by Ericka Blount Danois
Kiragu Beauttah asks the most spectacularly-proficient curser of all of his students, Johnny Wiley, about the concept of the screenplay they are working on in class.
“What if a boy who couldn’t stop cursing was rigged to a bomb set to explode if he cursed?” Beauttah asks.
The class laughs. They know that bomb would explode after only a few seconds of being attached to Johnny, who happens to be cursing right now.
Though he is still in high school, Wiley has over 20,000 followers on Instagram as a result of his comedic antics. But Beauttah is trying to get him to stretch a little further, get comfortable doing stand-up which is far more intimidating than yelling out in class, expand his vocabulary, and be able to command all kinds of audiences.
This is all part of Beauttah’s “class clown” program at Frederick Douglass high school in Baltimore, where, at present there is no heat with 44 degree temperatures inside the classroom, falling ceilings, busted boilers and pipes.
Beauttah, who is light-hearted, can find the humor in anything and so he’s taking this latest setback like any other, joking with a visiting photographer as they go on a “lifestyles of the rich and famous” style tour of the school. His class clowns are able to find humor even in the worst of circumstances.
The class clown class is technically an English class. The students are busy writing comedy scripts, analyzing poems, learning various writing structures, thesis statements, creating a premise for their jokes, dissecting comedy films like “Mean Girls” and “Baby Boy” and different techniques and comedic styles of comedians like Kevin Hart and Lindsay Lohan. Beauttah created “Woke Wednesdays,” which is a safe space for students in the building to come and share their poetry, dramatic monologues and raps after school. Professional musicians, comics and various artists from around the city have performed for Woke Wednesdays. On Fridays Beauttah brings in a microphone and lets the students perform stand-up.
[trnn_pullquote text=”In all of this, these class clown kids are the ones that are forgotten. That’s what really has me doing this.”]
Like any self-respecting class clowns, these cut-ups are supposed to be the worst kids in the school. Think Mr. Kotter’s sweathogs. Or Preach from Cooley High. They are the kids disrupting and getting kicked out of classes, being called to the principal’s office, and hanging in the hallways. They are often the ones with the most chaotic home lives—and the ones with the most creative minds. Some aren’t challenged in a traditional classroom setting. For some school is too easy. For others it’s too hard. Beauttah sees their disruptions of class, their calling out, getting high, their joke cracking often at the teacher’s expense and their incessant cursing, as an opportunity, rather than a reason to shun them.
Beauttah hopes for well-rounded students, if not international comedic acclaim. He wants to expand this class into something bigger, maybe his own school where he can work with students with ADHD and other special needs and create a curriculum for them.
Teaching comes naturally to Beauttah. If he sees you have a gift for something he’s going to encourage you to hone it, whether you’re 8 or 80. “I get on people’s nerves,” he laughs. Born in DC, he grew up in both Kenya, where his father is from, and in rural King William County in Virginia with his mother, where there was one traffic light, dirt roads and one general store. He did the Kenya-America thing before Obama, he jokes. He comes from a family of teachers, counselors and activists. His great-great grandfather was one of the first black teachers in King William County, Virginia. His grandfather participated in the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya.
“I have always had the pull towards activism,” he says. “My mother was always like a freedom school mom. I think all of that guides me. People need help and I don’t really give a damn about money. I’m perfectly suited to teach and do comedy.”
He is able to move through many worlds and can relate with ease with teenagers from all walks of life. When he moved to Baltimore after college, he taught for a few years at Patterson High School where he met his wife who was an English teacher and counselor at the school. He then taught at Baltimore New Era Academy in Cherry Hill for 7 years where he came up with the concept for a class clown class. He steered his most difficult students into an after school program teaching them how to tell their own jokes. He brought the concept to Douglass and now in his second year at Douglass, this is the second semester of his class clown class.
He knows comedy is a way to nurture students that crave creativity, in part because he is part of a burgeoning Baltimore comedy scene himself. “People would encourage me as a kid because they thought I was funny, but I wanted to be a preacher,” says Beauttah. But he always had an admiration for comedians, particularly comedians like Dick Gregory and Dave Chappelle, who combined politics, social activism and comedy together.
“Comics were the last truth tellers, they were getting the message out. That appealed to me,” says Beauttah.
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At Douglass, he doesn’t let his kids see his own stand-up because he doesn’t want to change their perception of him as a teacher or subvert his authority, even though he has a regular gig at Magooby’s Joke House. He does introduce them to legends like Dick Gregory who he was able to interview at the Baltimore Comedy Factory. Gregory was scheduled to come by the class before he died last August. Local comedians like Jess Hilarious, who performed on Def Comedy Jam, and Larry Lancaster have come in to his class and performed for the students.
In class, Beauttah is a calming presence that keeps the students who often get off track on point.
“Name and describe one of the characters from Baby Boy,” he instructs the students on the comedy film they watched last class.
“Jody! Melvin!” they call out.
“I said, name AND describe.”
“The mother is always worried about Jody,” says one student as others try to call out.
“Let me get my shine!” says the student as he finishes. “Jody has two baby mothers.”
“How does the writer show that Jody is immature? What actions show it?” Beauttah asks.
“He keeps playing with her feelings when he could have been straight up,” says one student.
“He doesn’t take care of his responsibilities,” says another.
Beauttah has already seen the payoff for his commitment. He says that many of his students have gained more confidence in his class and that confidence has helped them to improve in their other classes. Wiley, who is now 18, writes more now in Beauttah’s class than he has his entire time in high school, Wiley says. Beauttah requires that they write every day, even if it’s just in their journals. A student named Fred Douglass (which sounds like the beginning of a joke, but it isn’t) is one of the best writers in his class.
“There’s no money coming here and people are hanging on by a thread,” says Beauttah about the school, the conditions and the teachers at Douglass. “In all of this, these class clown kids are the ones that are forgotten. That’s what really has me doing this.”
Featured Image: Photo By Travis Marshall
This story was funded by the Baltimore Institute for Non-Profit Journalism (BINJ Baltimore).