My Gospel According to Nina Simone (February 21, 1933 – April 21, 2003)
That afternoon I remember the strong streaming of the sun through the 20-foot classroom windows. It was after 3 pm and most of the student body of Brooklyn Tech was already making its way out of the building amid overly loud cackles, verbal jabs, and general merriment. I was the only student in the classroom, summoned by my favorite teacher, Ms. Reiss. Short, her pepper-salt bob still meticulous after a day of urging her students to read between the lines, Ms. Reiss wanted to give me something. From her slender coat cupboard she pulled out two vinyl albums and handed them to me: Oscar Brown Jr. Goes to Washington and Nina Simone’s Pastel Blues. I don’t remember what she said to me as she handed them over, but I do recall that I felt warm, noticed, and understood. I was struggling at home with mum. Ms. Reiss didn’t know the finer details, but she loved my writing, critical thinking skills, and the initiative and openness I’d shown in exploring things outside of my general, tiny sphere of knowledge. I took the albums home, promising to return them the next day.
At my flat in Crown Heights, my mum wasn’t home yet. I sat down in front of our killer stereo system which had a wonderful, high-end turntable and played Pastel Blues first. I promptly began to cry. By the time the needle rode on to “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out” I was in a state. How could Ms. Reiss tap into my soul so deeply that she knew I would understand (as much as a 16 year old could) the meaning of those words? Could related whole-heartedly to the mournful sense of abandonment and loneliness conveyed by Ms. Simone? I hunted down a couple of blank cassette tapes and copied both the Brown and Simone albums. I returned the albums to Ms. Reiss, not enough thank yous in my mouth to give to her. She went to her cupboard again, placed the two albums back in and gave me yet another one to try, Nina Simone Sings the Blues. She smiled and sent me on my way.
Nina Simone saved my life. She gave my emotions value, instilled in me a sense of self worth as well as a right to be righteously angry. She became my religion and my chunky Sony Walkman played those tapes like a Baptist plays gospel. To this day, I continue to find comfort and joy in her work. I buy reissued albums to get one new unheard live version of one song or another. I am grateful to Ms. Reiss for reading me so well, for not talking down to me, for trying to comfort me with music, for giving me Nina Simone.