VAN NUYS, CALIFORNIA -- A gated private school hidden far from the view of the paparazzi. It was here, on the campus of the Montclair College Preparatory School, that Michael Jackson had a fleeting glimpse of the life of a normal teenager.
Montclair Prep, as it is known, is nestled in the San Fernando Valley in the middle of nowhere. From the outside, the school could be mistaken for a bunker. Visitors have to speak through an intercom before being let in. Once inside, it's like being transported into an episode of Beverly Hills 90210.
Founded in 1953, the school has 400 students and has welcomed many children of the rich and famous. Cher fooled around with Sonny in the schoolyard here. Frank Sinatra Jr., Aaron Spelling's kids and those of Berry Gordy, the father of the Motown label, all went to Montclair. Sylvester Stallone's son (with his ever-present bodyguards) and Nicole Richie are all recent alumni.
However, their most famous student remains Michael Jackson. He came to the school when he was 14 and stayed two years (9th and 10th grade). His parents wanted him to have some semblance of a normal life. Tuition cost $5,000 back then and will set you back $16,000 today.
Jackson was already a star then, but he didn't let it show.
"He was a super kid," said the school's principal, Mark Simpson. "He was always making jokes; he wanted to be like everyone else. He seemed happy back then. As soon as he left the school walls he went back to being the superstar."
The young Jackson was a very good student, very curious and popular with the girls. He would even treat the school to some dance moves now and then.
"Michael wore a uniform like all the students, but we gave him a bit of freedom. He could have long hair," Simpson said.
The singer was constantly surrounded by his bodyguards, except while he was in class. "Every morning he was dropped off an hour before the start of classes by a chauffeur," Simpson said while looking through the 1973 yearbook. "He would go and see his friend Jon Blosdale, who would finish his homework at the last minute in his car. Sometimes he had to chase Michael away because he would push all the buttons and ask too many questions."
The yearbook shows a smiling Jackson with his famous afro mingling with the other students. A far different person than the one he would eventually become. So what happened?
"I think in all his life Michael never had a childhood. It looks like he tried to recreate a childhood for himself," Simpson said.
He would be picked up every day after dinner to go rehearse with the Jackson 5.
"His father Joe Jackson was very strict -- he didn't give him any leeway," Simpson noted. "One day, Michael got in trouble, not a big thing, but Joe Jackson came to the office furious and started yelling at him. You could see that Michael was very intimidated by his father. My uncle (who was the principal then) had to intervene to calm things down."
But Jackson was very close to his mother Katherine. "He idolized her. She was the saint."