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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...
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