In the new sitcom Abbott Elementary, Quinta Brunson stars as a rookie second-grade teacher at an underfunded, majority-black public elementary school in Philadelphia.
Brunson, who is also the series’ creator and showrunner, says she crafted the mockumentary with her mother in mind. The fictional Abbott Elementary is exactly the type of school Brunson’s mother taught at for 40 years.
“Despite it getting harder, despite the teachers not having all the support they need, despite the kids becoming even more unruly than they have been lately… she still loved the job” , Brunson says of his mother. “The beauty is that someone is so resilient for such an underpaid and underappreciated job because they feel fulfilled.”
Brunson spent five years as a student at the same school where her mother taught. When it came time to change schools, Brunson’s Grade 6 teacher, Ms. Abbott, helped with the transition. Decades later, Brunson decided to name his series after Mrs. Abbott.
“I was afraid to go into the real world or what I considered the real world at the time, and [Ms. Abbott] just took me under his wing,” says Brunson. “She was an incredible teacher who threw herself wholeheartedly into making sure her students felt special and were ready for the world.
Prior to Abbott Elementary, Brunson has become known for her viral short videos. She worked as a producer and actress for BuzzFeedVideo and was also a cast member on the first season of A dark lady sketch show.
Now, as showrunner, Brunson is focused on being a good leader for the group of people tasked with putting Abbott Elementary School together. Recently, the production team and the network jointly decided that some of the money intended for marketing the show should be redirected.
“We chose to put marketing money into teacher supplies,” says Brunson. “It’s about being able to make these kinds of decisions that really excite me, things that can really help people materially.”
Why his mother and Mrs. 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 bigger issue: why is this child acting out? What’s going on at home? What’s going on in their behavior pattern in this class? Because they get to know these students. For my mother, the worst-behaving child was like her favorite student at the end of the year. She would have this weird relationship where she would come home and my family would know, OK, he’s your problem child this year. But it’s also like your favorite child because you come home and talk about it every day. So it’s really about learning their behavior. And they’re little people, you know? And so I’m not sure punishment was ever part of the discussion for teachers like my mom and Mrs. Abbott. This solved the problem.
Being small (4’11”)
For most of my life, I didn’t mind being small. If anything, I considered him 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 I could be funny about. . I still think I’ve become more, more aware of it recently. Recently, I thought to myself, man, I don’t give people a “grown woman.” I would kind of like to give a grown adult, but it’s not. And now that I’m in this producer/showrunner space, I want to appear as big as I feel inside. I’m not sure I do.
Growing up in a strict family of Jehovah’s Witnesses
Anyone who knows anything about Jehovah’s Witnesses, it’s a pretty strict religion for people who aren’t part of it. But I kind of kept pushing the limits until I finally got through it. I just wasn’t going to be able to be the person I wanted to be by being a Jehovah’s Witness. But I have this relationship where, weirdly, I was grateful to grow up as one, because I think it saved me a lot of trouble as a kid, and the rigor of it sort of kind of helped, I think, my siblings and I get away from a lot of the issues that come up growing up in a city like Philadelphia. It’s like any other religion, the role you can play is different in people’s lives and for me, I think it was important to grow up like that. But since I wanted to be a creator and be the person I wanted to be, it wasn’t for me anymore.
Question religion but stay spiritual
I don’t feel that [religion] inhibited me. I feel like it can inhibit other people, and I’ve seen it inhibit other people. When I was younger, I just refused to let it happen, and I wasn’t as scared of being told I was supposed to be. It’s a lot of fear and not just hellfire, but like “you won’t attain eternal life if you do this, that, and the other.” And I was kind of like, ‘I’m going to take a chance. I’ll be the judge of this.’ So that was how I operated. I asked questions. I remember being very young and wanting to know why dinosaurs weren’t in the Bible, and no one could answer that question for me. And I was like, “Well, so we’ve got some plot holes.” And so from a very young age and still today… I just refuse to be inhibited. …
I’m not going to lie, make this show a spiritual feeling 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 am very spiritual. I pray. I read a lot of spiritual material. So the Bible is included in there, but I also really like Buddhist readings. I like to read different passages from the Quran. I just like to read about spirituality attached to any religion. I firmly believe in talking to something bigger than me. I’m not going to lie, make this show a spiritual feeling 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.
Why she didn’t initially speak out about her cousin’s death from gun violence
It was uncomfortable talking about it because here in LA at the time, I was working at BuzzFeed and I was in the land of fun and sun. And for me, that experience felt very unique to live in Philadelphia, to be a young black woman from Philadelphia, even. And yes, gun violence can and does affect everyone, but by proximity and for so many reasons, it often hurts my community, and gun violence felt so specific and home specific, and I didn’t want to share It hurt with people who didn’t understand it.
When I was back home in Philadelphia, the way we talk about gun violence as it affects our communities is different. There is an understanding there. There is a love there. There is an understanding of the makeup of our city, our families and our communities, where love is not absent and we understand why these things are happening. …but telling someone else about it…it’s just uncomfortable. And it’s one of those weird things, I talk about it with my friends in Philadelphia, it’s like how we shut it down if we don’t talk about it more or bring it to a wider platform ? But at the same time, we feel uncomfortable. It’s so much between us and between our worlds. But I think I’m landing on the idea that we just need to talk about it, because the same gun issues that we talk about when someone brings a gun and shoots in a mall or someone brings a gun and shoots a school, they ride what’s going on in the communities. So even though it’s uncomfortable… I think it deserves this country’s attention 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 for the web.
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