TAPPAHANNOCK Raynell Vesselles remembers Chris Brown singing and dancing in the hallways at Essex High School in Tappahannock.

"You always knew he was coming because you could hear him before you saw him," she said.

Vesselles is a counselor at Essex High, the place where Brown, a native of the small town, spent his freshman and part of his sophomore year as an average student who played point guard for the Essex Trojans. In 2004, he dropped out to pursue what has escalated into a blockbuster career.

When news broke last month that the 19-year-old singer was arrested in Los Angeles for allegedly beating his girlfriend of a year and a half, Top 40 princess Rihanna, the mood around Brown's alma mater was one of shock -- but also immediate support.

"All of the students have been like, 'What did she do to him?'," said Vesselles, whose office includes a couple of tattered newspaper stories about Brown early in his career. "The students that know him have all been [saying], 'I wonder what happened, that's not like him.' After a while, students have just stopped talking about it in the sense that, the truth will come out and we'll find out what [Rihanna] did. It doesn't necessarily justify [the alleged abuse], but everyone is saying that's just not his nature. Now there may be another side of him we don't know -- but we just haven't ever seen it."

Vesselles' 19-year-old daughter Cheleah Jackson is a student at the University of Richmond who has known Brown since they both attended the same day-care center formerly run by Brown's mother, Joyce Hawkins.

"He used to chase me with lunch trays," Jackson said with a laugh. "He was a lot of fun. He was never mean. He'd just walk away if there was a problem."

Jackson is frustrated that the prevailing sentiment around her college campus is that Brown "is a punk."

"I feel like people aren't hearing the whole story, that automatically the blame is strictly on Chris," she said. "I'm like, wow, these people have this image of him. One little mistake out of so much good that he's done and everybody is already tearing him down."

Brown's former basketball coach, James Moore, also remembers a placid Brown, a kid who rarely got into trouble, and if he did, "It was over silly stuff, just being a clown. Never an altercation with anybody," Moore said.

Vesselles, who last saw the singer a little less than a year ago, is philosophical about the situation.

"I feel that this happened to Chris for a reason. We don't always understand the reason, but whether it's to have him think about the girls he chooses or what kind of relationship he wants to have, or for her to think, is this the kind of man that I want, or am I a controlling or jealous person, there's a reason," she said. "Just because we tolerate something or we think someone is cute doesn't mean he's the right one."

Contact Melissa Ruggieri at (804) 649-6120 or mruggieri@timesdispatch.com.

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