In the new season of Netflix’s Queer Eye, the Fab Five paid a visit to Jonathan Van Ness’ former high school—and his teacher.
The first episode of the hit reality show’s fourth season, which was released last week, showed Bobby Berk, Karamo Brown, Tan France, Antoni Porowski, and Van Ness in Quincy, Ill., to make over the local school district’s veteran music director. Kathleen Dooley—a tireless educator who is rumored by students to have a cot in her office—has worked at the district for nearly four decades.
Over the course of the episode, the Fab Five chop off Dooley’s infamous mullet, revamp the high school’s teachers’ lounge, help students fundraise for the arts program, and encourage Dooley to make room in her life for self-care. It’s an emotional hour of television dedicated to thanking teachers—and for Dooley, it was a surreal “out-of-body experience.”
“I was blessed to have [Jonathan] call me his hero,” she said in an interview with Education Week. “I think everyone in life has that person, probably a teacher, who they think back to who was their hero in their life—someone who in a pivotal time in [your] upbringing, you could really count on them to be consistent and be there for you.”
In one tear-jerking scene, Van Ness sits down with Dooley and tells her that he has some painful memories of his time in high school—but that she always created a safe space for him.
“One thing that you did for me, and for other kids like me, was you always treated me the same, as if I was like anyone else,” Van Ness said, through tears. “And I think as an LGBT person, I think so badly we just want to feel normal and not treated differently, and you always did that. ... You have literally saved people’s lives, mine included.”
Teachers don’t always know they’ve had such a big impact on students, Dooley said. But she believes that arts education can give students space to be themselves and develop their full potential.
“They feel safe in that environment,” she said. “They feel like they can relax for a while.”
Dooley said she really solidified her relationship with Van Ness in junior high—a time period, she said, when all students are questioning their place in life.
“We try to hold all students to a high standard, but at the same time, we’re right there with our arms open, helping them be successful all the time,” she said. “I think all good teachers know the things that takes, and then you develop that relationship when they see you’re more their friend than their enemy.”
Students Meet the Fab Five
For Dooley, the most exciting part of being on Queer Eye was the impact the experience had on her students, who got to spend time with each of the cast members. Students have since decorated their lockers with photos taken during filming and index cards with quotes from the Fab Five.
“It was really wonderful as their teacher to hear how many students had taken away this knowledge the Fab Five imparted on them during the week,” Dooley said.
And one poignant moment was never filmed or advertised on the show: The Fab Five met with the students in the high school’s Gay-Straight Alliance for two hours. Dooley wasn’t in the intimate meeting, but a student told her that the reality stars shared their own high school experiences, and how they made it through the hard parts.
Dooley said the student told her, “It’s really enforcing the knowledge that we’re not alone, and other people have gone through this and come out on the other side very successfully.”
View this post on Instagram One of the most fun days of my life 🏳️🌈 @queereye A post shared by Jonathan Van Ness (@jvn) on Jul 19, 2019 at 4:14pm PDT
It took about eight days for the episode of Queer Eye to film, Dooley said, with more than 100 crew members working at the school.
“I think probably the long-lasting amazing benefit from having them all here ... would be the opportunity to see all the jobs and all those careers,” she said, adding that students were exposed to the work of camera operators, copyright lawyers, makeup artists, producers, and more. “That was a tremendous opportunity for our kids to see that there’s a big world out there with lots of opportunity in entertainment and television.”
The Show’s Impact
Another lasting benefit from the show: the new teachers’ lounge. Before the Fab Five came to town, the lounge was a drab room with a few stiff chairs and a couple of old microwaves—as designer Berk said, “It’s more of a teacher purgatory.”
But at the end of the episode, the Fab Five revealed a state-of-the-art redesign, complete with massage chairs. Dooley said she hopes the lounge will be a recruiting perk for future teachers.
Since the episode aired, Dooley said she has received emails from viewers across the country and even around the world—and many of them have been teachers. She said she hopes the episode inspires people to thank an influential teacher in their own lives.
Dooley is retiring at the end of the school year, but she said she’s not going anywhere. She and her husband plan to volunteer for the school district’s arts program, and Dooley said she might continue to teach a class here and there.
She has gotten some time to relax, though. Queer Eye gave her and her husband a trip to New York City to see a Broadway production of the musical Waitress (which is produced by another former student of Dooley’s). While there, Dooley also saw Van Ness perform a stand-up comedy show—and ice-skating routine—at Radio City Music Hall.
“You’re sitting there, and he’s up there, and you’re just seeing this little kid from 7th grade [saying], ‘Mrs. Dooley, can you find my violin?’ And here he is, in front of 6,000 people, a sold-out audience,” she said.
Image courtesy of Netflix
A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.