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'Abbott Elementary' creator Quinta Brunson finds humor and heart in the classroom

<em>Abbott Elementary</em> creator and showrunner Quinta Brunson plays second grade teacher Janine Teagues on the mockumentary.
Gilles Mingasson
/
ABC
<em>Abbott Elementary</em> creator and showrunner Quinta Brunson plays second grade teacher Janine Teagues on the mockumentary.

In the new sitcom Abbott Elementary, Quinta Brunson stars as a rookie second grade teacher in an under-resourced, majority Black public elementary school in Philadelphia.

Brunson, who is also the show's creator and showrunner, says she conceived of the mockumentary with her mother in mind. The fictional Abbott Elementary is exactly the type of school Brunson's mother taught in for 40 years.

"Despite it getting harder, despite teachers not having all the support they need, despite kids growing even more unruly than they've been in recent time ... she still loved the job," Brunson says of her mother. "The beauty is someone being so resilient for a job that is so underpaid and so underappreciated because it makes them feel fulfilled."

Brunson spent five years as a student in the same school where her mother taught. When the time came to switch schools, Brunson's 6th grade teacher, Ms. Abbott, helped with the transition. Decades later, Brunson decided to name her series after Ms. Abbott.

"I was scared to go into the real world or what I looked at as the real world at the time, and [Ms. Abbott] just took me under her wing," Brunson says. "She was an incredible teacher who put her all into it, making sure that her students felt special and were ready for the world."

Prior to Abbott Elementary, Brunson became known for her viral short videos. She worked as a producer and actor for BuzzFeedVideo and was also a cast member on the first season of A Black Lady Sketch Show.

Now, as a showrunner, Brunson is focused on being a good leader for the group of people responsible for putting Abbott Elementary together. Recently, the production team and the network made a joint decision that some of the money earmarked for marketing the show should be redirected.

"We chose to put the marketing money toward supplies for teachers," Brunson says. "It's about being able to make those kinds of decisions that really excite me, things that can really materially help people."


Interview highlights

On why both her mother and Ms. Abbott didn't really punish their students

I don't think punishment is really in their vocabulary. I think they always have to look at it as a broader issue: Why is this child acting out? What is going on at home? What's going on in their behavior pattern in this classroom? Because they get to know these students. For my mom, the child that misbehaved the most was kind of like her favorite student by the end of the year. She would have this weird relationship where she would come home and my family would know, OK, this is your problem child this year. But it's also like your favorite child because you come home and talk about them every day. So it's really about learning their behavior. And these are little people, you know? And so I'm not sure punishment was ever a part of the discussion for teachers like my mom and Ms. Abbott. It was solving the problem.

On being short (4'11")

For most of my life, I did not feel self-conscious about being short. If anything, I looked at it as like a superpower. It was something very interesting about me and people thought I was cute and funny, and when I started doing stand up, it was just another thing to be funny about. I still think I've become more, more aware of it recently. Recently, I'm like, man, I am not giving "grown woman" to people. I kind of would like to give full grown adult, but it's not giving that. And now I'm in this space of producer/showrunner, I want to appear as big as I feel on the inside. I'm just not sure I do.

On growing up in a strict Jehovah's Witness household

Anyone who knows anything about Jehovah's Witnesses, it's a pretty strict religion to people who aren't in it. But I kind of continued to push the boundaries until I eventually pushed my way out of it. I just wasn't going to be able to be the person I wanted to be while being a Jehovah's Witness. But I have this relationship where I, weirdly, was grateful to grow up as one, because I do believe it kept me out of a lot of trouble as a kid, and the strictness of it kind of helped me, I think, my siblings and I away from a lot of the troubles that present themselves growing up in a city like Philadelphia. It's like any other religion, the part you can play is different in people's lives and for me, I think it was important to grow up that way. But as I wanted to be a creator and be the person I wanted to be, it wasn't for me anymore.

On questioning religion but remaining spiritual

I don't feel that [religion] inhibited me. I do feel that it can inhibit other people, and I've seen it inhibit other people. When I was younger, I just refused to let it, and I wasn't as afraid as I was told I was supposed to be. It's a lot of fear and not just hellfire, but like "you won't make it into everlasting life if you do this, that and the other." And I was kind of like, "I'll take my chances. I'll be the judge of that." So that was just how I operated. I asked questions. I remember being very young and I wanted to know why dinosaurs weren't in the Bible, and no one could answer that question for me. And I was like, "Well, then we've got some plot holes." And so from a young age and still to this day ... I just refuse to be inhibited. ...

I'm not going to lie, making this show felt spiritual for me. And I think sometimes that's part of it, too, tapping into something that makes you feel connected to something higher than you. So I feel more spiritual than religious.

I'm very spiritual. I pray. I read a lot of spiritual material. So the Bible is included in that, but I also really enjoy Buddhist readings. I enjoy reading different passages of the Quran. I enjoy just reading about spirituality attached to no religion. I believe very firmly in talking to something bigger than me. I'm not going to lie, making this show felt spiritual for me. And I think sometimes that's part of it, too, tapping into something that makes you feel connected to something higher than you. So I feel more spiritual than religious.

On why she didn't initially talk about her cousin dying from gun violence

It was uncomfortable to talk about because, here in L.A. at the time I was working at BuzzFeed and I was in the land of fun and sunshine. And for me, that experience felt very unique to living in Philadelphia, to being a young Black woman from Philadelphia, even. And yes, gun violence can and does affect everyone, but by proximity and for many, many reasons, it hurts my community often, and gun violence just felt so specific to me and specific to home, and I didn't want to share that hurt with people who didn't understand it.

When I was back home in Philly, the way that we talk about gun violence as it affects our communities is different. There's an understanding there. There's a love there. There's an understanding of the makeup of our city and of our families and our communities, where the love is not absent and we have an understanding of why these things happen. ... But talking about it to anyone else ... it just feels uncomfortable. And it's one of those weird things, I talk about it with my friends from Philly, it's like how do we stop it if we don't talk about it more or bring it to a larger platform? But at the same time, we feel uncomfortable. It's so between us and between our worlds. But I think I'm landing on the idea that like, we just have to talk about it, because the same gun issues we're talking about when someone brings a gun and shoots up a mall or somebody brings a gun and shoots up a school, they overlap with what's happening in communities. So while it's uncomfortable ... I think it deserves the attention of this country because it's happening in this country.

Heidi Saman and Seth Kelley produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Natalie Escobar adapted it for the web.

Copyright 2022 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.