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Go-go music star-turned Alexandria teacher ‘Sugar Bear’ in the spotlight after Oscars shoutout

Most of Gregory Elliott’s students at T.C. Williams High School know him as a longtime, dedicated special education instructor.

But for parents and staff, many remember Elliott as frontman “Sugar Bear” for D.C.-based go-go band Experience Unlimited — also known as E.U.

The band was pushed back in the spotlight recently when the E.U.’s song “Da’ Butt” from the Spike Lee movie School Daze was featured at the Oscars, along with actress Glenn Close dancing to it. It got a laugh from Elliott, though he admitted many of the other teachers were more excited than he was.

“It was cool,” Elliott said, “but I keep a low profile.”

For Elliott, the spotlight came after a year of twin challenges: teaching a class of special education students virtually and simultaneously putting together their new album Free Yourself earlier this year.

The band hasn’t had a hit nearly on the scale of Da’ Butt, but E.U. has put out new albums sporadically. Their previous album was released in 2012.

“It’s long overdue, but it’s perfect timing because you have time to reinvent and recreate,” Elliott said.

Elliott said putting together the album was a way for him and his friends to stay focused and active during the last year.

“We were lost, so I just stayed focused as much as I could,” Elliott said. “Me and my band, we would go and socially distance to rehearse. We’d throw some lyrics in, try this and try that. It was a great experience.”

At the same time, Elliott was working to hold his special education class together through a pandemic that forced the students — some of them non-verbal — into virtual classrooms. Elliott has been teaching at T.C. Williams High School since 1996, shifting his focus primarily towards education.

“It’s my way of giving back,” Elliott said. “You always have to have something to fall back on, music is hit or miss. You’re hot one day and cold the next, there’s a lot of inconsistencies. My passion was music, but I decided: you know, I can help kids read or write.”

Since then, the school has been through a lot of changes, including a building change, but nothing like the pandemic.

Like with his music, Elliott said it was a year of reinventing and recreating.

“I learned a lot that I didn’t know about teaching this year,” he said. “You get to have a sort of fatherly relationship to the children and you get attached. Now I work with non-verbal students. With Zoom going on, it’s a lot harder. Just like the students, I was like, ‘Whoa, this is different.'”

Elliott said it was hard on parents too, and he tried to help guide them and explain things that they might not have understood about their children. Now, he said it’s a little easier with the class being back to in-person.

“We’re back in the classroom, been back in for a month. and it’s okay,” Elliott said, “but some students still don’t come, even on Zoom.”

Through the stress of coronavirus, Elliott said being able to work on the new album was a source of relief.

“It kind of was a blessing,” Elliott said. “You want to survive, and nobody knew what was going on. We didn’t have a vaccine or anything. Everybody was running scared. So me, myself, I was just praying a lot.”

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