Children seem to learn lessons more effectively when you show them than when you tell them. That's why I want to take this opportunity to thank Eminem and Sean "Puffy" Combs.
In no more time than it takes to flash a photographer's camera, they have taught an important lesson to my preteen son -- and taught it more effectively than a week's worth of preaching from me.
The lesson has to do with the value of putting forth a proper appearance, as my elders used to say. There is value, I have tried to say, in combing your hair once in a while, putting on a nice, clean, pressed suit and tie and polishing your shoes with something besides chocolate bars.
To appreciate this lesson, you have to know how these two young men usually dress.
Eminem, also known as Marshall Bruce Mathers III and "The Real Slim Shady," usually dresses like a walking garage sale -- enormous moonwalker-sized gym shoes, baggy pants hanging precariously on his hips and a gigantic T-shirt draping down to his knees. You might call it the "full hip-hop" look.
Puffy usually goes to the opposite extreme, looking, as my grandma used to say, "prosperous," to put it mildly. He can afford it. The multimillionaire rap and fashion mogul sometimes drips more jewelry than Tiffany's windows. He flashes "bling-bling," as the young folks like to say these days, imitating the jingle of a cash register.
But not in court.
No, when Eminem pleaded guilty in a Mount Clemens, Mich., courtroom to a weapons charge last week, stemming from a June 4 confrontation outside a Warren, Mich., bar, he looked like Little Lord Fauntleroy. Conservative suit, necktie, shirt and glasses. His bright blond topknot had been combed down. He wore little Ben Franklin-style spectacles. Only a modest earring signaled the old Em.
Puffy has made similarly modest appearances in his high-profile trial to answer felony gun-possession charges stemming from a December 1999 nightclub shooting that left three people injured. In court photos, he's into Wall Street corporate style. Pin-stripe suits, conservative ties. No bling-bling.
I showed a news photo of Eminem to the guy who first told me about the rapper, my son. Last year, when Eminem had the nation's No. 1 selling pop CD for several months, "everybody" in my son's fifth-grade class was into him, I was informed. It didn't matter that we would buy only the censored version of his CDs. He could hear the uncensored versions every day at recess on somebody else's Walkman.
When I showed news photos of Eminem in court to my son, his mouth dropped open, and he uttered one of his most sincere indicators of amazement, "What's up with that?!"
What do you think of his wardrobe?, I asked.
"I think," my son said as his astonishment broke into an impish chuckle, "he looks like he's trying to turn white again."
By this, my African-American son meant no racial disrespect. He merely was observing that Eminem's fame has come largely from living the bad-boy street punk image that usually is associated with black, gangsta-style rappers. Even when they actually grew up in affluent suburbs, gangsta-style rappers want you to think they come from "the street."
Anyway, now that Eminem's hide is in the hands of America's criminal justice system, as Jay Leno quipped, "The last thing he wants is to be treated like a black man!"
"He usually looks cool, but now he's looking serious . . . and conservative," my son said.
May I quote you?, I asked.
I wanted to quote him accurately because he revealed something important when he said Eminem used to look "cool." "Coolness" is the ultimate compliment in the vocabulary of today's youths. It determines who gets the biggest share of the $100 billion spent by today's 32 million teenagers.
Critics as diverse as Lynne Cheney and various gay and lesbian activist groups decry Eminem's raunchy, misogynist and gay-bashing lyrics and the industry that has nominated him for honors at this year's Grammys. But, in my son's sixth-grade circle, Eminem already has fallen out of the heights of "cool," crowded out of the white rap pantheon by others like Kid Rock, Papa Roach and the Insane Clown Posse, whomever they are.