Star Pupils

By David Hill — March 01, 1991 8 min read
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From anthropology to zoology, including bar mitzvah lessons.’' That’s how Alan Simon describes the range of subject areas covered by his New York-based company, On Location Education.

He’s not kidding about the bar mitzvah lessons. Several years ago, Woody Allen, then getting ready to film Radio Days in New York City, hired Simon to provide on-set teachers for the movie’s child performers. But Allen’s production company wanted more than just the usual math, science, English, and history instructors. The movie’s lead child actor, Seth Green, was in the middle of preparing for his bar mitzvah when rehearsals for the movie began, and he needed someone to help him with his studies. So Simon found an instructor, and Seth got his bar mitzvah lessons.

Since founding On Location Education in 1982, Simon has provided teachers for young actors in hundreds of movies (Lean on Me, Parenthood), plays (The Tap Dance Kid, Les Mis), television shows (The Equalizer, Kate & Allie), commercials, and industrial films. According to regulations set by the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, if a minor is employed for at least three days, the production company must pay to have a teacher on the set for eight hours a day, and three of those hours must be devoted to instruction. (The union that governs theatrical productions requires on-set instruction only for road shows.)

For the first several years, Simon did most of the teaching himself. But when he realized there were certain subjects he simply didn’t know enough about, he began searching for certified teachers who wanted to try something different with their careers.

Many of the teachers he hires have other jobs; others are in school or retired from full-time teaching. Simon estimates that last year alone, at various times, he had about 100 teachers working for him across the country, from Orlando, Fla., to Tucson, Ariz. Simon won’t say how much he pays his employees, but he is willing to characterize their salaries as “competitive.’'

If you think teaching child stars sounds glamorous, think again.

“I compare teaching on location to working in a M.A.S.H. operating room,’' says 37-year-old Simon, a former actor who once worked as a substitute teacher in the New York City public schools. “You’ve heard of ‘meatball surgery’? Well, I call this ‘meatball teaching.’ It’s quality teaching--we’re quite good at what we do--but on-location teaching is like being in a war zone.’'

To prove his point, Simon tells of the time he taught on location during the filming of Beat Street, a now-forgotten break-dancing movie released in 1984. One scene called for a fight on the subway tracks, so the production company set up shop in a subway station in Brooklyn. So did Simon. Between takes, he taught English in a makeshift classroom situated on the edge of the subway platform. “It was the best place for direct lighting and ventilation,’' Simon recalls.

NOT ALL OF SIMON’S TEACHERS WORK under such adverse conditions, however. Ibrahim AbdulMalik, for instance, even has his own classroom, with four walls, a blackboard, and a map of the world. But this “classroom’'--actually a small, windowless office-- happens to be located in the Kaufman Astoria Studios in Queens, N.Y., and his one student happens to be 11-year-old Keshia Knight Pulliam, who plays “Rudy’’ on the The Cosby Show.

It’s 11 o’clock in the morning, and a voice on an intercom has just summoned Keshia to the set for a reading. Abdul-Malik dismisses her immediately.

“This is the nature of the beast,’' he says after she’s gone. “I always say, when you’re handed a lemon, you make lemonade. I could choose to complain about all the interruptions--that’s one way of doing it. But it seems to me that’s counterproductive.’'

Abdul-Malik, a nattily dressed former classroom teacher and administrator who has also taught Cosby kids Malcolm-Jamal Warner and Tempestt Bledsoe, is dead serious about his job. “Too many people think of people like me as a tutor. In my concept, a tutor is someone you get to fill in the missing pieces here and there. I am not a tutor. I am a teacher. And what I’m doing here is teaching. We do the full curriculum: mathematics, English, French, reading, geography, writing, science--the works.’'

In a sense, on-location teachers such as Abdul-Malik are a throwback to the days of one-room schoolhouses, where the teacher had to be able to discuss dangling participles one minute and quadratic equations the next. “It requires someone with a reasonably broad knowledge in all the areas,’' he says. “And one of my very basic philosophies of teaching is to break down the artificial boundaries that are often created between subject areas.’'

Asked if he finds it rewarding to be associated with The Cosby Show, Abdul-Malik pauses for a minute, and then replies, “Why not? You have a gentleman at the top who supports what we are about. And that makes it a lot less difficult to do the things we have to do.’' (Minutes later, in the studio lobby, the gentleman at the top himself, Bill Cosby, bumps into Simon, who makes a point of visiting his teachers in the field. Cosby tells him: “That’s nice work you’re doing with Keshia. I hear she made honor roll.’' Simon is grateful for the compliment.)

Meanwhile, in another “classroom’’ at the studio, teacher Esther McCready waits for the newest and youngest addition to the Cosby clan, 5-year-old Raven-Symon (“Olivia’’ on the show), to return from the day’s reading. McCready, a compact woman smartly dressed in a red blouse and a black skirt, is a testament to Simon’s ability to find quality teachers by word of mouth. Last summer, after a particularly tough year of teaching 4th grade at Harlem’s Public School 154, McCready decided to take a leave of absence. She heard from a friend that Simon was looking for someone to teach Raven. Intrigued, McCready gave him a call. After an interview with Simon, as well as with Raven’s parents, McCready got the job.

It didn’t hurt that she and Raven hit it off immediately. “I had brought some material for her to look at,’' McCready recalls, “and it was as if she had known me forever. She was leaning all over me. Then she came right out and told me she wanted me to be her teacher.’'

Now, Raven is doing things that most children won’t do until they reach 1st or 2nd grade, such as reading, writing, adding, and subtracting. “Working with her has been quite interesting,’' McCready says. “You really have to stay on her. She’s a bright little girl. She could be all over the place if I didn’t zero in. I have to do things that will challenge her.’'

Despite having to teach around Raven’s busy schedule, McCready seems completely at ease in her new situation. She insists that it’s not much different from teaching in a school. “In a regular classroom,’' she says, “there are many interruptions anyway. You can be involved in something very important and all of a sudden some announcement comes over the loud- (cut) speaker, which can get on your nerves. So you just expect that sort of thing. You always hope you can get at least an hour straight through. Sometimes it doesn’t happen. Sometimes it’s only 20 minutes and then she gets called back to the set. It depends on how much they need her for a particular episode. Sometimes we’ve gone for two and a half hours before there’s a break!’'

But does McCready miss the interaction with other teachers? “There was no interaction with other teachers,’' she replies. “I mean, I was so busy, the only time I would see teachers was at lunch time, and I usually didn’t see them then because I always ate in my own classroom, by myself.’'

Raven, along with her mother, Lydia Pearman, soon appears in McCready’s classroom. McCready will have about an hour with the girl, and then they will have to break for lunch. Before they get to work, however, Raven tells her teacher about meeting rap singer M.C. Hammer the week before while in Los Angeles for the NAACP Image Awards. “The only person she was concerned about was M.C. Hammer,’' her mother says, laughing. “She had to meet him!’' While a photographer snaps some pictures, Raven and McCready review a phonics lesson.

SINCE MOST CHILD PER formers attend regular schools when they’re not working, one of the biggest challenges of an on-location teacher is making sure the students aren’t behind in their schoolwork once their acting jobs are over. To that end, one of the first things Simon does when he begins working with a performer is to try to get the cooperation of the child’s school.

“If a school is willing to cooperate with me,’' Simon says, “things can go very smoothly. The school provides books, guidelines, and homework assignments. They also tell me if they want the tutor to handle testing, or whether they prefer to deal with it themselves. In some cases, a school trusts us completely and turns the child over to our jurisdiction.’'

Not all schools cooperate, however. Often, Simon has to convince the schools that the child will get a quality education on the set. He points out that many of On Location’s students go on to college. “This is good, quality teaching,’' he insists. “There’s no starryeyed nonsense.’'

Nancy Tribush Hillman, whose two daughters have both been taught by On Location teachers, agrees. “I’m very pleased, especially with Alan,’' she says. “He’s really on the ball. He’s open to every suggestion--and I’m a very vociferous mother.’'

Hillman’s 13-year-old daughter, Avriel, appears in HBO’s The Baby-Sitters Club, and 11-year-old Rachel plays the occasional role of “Susan’’ on The Cosby Show. Each girl has a page-long resume listing numerous television and theater roles. When they’re not performing, they attend the private Bank Street School in Manhattan. Hillman credits On Location with making certain that her daughters are up to speed when they return to their regular school. “Sometimes they’re even ahead,’' she says.

Simon knows that child performers are a breed apart. “We’re not dealing with stupid kids,’' he says. “We’re dealing with very bright and perceptive children.’' But if young actors want to make high marks, they also want to get every acting job that comes along. And Simon wants his teachers to understand that. “I look for people who can appreciate the dual nature of what these people do for a living. That is, they are full-time performers and they are full-time students. And they’ve got to be able to understand what that does to somebody.’'

A version of this article appeared in the March 01, 1991 edition of Teacher as Star Pupils


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