country school. The children had been together since kindergarten and everybody knew everyone. It was a very, very close-knit community." Fortunately, the bomb scare proved to be a hoax.
E. E. Jeter is a public school -- similar to U.K. State schools -- where, unlike in the U.K., parents do not pay any fees, although they might have to help with school books and equipment or cheerleading and sports uniforms. There was no wandering aimlessly about in breaks and at lunchtime. Everyone sat down for a midday meal. Justin's favorite was the pizza they served on Apex day.
Justin's contemporaries were rather blasé about his success. He had grown up with them and was just one of the gang. Even between seasons of The Mickey Mouse Club, when he was back in school, he was exactly the same old Justin as far as they were concerned. Chris Kirkpatrick was an entirely different matter. After Justin joined him in 'N Sync but before they were the biggest boy band in the world, he brought Chris back to see everyone in Apex on a Friday. Chris was ten years older and, recalls Erika, a real heartthrob: "The girls thought he was so cute because he was older. We were like, 'He's a cute boy, come and sit by me, come and sit by me.' We happened to be taking an IQ test that day and he came and sat at a desk in this tiny little room and said he wanted to take it with us. But he didn't know any of the answers, so he cheated off us the whole time.
"There were four girls in the class and we all thought he was very cool. Justin was just Justin."
He may not have bowled the girls over, but Justin's first hesitant steps into the world of romance happened within the safe confines of E. E. Jeter. The kids were very young but the boyfriend-girlfriend scenario was taken very seriously and conducted properly and with great courtesy. After he had given Mindy Mabry an uncertain kiss at the age of ten, he presented her with a bracelet. Mindy was a year older, which quite surprised Jacky Lackey when she saw them together on a sofa at Jeter, because usually in student couples the girl is younger.
This was very much kid's stuff; boyfriends and girlfriends saw each other every day in class and talked all evening on the telephone. A striking, tall dark-haired girl called Deanna Dooley was the first girl Justin dated properly but not seriously. Deanna played a mean game of basketball, which immediately endeared her to Justin. Like the Timberlakes and the Bomars, the Dooleys could have filled the park with all their family members. Erika Ruch observes, "Deanna had a vibrant personality and, like Justin, was very funny."
At the time, Justin was fourteen, and in the eighth grade at school. He kissed Deanna for the first time in the back of a friend's car on her birthday. It was not a resounding success: "I went really red and turned away in embarrassment." Justin displayed a romantic streak far beyond his years. When he took Deanna to the E. E. Jeter Homecoming Dance, he hired a white limousine and gave her a gold bracelet and perfume. It was an early example of the sort of slushiness that has characterized Justin's behavior toward the opposite sex. Deanna looked lovely in a black dress and bore a passing resemblance to the teenage Marie Osmond. Justin was dressed more appropriately for a wedding in a grey double-breasted jacket, dark trousers, white shirt and stripy tie with a white carnation in his buttonhole. He looked far from comfortable when posing for a formal picture. He looked more at ease on the dance floor with Deanna after he had changed into jeans.
Justin and Deanna were so popular that they were given the titles of Mr. Jeter and Miss Jeter, an honor voted on by the other pupils. They did a photo shoot for the school yearbook that consisted of them posing innocently, if a little self-consciously, in the woods near the school. The yearbook is a fascinating social document in the U.S. in which students write messages to their classmates and teachers, and parents publicly congratulate their offspring for being so great. Justin's mother and stepfather were no exception:
Justin Timberlake -- our Superstar! Always aim high and go for what you want! We're so proud of you. We love you!...Mom & Dad
The sentiments, sincerely felt, reveal the enormous level of support Justin has always received from his mother Lynn and his stepfather Paul Harless, whom he has always called "Dad." At least Justin's message did not reach the embarrassing depths of classmate Patrick Walker, who chose to write about his headmistress: "Mrs. McNeil -- Thank you for your excellent leadership during my years at Jeter."
There is a more poignant tribute among all the others to a girl called Kera Bolgeo whom Justin dated a few times. Shelby Forest is not exactly the crime capital of the South, so it was a deep shock to the community when Kera was shot dead. It was a few years later, after she had left high school and fallen in with a druggy crowd in Memphis. Two men broke into the home she shared with her boyfriend and she ended up being shot in the back as she made for the front door. A friend from school confides, "Kera had gone down a bad road."
Copyright © 2004 by Sean Smith