the first in a series of brief portrait sketches of individual Mopco improvisers. This Post: Tom Mueller
Besides being a very funny improviser, Mopco member Tom Mueller is a counselor at Lincoln Elementary in Schenectady. Tom recently got some grant funding for a series of weekly improv classes. As a result I’ve had the privilege of seeing Mr. Mueller at his day job.
Lincoln Elementary, like most Schenectady schools, is underfunded, under-staffed, and overcrowded. The building itself has seen better days. My first morning there, the thought strikes me that working there must feel like trying to fill a bathtub with water from the sink, using a slotted spoon. The odds are stacked against progress.
Tuesday, 9 AM, week two of my improv residency: We walk into the first class of the day. Immediately a dozen students start working together to push desks back to make room for a warm up circle. Several kids gravitate towards Tom, one hugging him, another telling him of a grievance, a third telling him a joke. A fourth and fifth simply stand close to him.
Tom enfolds the hugging kid under one arm, casually, like he’s carrying a bag of groceries. He scolds another one for some infraction I missed, listens and nods to the student with the grievance, groans at the punny punchline, and raises his voice to be heard above the overall din of the classroom: “All right, let’s make a circle to work with Mr. Burns!” He looks at the cramped open floor space the kids have managed to create. “Let’s make an oval to work with Mr. Burns!” As he moves, he acts: Frees himself from the hugger, offers a fist bump to one of the silent standers, a nudge on the shoulder to the other.
We’re stressing improv basics. One tenet is “Make your partner look good.” During the improv lesson Tom is an expert partner, making me look good as I navigate less-than-ideal workshop conditions. I realize I would be lost without him. He helps me demonstrate games. He keeps kids in line, literally and figuratively. He repeats instructions quietly to kids who are a bit bewildered by this new art form, praises involvement from some, warns others to get focused, and shoots me looks that I somehow understand– that this kid needs extra encouragement, or that one needs to opt out of this game. He praises tiny steps forward, and challenges backsliding.
He never stops moving, never stops contacting individual kids with lightning quick interactions. I realize that he is repeating, in varied ways, one simple message for every kid in the room. “I see you. I hear you. I care. Behave.” It’s plain to see that these kids get the message. They think the world of Mr. Mueller.
As we walk to the next class, he gives me some context with bits of background. Without breaking confidentiality, he shares that kids are dealing with the violent death of siblings and parents, of families facing eviction, chronic illness— the litany of trauma goes on.
What shines through as I see them in class is their resilience. These beautiful kids deserve so much better from life. I feel very grateful to be doing some small bit of service for them. And I really can’t imagine doing what Tom does every day.
I plan to go home for lunch, since the school is only a few minutes from my house. Tom says he’ll be going out too– “I gotta have a break at lunch time–I’m starving. I’ll grab a sandwich and get a few minutes of peace!” However, as we pass the main office, a woman calls him over. He looks at me. “OK, I’m not leaving– I have a CPS (Child Protective Services) call. See you in an hour.”
When I return to Tom’s tiny office (it was a storage closet once) he’s there, a mostly uneaten sandwich on his desk. Six fourth and fifth grade boys are hanging out, playing Uno with Mr. Mueller. They pass around a container of mini Kind bars, ignoring Tom’s insistence that they only take one each. Their paper lunch trays with uneaten corn niblets and mostly eaten brown stuff with gravy (meatloaf? Sliced beef? I can’t tell) are precariously perched on surfaces around the room. They play Uno, they talk, several at once, they threaten and challenge each other, they show off a little bit for me, but mostly they just seem to need to BE there, in this safe cave of an office stuffed with inspirational posters, stuffed animals, puzzles, books, and love. Tom’s smiling, but you can see how tired he is. As he did in all the classes this morning, he interacts with one kid after another, praising, listening, correcting, joking, and supporting.
It’s time for the next class. Tom’s sandwich is still uneaten. The boys come up with various reasons why they shouldn’t have to go to class as he gently wrangles the wriggling mass of kids out of his office.
This time, as we walk, I say how much the kids obviously like him. He tells me he’s mean to the kids, that he’s tough. One of those things is a big lie. Tom is one of the kindest people I know. But one of those things is true. Tom Mueller is tough as nails.
I don’t know what Tom’s job description says. But I can see what his real job is: fill these kids up with enough love to get them through one more day of one more year. Though he knows the odds are stacked, every day Tom suits up and gets in there with his slotted spoon, filling that tub with all the energy he’s got, improvising with what he’s got to provide for these kids.
This improviser is making a difference. Bravo, Mr. Mueller!