Back in 2014 I got an email from a friend in education. The subject read, “Crazy question . . . you’re an artist and you like kids, right?” It was an offer to assist a visual artist on a residency at a public school in Brooklyn. It sounded interesting, and I was eager for a creative outlet; at the time I was bartending, catering, and working for an offsite event space. While I was doing my own stuff creatively, I certainly wasn’t getting paid for it, so I had no problem adding it to my growing roster of employment commitments and I was hired as a teaching artist through the Brooklyn Arts Council.
If you don’t know, most teaching-artist programs hire working artists, and while I’m not a visual artist (not by a long shot), I was eager for the experience. After the residency ended, I expressed an interest in doing it again, especially for a performance-based program. I’d taught a theatre program for kids before I moved to New York and thought I would be a good fit. I’ve been performing for most of my life and I have a BA in theatre, film, and television. Now I do mostly comedy. Stand up, sketch, and I write, but the theatre core is still there and I was asked back the following semester, this time, to teach a theatre program.
By the time the most recent residency rolled around in 2017, I’d had teaching experience with elementary, junior high, and high school students. All had been positive experiences, without incident, and which I’d enjoyed very much. The added bonus being, of course, that I was always proud of the students and of the work we’d accomplished.
Last spring, during the most recent residency, I received a notification that someone had commented on a stand-up video I’d posted to YouTube. It’s a five-minute reel that I’d made to share with festivals and other submissions that come up from time to time, a collection of some of my stronger sets, and harder hitting jokes. The comment consisted of only one word, Hi, and the thumbnail was a yellow smiley face . . . dabbing. If you know any fifth graders, dabbing is the wildly popular move (second only to the “backpack dance”) of straining your neck into the crook of your elbow while the opposite arm simultaneously throws itself into oblivion. It’s ridiculous and they love it.
But for me it was a warning shot, and these kids were about to screw me.
Mind Your Own Business
Something has changed from when I was a kid—if I saw my teacher outside of school I was embarrassed and prayed I’d dissolve into thin air. It was a complete violation of my environment and very disorienting. They caught me, in the wild, “not learning,” and I caught them wearing jeans. If I ever had a question about a teacher it was met with “It’s probably none of your business, young lady.” Which was absolutely accurate! What my teacher did on his or her own time wasn’t my business and, honestly, I was probably too focused on getting invited to a birthday party than to think about what an educator did for extracurricular activities. But I didn’t have Google or a school-issued tablet, either.
I had one particular student, *****. She wasn’t entirely comfortable in her own skin, which, at ten, I know is near impossible, and she would compensate by regularly refusing to participate. When a kid does that, things can become tense, but it’s your role, as the educator, to keep your cool and continue to engage them. She’d call things dumb (it’s theatre, c’mon). Act out (read: pout), that sort of thing. I don’t want to out her as the bad seed, I was practicing understanding, but she was difficult.
After a few weeks, she eventually began to warm up, and seemed to become more comfortable in class. The feeling of turning a student’s perception around is incredible and feels fantastic. So, obviously, I was amazing.
We weren’t in class the following week because of testing. That’s when I got the comment and that’s when I put two and two together. That dabbing smiley face? That was *****. And ***** had Google.
The most unsettling part about all of this? I never said my last name. I immediately locked the video and made it private. My heart was racing and my face was flushed. I was embarrassed and felt completely vulnerable, exposed even. I wanted to throw up. That was not for you, kiddo! None of that was for you. I started pacing my room, talking to myself, vigorously combing my fingers through my hair. It was all very dramatic. What if she had shared it with other students by the time I figured it out? Wait! Maybe she didn’t share it. Maybe she’s keeping the ammunition to herself. Saving it. She’s waiting to drop it on me during class, shaking me to my very core and outing me to the entire student body as a comedian!
Now, I’ve gone down rabbit holes on the Internet, and I guess if you’ve finished your homework (or don’t have any) there’s plenty of time to do anything. Instead of taking selfies with rabbit ears, or watching the latest Ariana Grande music video, what ***** did was stalk me, and not just stalk me—TROLL ME—with her little eyeballs, and ten-year-old fingers and find me on the World Wide Web.
Once we were back in session, another one of my students came up to me and playfully asked, “What would you do if I told you we found your Twitter?” My initial reaction was, “Tell you to get out of my ass.” But instead (because I am a grownup) I gathered everyone into a group and said this:
Look, it’s come to my attention that some of you have found some things about me on the Internet. However, that’s stuff that I do outside of our time together. It’s a different part of my life, but it’s something I’m working very hard toward, and I don’t want that to come into this classroom. It’s important to me that we focus on the learning that we are doing together, not what I do outside of class. Can we do that?
A series of nods and uh-huhs, and we continued with class.
My partner teacher was confused—even some of the other kids looked completely sidelined—it was clear that not everyone was in on the joke and for that, I was grateful.
After class I pulled ***** and Twitter Kid aside.
Do you guys understand what I was saying earlier today?
What did I say?
That’s what I thought. Okay, here’s the thing: we are different people in different situations (this is the part where I started to gesture—a lot). For example, the way you are with your friends isn’t the same way you act with your parents, right?
Do you act the way at school the way you act at home?
Right. We act differently in different situations. What I talk about on Twitter and what you see on the Internet is an exaggeration. That’s not real life. It’s what my art is. It’s how I connect with people. Grown-ups. The way that I connect with you guys is in this class and what we do in class is what I want you to focus on. Do you get that?
How do you punish curiosity? Twitter Kid was sorry and *****’s head was lowered. Literally looking at the ground. She knew she messed up. I felt badly, but she knew that what she did was out of bounds.
Completely by chance, *****’s mom came to pick her up that day. I told her what had happened—that ***** had watched some of my stand up. Her mom looked confused.
. . . On the Internet. She watched it. Then she commented on it.
—Well, I pay attention to what my kid looks at online and I didn’t see anything like that.
I explained that what ***** watched wasn’t age appropriate.
—If it’s just stand up comedy that’s not a big deal, that’s fine. I’m not worried about it.
I’m thinking You should be.
—Okay, well, I’ll talk to her. She shouldn’t be doing that.
We understood each other. The meeting ended amicably and she said she would talk to *****.
But the more I thought about it, the angrier I got. This kid had commented on the video, she didn’t just watch it, which means she has a YouTube account. At age ten that is against policy, not to mention dangerous (To Catch a Predator, hello?!). Also, you mean to tell me that your kid doesn’t know how to clear her browser history? She figured that out during lunch! Your kid knows more than you, and that’s frightening.
My supervisor called me a few days later. The principal had called him, saying that *****’s mom had called the school and he wanted to get the details from me before he called him back. I was very transparent and told him everything. Then, two days later, I was fired. Apparently, *****’s mom did some more digging, and despite our conversation, decided she wasn’t comfortable with me being her daughter’s teacher.
A ten-year-old got me fired.
The reason I was hired was because I am a working artist. Because I am a performer. And I was hired to teach because I’m good at it. But I lost a job because I made someone uncomfortable based on an assumption that they made about me: that the way I am with my students is the same way that I do stand up.
To think that someone isn’t multifaceted is misguided/inaccurate/naïve.
Really though, whose fault was this? I couldn’t be mad at *****—even though I was. Was I mad at her parents for not noticing that she was pulling the wool over their eyes? Thinking their child could do no wrong? She wasn’t even being discreet! HER HANDLE WAS HER FULL NAME. I remember being disappointed and feeling like my supervisor didn’t stand up for me. Wasn’t it their job to keep up with what I was doing? Understand what I was doing, so that we wouldn’t run into this? If I was a visual artist and a student found a nude I’d drawn/painted/sketched would there be the same issue?
I requested a meeting with my supervisor and his colleague and all they could tell me was that they were considering having teachers adopt aliases during their residencies. I got a couple weeks of pay and then wanted to know if I’d be interested in substitute teaching, you know, since we were too far into all of the sessions to start somewhere new.
Maybe we were all embarrassed. Maybe our lack of understanding of what technology is doing to our lives is what’s getting us in trouble. But what I do know is that we are grossly underestimating students.
I have never been good at hiding myself. I’m too honest.
So, I don’t teach anymore, but I still do stand up and I still do comedy and I still write. And after I got fired? I put my video right back where it belonged.
And now ***** can watch it as much as she wants. Dab.