I am, for the moment, going to abandon the “How To”/”Self-Improvement” format of my first few posts. These are, indeed, essays no one asked for, but that doesn’t mean I need to slap together a soap box in order to preach TIPS ON EXISTENCE to the three of you that happen to stumble across my little corner of the internet.
Today, I would simply like to explain what it is I’m doing now, as my current line of work requires a bit of explaining. Some of you who have talked with me recently will already have heard this particular ramble, so feel free to skip it. Or, read on. Or, stand up and do 25 jumping jacks. Or, go eat a cookie. Your life is your own; carve out your own path. You don’t need me to order you about.
I am presently working for a company called California Weekly Explorer, which is a privately held educational company that specializes in interactive history presentations called “Walkthroughs”. These are two and a half hour programs for 4th, 5th, and 6th grade classes that tie in with the standard history curriculum taught in California. My job title is “Presenter,” because I am one of the people who drive around presenting the presentations.
Whenever I mention this new job to people, I can literally see the wheels of their minds spinning as they begin picturing me in some sort of historical outfit, complete with powdered wig and antiquated coat, holding court before a crowd of glazed-eyed students just starting to snore. This is not actually the case. I do NOT impersonate Benjamin Franklin, and no one gets to ask me silly questions, forcing me to “improv” answers. For work, I wear company-issued polo shirts with a logo and my name emblazoned proudly across the front, which look almost exactly like company-issued polo shirts worn by the employees of any other company with a standard uniform. I wear khakis, because for some strange societal reason, we are all still pretending jeans look rebellious. And I wear dark, comfortable shoes, because colorful shoes wouldn’t go with the “uniformed” look, and because COMFORTABLE shoes are one of life’s real requirements.
Essentially, I run a traveling game show for students. Each morning, I drive my Toyota Corolla to a different school, check in with the office, unload my equipment on to a sturdy cart, and proceed to set up my kit. There is no set-up crew. I am an army of one. On more traditional “acting” gigs, this sort of thing is frowned upon as an imposition on the actors. It is seen as a cost-cutting measure, to be avoided by anyone looking for serious acting work. But THIS is more or less a TEACHING gig with performance overtones, and I am finding I enjoy the setups. There is something slightly Zen about setting up your own stuff. Doing that same task each day is strangely satisfying, and as I am a younger man (for now), blessed (so far) with sound health, the task of hefting speakers and boxes is not overly burdensome.
Each grade gets their own presentation, tied in with their history curriculum. The idea is to make the history come alive. The students are broken into teams. They compete for points. This is what makes it gameshow-like. THEY are the ones encouraged to dress up. (Making it a competition, with points, helps them to pay attention – something is AT STAKE.) The students are sent preparation packets ahead of time, so they (hopefully) arrive prepared. Ideally, the whole thing plays out in front of an invited audience of parents and friends in a multi-purpose room, somewhere larger than a classroom.
In the 4th grade program, we set up the conceit of a TIME MACHINE (referring to our sound system). Then we take the kids on a trip through time, occasionally recruiting a student to come up and act as a historical character. We build a giant relief map of California and learn about the names of interesting places all around the state. In the 5th grade, the students are divided into teams of Redcoats, Tories, and Patriots, and they act out famous battles of the American Revolution as we go through the events in order. Several have been assigned sections of the Declaration of Independence, which they read or recite to the sounds of America the Beautiful. (This sounds corny, and it can be, but when they get into it, it’s actually moving. A student today gave such a passionate delivery of our unalienable rights that I almost cried – ALMOST.) And in the 6th grade, the students are divided into Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans, and we proceed chronologically through their respective timelines. As these are the oldest students, they present skits THEY WROTE about what daily life was like in their ancient civilizations. These can be TERRIBLE, but they CAN ALSO be great. One class I had built a model of the Roman Colosseum out of cardboard and acted out a gladiator fight that was legitimately amazing.
Working with kids every day was what worried me most about accepting this job, but it has become my favorite part. Kids can be a complete handful, and marshaling a rowdy bunch can feel like scaling a cliff face in the rain, but teachers aren’t kidding when they say it is rewarding. IT IS.
My family moved for the first time when I was going into the third grade. We only moved two hours west inside the same state, Indiana, but it was a rough transition for me. When my family moved again, a year later, we moved to southern Russia. This was right as I started sixth grade. I don’t talk about that time much. In truth, I think about it as little as I can. I still vividly remember being that age. My circumstances were somewhat heightened at the time, living in a far off, strange land, feeling very alone and different from everyone around me. At first, I was home schooled. We tried to enter a private, Russian-language school, but the accelerated curriculum and genuine middle school awkward made this almost impossible. For a few years, I attended an online academy, and then, after we moved to Moscow, I finished school at a private, English-language academy.
I mention my odd origin story only because it has, in a way I did not anticipate, made the work I do now surprisingly meaningful. As a person, I am intensely aware of group dynamics. Perhaps it stems from the way I grew up, typically on the outside, looking in. I tend to notice how people are feeling. And I am aware of how the kids in my classes are feeling. And there is something wonderful about enabling them to do well. I am the presenter. My one job is to make sure they feel comfortable, that this is a fun time for them. I get to be the person who comes in and makes topics that can seem dull and unimportant come to life. I get to make a room full of kids laugh. And if someone is uncomfortable or nervous, I get to help.
And that is what I love about my job. Do I love getting up at 5:30 am? No. Do I enjoy occasional long commutes? No. Do I love wearing company-issued polos and khakis and dark comfortable shoes? Not particularly. But I love hearing a kid that looked scared just two hours ago say that they had a great time.
That is what I’m doing now. And that is why I love it.
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Philip David Black is an actor, educator, voice over artist, and blog author. Someday he may write books. Until then, he blogs .