The Roadie

By Alan Richard — April 01, 2001 8 min read
Keeping the kids on track—as they travel from place to place—is the responsibility of Markowitz, known to his kids and their parents as “Mr. Jim.”

It’s a rainy January day in New Orleans, and the French Quarter, which many consider seedy even in the sunshine, looks downright decadent. This section of town is famous for its taverns, all-night dance clubs, and lingerie shops. But these streets also are jampacked with teaching opportunities. That’s why Jim Markowitz is taking a small group of 4th and 5th graders on a tour.

Markowitz teaches young performers, and his four students and their parents arrived in New Orleans—their 11th city in two months—a couple of days ago. Sometimes the towns fly by, and the group sees only a new auditorium, another Holiday Inn, and more 3- and 4-year-old fans of Barney’s Musical Castle, a stage version of the popular TV program starring the gregarious purple dinosaur. But some cities—because of the culture, the people, the history—are special. And when that’s the case, Markowitz ushers his pupils on field trips.

At the moment, they’re strolling down Bourbon Street, guided by a National Park ranger sporting a long beard and a green uniform. In front of a building that can be described only as a shack, he stops the kids and tells them that this was once the blacksmith shop of a pirate. Today, however, it’s a tavern with a fireplace that looks awfully inviting.

Back in Texas, which is home base for the show and its cast members, the teachers in Dallas and Houston who usually supervise Markowitz’s students don’t much care what these young performers and their adventurous instructor are doing. They want assignments finished, curricula followed. Keeping the kids on track—as they travel from place to place, performing throughout most of the school year—is the responsibility of Markowitz, known to his kids and their parents as “Mr. Jim.” But he’s more than just a teacher; he’s also uncle, pal, disciplinarian, timekeeper, and event organizer.

Today, he’s an amateur tour guide. As his charges walk the streets, he constantly cranes his neck, making sure they, as well as their parents, are in tow. He points out statues and shops that display paraphernalia of Creole and Cajun heritage. “That’s zydeco,” he tells 11-year-old Wesley Farnsworth and his mother, Tammy, as they pass a gaudy gift shop, from which the zippy accordion- and-washboard music blares.

At one point, the group ducks out of the rain and into a tent-covered porch at Café du Monde, the most famous place in New Orleans to sip coffee and munch beignets—hot, fried biscuits dusted with powdered sugar. The place is so close to the Mississippi River, you could almost throw a stone into the water from here.

After the students have taken their seats and begun to eat their snacks, they recite the three daily duties Markowitz has taught them. “Do your job, go to school, and be a kid,” they shout, as powdered sugar snowflakes their faces. At one point, 10-year-old Talia Davis explains Markowitz’s reasoning behind the mantra. “That’s just to let us know he understands life on the road,” she says.

The traveling life for Markowitz and the Barney child cast members— Talia, Wesley, Fernando Moguel Jr., and Megan Stanke—means decent hotels, catered meals, and fun places to see. It also means stops at plenty of humdrum towns and many nights spent on a bus. It’s a nice bus, with a full kitchen and all the video games and compact discs a kid could possibly want. But the sleeping arrangement isn’t ideal. When Markowitz, his four students, and their parents climb into little cocoons stacked three high, privacy is guarded only by a curtain.

“I’ve never lived with my child’s teacher before,” jokes Talia’s mother, Deborah.

A few years ago, Markowitz couldn’t have imagined this kind of setup. But as a high school English teacher in Westchester County, New York, he was restless, wondering whether or not he should move to California for a change of pace. He loved teaching, and literature even more, but traditional public schools were beginning to feel routine.

One day, a friend suggested a life on the road. So, in 1998, Markowitz called On Location Education, a business in Mount Kisco, New York, that hires instructors for studio jobs in California and with road shows. Markowitz immediately landed a job with a traveling production of the musical The King and I. It was exactly the sort of adventure he was seeking, and during the show’s run, he fell in love with a dancer in the cast and later married her. In a year or two, the couple hopes to move to her native Japan, where Markowitz has applied for an overseas teaching post. But for now, she’s based in New York, and they keep in touch by telephone and e-mail.

Not everybody, of course, is cut out for this kind of job, with its long hours and baby-sitting duties. But it has its perks.

Not every teacher of child performers lives like this. Some, like Markowitz, travel constantly and teach on the fly, while others report to the same “classroom” for months at a time—for Broadway shows and TV sitcoms, for example. Films, some of which are shot in a matter of weeks, are usually short- term assignments. But some movies’ casts are huge. During the filming of Passenger 57—a 1992 thriller set on a jumbo jet—for instance, 10 teachers supervised a total of 175 kids of various ages.

To some degree, state law dictates a teacher’s responsibilities. In California, studio instructors also serve as guardians, ensuring that each child works no more than the number of hours allowed by law—which vary depending on the child’s age and the time spent on location. Other states, like Florida, have fewer guidelines, according to Alan Simon, president of On Location Education, which is considered a leader in the industry.

Not everybody, of course, is cut out for this kind of job, with its long hours and baby-sitting duties. But it has its perks.

“If you can travel, everyone’s dream would be to take a sabbatical like this,” says veteran teacher Chuck Yerger of Lake Mary, Florida. In the early ’90s, before they became pop-music superstars, Britney Spears and ’N Sync’s Justin Timberlake and Lance Bass were performers on Disney’s Mickey Mouse Club. Yerger was their teacher. He was also a mentor of sorts who got close to the kids. Bass, in fact, proved as much when he played a celebrity round of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire last year; he listed Yerger as a telephone lifeline.

Markowitz actually has two jobs. Aside from teaching, he’s a “wrangler;” he keeps track of the young cast members during each show, making sure they hit the stage on cue and ensuring their safety backstage, where elaborate lighting rigs and monster speakers resemble those at a rock concert. For these duties, he’s paid by the show’s production company, but his job as teacher also requires him to be a bit of a big brother who spends a lot of time by the kids’ sides. “You really can’t get away,” he says. “I’m sure they get sick of me sometimes.”

Although Markowitz won’t discuss his teacher salary in detail, Simon says the industry’s paychecks are comparable with those of public school teachers. Even more important, he says, the job allows him to work closely with each student. He knows each kid’s academic strengths and weaknesses and his or her personal interests. Wesley’s mother, Tammy, can’t believe the difference Markowitz’s one- on-one attention has made in her son’s studies. “He’s learning more than in a regular school,” she says.

Inside the arena at the University of New Orleans, which looks like a giant spaceship parked on the shore of Lake Pontchartrain about 10 miles north of the French Quarter, class is about to begin. Markowitz will teach every subject, from math to writing, while battling the incessant clanging of steel, the yells of a road crew, and the rolling of large carts trying everyone’s patience.

‘If you can travel, everyone’s dream would be to take a sabbatical like this.’

Chuck Yerger,
Veteran Teacher,
Lake Mary, Florida.

The kids bounce into the classroom, a windowless closet only steps from the arena floor, about a third the size of what they’re used to in school. Three lunchroom-style tables have been provided; the two boys work at one table, the two girls at another, Markowitz at the third. There’s no chalkboard, no overhead projector, no PowerPoint. The class’ supplies are packed in a large rolling cabinet covered, like an old suitcase, with stickers boasting places visited—Penn State University, the Big Apple, and the zoo in Greenville, South Carolina, among them. Inside the cabinet are drawers that contain the students’ books and folders. It’s noon, and school lasts until 5 each afternoon, giving the kids no less than 20 hours a week of direct instruction, with weekends and Mondays off.

Recess might be taken in an arena parking lot, if at all. Lunch time means a stroll to another windowless room, which offers a catered spread. Coolers of soft drinks, juices, and milk await, and here, in New Orleans, so do dishes of jambalaya, crawfish étouffée, and king cake, a coffeecake-like dessert consumed during Mardi Gras, which the kids heard about during their walking tour.

After fetching their books from the cabinet, the kids spend some time with Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Markowitz reads a line, hoping to introduce a few new vocabulary words to his students.

“Who’s he talking about?” he asks.

“Juliet,” Talia says.

“Look at how beautiful he writes that,” Markowitz notes.

At one point, Wesley reads the lines with a British accent (he’s an actor, after all): “At my poor house look to behold this night, Earth-treading stars that make dark heaven light.”

Later, as the kids tackle word problems in math, Talia raises her hand, seeking help. Markowitz squats down to look her in the eyes, and her glare means one thing: He has onion breath. Pretending to be offended, he stands, but Talia hangs on, looping her left arm around his neck, slipping into a natural hug.

“Mr. Jim?” Fernando calls from across the room, as Talia hangs on. “Mr. Ji-im.”

Spoiled, in a way, by the attention Markowitz gives them, the kids constantly compete for his time. It only makes sense, of course; their world is composed of field trips, new places, screaming crowds, and the busy shuffle of grownups in cast and crew. So this relatively quiet time is important.

In a tone that’s part teacher, part guardian, Jim convinces Talia to let him go. Heeding Fernando’s call, he gently slips away and says, “There are other people that need me.”