In January 2020, after 21 years of teaching in New York and Connecticut, I retired from the classroom.
We had a final show with my high school students and a cast party; I received beautiful cards and video tributes I will look at when I’m 80. I walked out of the building feeling completely satisfied, a little sad, exhausted—and very, very happy. It was the perfect ending.
I left because I’d decided it was time to spend more time onstage. I developed a love of standup comedy while visiting my grandmother in Holland, of all places; after winning an open-mic talent contest, I accidentally launched a career hosting and headlining LGBT pride events in Sydney, London, Iceland and beyond. For about five years, life was magic as I combined my loves of travel and performing—including standup and two solo shows.
Around 2000, I decided I needed to get serious about health insurance and job security—plus it was getting harder to perform late into the night and then wake up at 5 a.m. for my part-time teaching job. Living in Brooklyn, I still toured during the summers and performed at clubs all over New York, but at the age of 35, I was back in school, earning a master’s degree in arts education. From there, I launched a second career in public education, working as a full-time drama teacher in Brooklyn and Queens, with more than 400 students a week. (Yes, I learned all their names.)
Comedy had taken a back seat, and I was only performing a few times a year. I still loved teaching, but I ached for more time to write and perform. So, after years of talking about it, last year, I finally did it: I gave notice at my dream teaching job, at a performing arts high school, and set out to reinvent myself again. I planned to still go into schools as a teaching artist, for short residencies and master classes, without getting caught up with the responsibility of being a full-time faculty member. I moved back to New York City, designed my new business cards and was ready to pound the pavement for gigs.
It seemed like the perfect plan. But COVID-19 had other ideas.
On the day before the city closed the restaurants, my wife and I went out for a last meal at an overpriced French bistro near Union Square, where there were three other customers. We ordered the full menu—cocktails, expensive steaks and desserts. We tipped every person in the restaurant, from the busboy to the bartender packing liquor bottles into cardboard boxes. We had no idea when we would be able to go out again. We thought maybe a month.
Soon, everything was shut down. My wife’s architectural office, three blocks from our apartment, closed. We had nowhere to work and no idea how we could work—plus it was terrifying in the city. The only cars we saw consistently out our windows were ambulances. Like many New Yorkers, we lived in a tiny space—which is fine when you are working and going out all the time. Now, we were concerned: If one of us were to fall ill, where would we quarantine? In the bathtub?
We decided it was time to leave New York until the pandemic was over. We both hate winter, so we thought about places we love that are warm. We had visited Palm Springs many times and felt very at home, so my wife focused her search on Southern California. There was very little inventory, as folks were flocking out of L.A.—but miraculously, she found something in Palm Springs starting in August 2020. So we started packing our lives into two suitcases and awaited our departure.
In the meantime, I got a Zoom account. I started doing standup appearances, investing in a front light for my computer and an external microphone. I was awful at first; learning Zoom was like my trying to put together IKEA furniture by myself without being able to call my butch lesbian friends to help me. I would try for a while until I was crying in a heap on the floor in frustration. Tech-savvy friends got on Zoom calls with me to teach me the basics. I kept doing it, and eventually, I found my stride. Like so many of us, I discovered resilience I didn’t know I had.
Come September 2020, I was settling into Palm Springs and navigating heat I had never before experienced. All the time indoors in the AC gave me lots of time to perfect my Zoom skills and find just the right-sized Amazon boxes to put my laptop on, so I was looking right into the camera.
Meanwhile, my former colleagues in Connecticut were undergoing the impossible task of reopening the school after virtual teaching since March. This is a performing-arts school, so the building is structured for arts learning: There are large studios with no desks—just chairs and rehearsal blocks. As for the students … they’re theater kids. They hug each other, a lot. Some of them would sleep in the building if we let them. How would this work?
They spaced the chairs far apart, so the kids all faced the front, which made me want to play Pink Floyd’s “We Don’t Need No Education.” It just looked wrong. One of the teachers built a booth, using clear shower-curtain liners, and placed it in one of the acting studios. The actors could go behind it, take off their masks and perform their monologues. After each one, the teacher would wipe down the “booth” so the next student could safely go in, and so on.
Teachers have always been rock stars; I know that. What struck me even more was how undaunted the students were by this. After months of coping with the pandemic, nothing was going to stop their enthusiasm and determination to act, dance or play the guitar.
Come winter, my colleagues were getting a routine going, and the school miraculously remained open. Some kids did not come in every day, instead tuning in virtually, but most of them did—masks on, lines memorized, ready to perform in “the booth.”
One of my colleagues had the idea for me to offer a virtual master class in standup comedy for their second semester. After almost a year of COVID learning, their teachers knew the kids needed something different—a distraction, and to have some fun. Some laughs. Some silliness. Some joy. We wrote a grant to pay my fee; the principal was on board. The school treated it like a pilot program: They’d try it out with me and then see if they could do this with other artists around the country. I was happy to be the guinea pig, and in a way, it gave us permission to fail, which was strangely invigorating. I had taught most of these kids before, and it would be a wonderful reunion to see them, even through screens. But I had to ask myself: How would it work? Would it still be as effective as being in person? How would I know if it was working?
Our platform was Google Classroom. I tuned in from my home office in Palm Springs and was beamed onto the smart board in the classroom. I had three amazing and tireless teachers who were my “boots on the ground.” They would steer the computer camera constantly so I could see the students, and they could see me as I was instructing or giving feedback. Because of the masks and my distance, it was almost impossible for me to tell if they were taking it in. So we had them go into “the booth” so I could see their facial expressions. The kids knew we were trying something completely new and unprecedented—and they ran with it.
Not only did it work; it worked beautifully! The students wrote short comedy sets, and I coached them each week on editing and delivery. We assigned a student emcee—a senior I knew well from my years teaching there—and she crushed it. The finale was a purely student-driven show, with 15 comics doing original sets. We filmed it “live” in their black-box theater, streaming it on YouTube and the school’s Facebook page so friends and family could watch. The technical rehearsal was hysterical; one of the teachers carried me around the theater on a laptop so I could go backstage and watch.
The pandemic taught me that time is a gift—and it is ours to use, or ours to waste. I have had the privilege of directing more than 30 school productions during my teaching career, but this is the one that made me beam with pride I didn’t know I had.
Mina Hartong is an award-winning comedienne and founder of Emcee, Educator and Funny Lady Productions. When she is not onstage, Mina enjoys teaching acting and standup comedy. She has taught in the public school system for 21 years, most recently at the Regional Center for the Arts in Trumbull, Conn.