My name is David Healy and I am a working “Lunch Box” actor. In late 2014, I enrolled in a volunteer program called BookPals. It’s a collaboration between the Screen Actors Guild and inner-city public schools and shelters that sends member actors to read to children.
My first shelter was around the corner from where I live in East Harlem. I had put off doing it for some time, owing to various professional pursuits that I had to take care of. The 2008 recession hit actors like me particularly hard. Many of us had to make ends meet by doing real estate sales, waiting tables or in my case, selling insurance. But finally I nabbed a medication blood thinner commercial that paid nicely, so I decided to pursue something of meaning versus gain.
The first time I read to the children, I realized I had to do something entirely different to accommodate the wide range of ages. The kids were everywhere from 6 to 14 years old so no single book could keep everyone’s attention. What was too simple for some was too complicated for others.
I was also disappointed in the style of the reading we were expected to do. Imagine the clichéd way every U.S. President and first Lady has done as far back as anyone can remember-pointing at the pages, speaking so deliberately and cloyingly as to provide a saccharine coating to each individual word. Instead, I decided to teach them to draw. It was a far better use of time and an activity that appeals to children of all ages and skill levels.
Buying some sketch pads and my personal favorite writing implement, the Uniball Vision Elite black pens, I walked them through the same drafting lessons I was taught at George Washington University. I taught the children about the solidity of basic shapes, the mechanics of the human body and face, and two-point perspective.
After my initial class, I requested to work at other shelters and did. My lessons were being so well-received that by the last class I taught, most of the staff were sitting in attendance as well. My next step was the schools themselves.
I was sent to the Mosaic Academy, a public school on East 111th Street in Harlem. My teacher, Christina, had a group of fifth graders that were free for one hour on Thursdays. In discussing curriculum, I told her of a book I loved called “The Disappearing Spoon,” by Sam Keane. It is a whirlwind of a book that explains the history of the elements, and basic chemistry using the stories of greed, tragedy and farce that constitute the history of chemistry. She agreed this book would be perfect for her class because at that point, they hadn’t been taught any science. It was show time.
I researched the book thoroughly, and told only the juiciest stories of chemistry, everything from King Nebuchadnezzar’s madness caused by the antimony he used to paint the hanging Gardens of Babylon to Fritz Haber, the lutheranized Jew who developed Zyklon A, the predecessor to Zyklon B, the nerve gas of the Holocaust. Striding about in my lab coat and bow-tie, I sought to kindle a desire to learn in these children and they responded in kind. They even said I resembled Robin Williams from the movie “Flubber.”
The methods I used were simple. Using periodic table wrapping paper, I drew an empty table and had them put a cutout of each element into its proper box. Instead of giving them basic notepads, I told them they were “mad scientist” note pads. I let them hold real silver, real gold, and saw real results.
The principal took my offer to teach English comprehension to 8th graders during summer school. My curriculum was Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, in Middle English. It was a preposterous idea save for the fact that these children needed to be pushed hard to break through the years of neglect they had faced in their education. I was onto something here, I thought. Otherwise why was I given such license? I had no degree, no experience, but yet they wanted more. And I wanted to give more.
Two months after my last class, I was called by the Executive Director of the BookPals Foundation and fired.
I was told there was a complaint at one of the shelters that I used inappropriate language. They would not tell me when, which shelter, or who leveled the charge, they wouldn’t even tell me what inappropriate language I had supposedly used. I was given no opportunity to discuss what I had done to offend, I was told I just had to stay away, period.
I was devastated, depressed even. At that point, I realized the structure I was attempting to work in is completely corrupt in every way and form. After much contemplation, I understood what I needed to do. Start my very own school.
I’ve since begun the process of meeting with funders and officials to help make my vision to change the paradigm of inner-city education come to fruition. Stay tuned.
David has been a New York based actor for twenty five years. He is an active fundraiser for The Manhattan Institute for Public Policy Research and The Atlantic Legal Foundation. David has volunteered as a Republican poll worker in East Harlem and worked as a volunteer teacher in Harlem shelters and public schools. His mission is to remake American education in a large and profound way.