Students at the Center for Creative Arts thought the purpose of Thursday afternoon's assembly was a fire drill practice.
That smokescreen was how Principal Debbie Smith disguised the fact R&B/hip-hop superstar Usher was dropping by the North Chattanooga school.
Usher Raymond IV popped in for surprise visits at Dalewood Middle School, Orange Grove Center and CCA during a daylong visit to Chattanooga designed to honor his late grandmother, Nancy Lackey, whose birthday was Thursday. Only the top leaders at the schools and Orange Grove knew he was coming.
Usher, eight-time Grammy Award winner and a popular coach on NBC's "The Voice" reality competition, grew up in Chattanooga before moving to Atlanta in his early teens to pursue a music career. He has released seven albums, with an eighth expected this year.
Each place the superstar visited held an echo of his past: He attended Dalewood as a preteen; his grandmother lived next door to Orange Grove during his childhood, and he shares the same passion for performance as students at CCA.
"Part of the reason I always returned back here, no matter how far I traveled, was because of Nancy, my nanny," the singer told his CCA audience. "It was because of her belief in me at a young age that I pursued my dreams. I hope to be able to give you guys a little bit of that hope, and that belief that you can make it. Whatever you want to do, I promise you can do it. We're going to look back one day, your teachers and I, and be very proud of you."
Usher's visit to CCA was also to announce a monetary gift to the school. Smith declined to disclose the amount, but said it will pay for new surfaces for the floors of two dance studios, a new digital lighting board and LED cyc lights for the performing arts school's auditorium.
"Studio B's floor is very slippery. You can't dance with pointe shoes in there," said CCA junior Kennedy Scruggs. "It's also too slick to tap on."
"Some people have gotten injuries because of how slick our dance floors are," added Jasmine Crawford, also a junior.
Usher's day of drop-in visits started at Dalewood. The school's new digital entrance sign, which was donated by Usher, read, "Happy Birthday, Nancy Lackey. Your spirit lives in our hearts."
"We had kids screaming and hollering and some of them fell out," Principal Chris Earl, said, laughing. "From what I could tell, they were really impacted by him coming to speak to them. He was really personable with the kids, not stand-offish at all. It was a special day for the kids."
Earl said Usher's motivational speech focused on the importance of test scores and always doing their best. The singer reminded students that he'd sat in the very seats they were in now, had learned in the same classrooms, played ball in the same gymnasium, and that they could become as successful as he.
"He told us to listen to our teachers," said Kelsey Toney, a sixth-grader. "It was awesome."
"I didn't have any idea he was coming, but I knew something was up because the place was decorated," said eighth-grader Kennedy Toney, Kelsey's sister.
The 14-year-old was completely surprised when Usher singled her out while congratulating all the honor and star roll students. Kennedy was recognized for having made straight A's during her three years at Dalewood.
"He gave me a Dalewood hoodie and said, 'Keep up the good work.' I was pretty excited," Kennedy said.
Usher's second stop was Orange Grove Center, a nonprofit that serves adults and children with intellectual disabilities. There, he took part in a groundbreaking for planned improvements to the facility's track, said development director Heidi Hoffecker. The track will be named the Nancy Lackey Memorial Track to honor his grandmother.
By his 2:30 stop at CCA, many students had already heard through social media that the star was in town and their school was rumored to be a stop. Still, his appearance caused a seismic roar of cheers and deafening screams when he strolled onstage.
Even as they applauded him, he responded, "I want to applaud each of you for believing in yourself and daily taking the time to nourish your passions."
His motivational talk also reminded them how fortunate they are to have an arts faculty such as theirs.
"Teachers help you find your passion, and they are fueled by your passion," he explained to the students. "All I ask you to do is find something you love and stick to it. It won't always be easy, but anything worth having in life, you are going to have to work hard at it. But as a treat to them, your teachers, stick to it."
After he talked to students, five teens got to ask questions.
Kameer Dunnigan asked, if he could go back to his 17-year-old self, what he would do differently or what advice he would give himself.
"I'd be much more appreciative," the singer answered immediately.
"I would also tell myself to invest in Apple," he joked.
Since the day was about honoring Lackey, Alexus Russell asked ways his grandmother had influenced him.
"My ability to have compassion for others," he replied. "The one thing I value most was her honesty. A lot of things might have been easier if I'd listened. She taught me to pray, never give up and guard my future. She said, 'The choices you make today will impact how you live the rest of your life.'"
The singer posed for pictures with students -- including bravely wading into the midst of 40 excited teenage dancers for one shot -- then took a quick tour of the dance studios before leaving.
"Best fire drill ever!" a student exclaimed to CCA Assistant Principal John Maynard as assembly let out.
Staff writer Shelly Bradbury contributed to this story. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6525.
Contact Susan Pierce at email@example.com or 423-757-6284.