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Jai Johnson Underhill

Headshot Jai Johnson Underhill

A few words to describe the experience of doing the play this year

Joy, commitment, and fulfillment

I see the joy in my kids’ face when they have a product that they’re really proud of, and they were really proud of this. And the commitment was they worked so hard all the time, and they’re regular elementary school kids but this was a very, very important project for them so they committed themselves completely. The fulfillment was really seeing them be so happy with what they’ve done.

I feel like I like to slip into the background. I’m facilitating them getting what they need but I really want them to go after it themselves and that was my experience this year, that gave me a lot of joy. I’ve been trying for many years to get the kids to have sort of an autonomous relationship with their artwork and their expression, and this year was the closest thing I’ve seen. We worked together on their costumes and I let them lead me in knowing who their character was and what they thought they needed, and I helped just a little bit: things that I could suggest that they may not have known about but they agreed “yes this really helps, thank you”.

I usually take the week after the play off, and I did that this year, and when I came back I’d say sixty percent of the kids were still wearing their costumes and asked me if they could keep them. That made me think this was a success, and I still see parts of them all the time so that brings me also great joy.

I’ve been working with Johnny for a while, quite a while, not to mention having known them when they were a student at Neighborhood School, and it just gets better and better. Johnny knows the way to work with these kids and make it so that the kids really give what they can, and then Johnny can put it to the use that’s necessary. So the kids feel really comfortable with whatever it is they’re being asked to do, because it pretty much comes from them. I think that Johnny, Lisa and Haeli sort of put something in them that made them go with their guts. Going with your gut is the beginning of that autonomous feeling and they felt very comfortably like they were going with it.

You go to school with the entire family

I grew up in Hartford, Connecticut and I remember high school as a gauntlet. It was just an awful place. It was large, and the building itself was unsafe because there were so many places away from the administration that you could really get into trouble if the kids were not behaving, which they didn’t behave most of the time. And I thought because I only have one child I just didn’t want to put her in that kind of situation. I wanted her to be in an independent school and she started at the Neighborhood School when she was three. You go to school with the entire family. We know all the families of all the people that she knew at school, and that was really, really refreshing. If there was a problem – and there’s always a problem, kids are kids – then you knew the parents and you could say this is happening and I’m a little worried about it. And you could either solve it or not, but then you always had Tricia you could go back to. So NS was very good for us, in every way I would say…

What are two things about you that people at NS might not know?

I had a store making and selling jewelry on Newbury Street that I was so happy with, and we were there for a good decade, and then we had a terrible armed robbery. And I decided then that I wanted to see my kid grow up, who was about three at the time, so I closed the store and shortly after that I started teaching at Neighborhood School, which has been a wonderful, wonderful experience, it’s been kind of my extended family. Now it’s thirty years later and I’m keeping an eye open for someone who might want to take over the next chapter of whatever the NS art program is going to become, to help them transition into that, and looking forward to getting back to making jewelry when I’ve got some more time.

Also, I teach adult dance which is another of my fabulous pleasures, I just love it. I teach tap dancing to adults, and many of my students are seniors, because we’re not your grandmother’s seniors, you know?

How has NS changed you and your daughter?

NS made it possible for my daughter to go to the schools that she wanted after Neighborhood School. It allowed her to make whatever choices she wanted. She went to NYU for college and got into the Gallatin School there which is a school where you make your own curriculum with an advisor, and you end up with a degree that you’ve described and defined.

As for me, when I worked on Newbury Street I dressed up to go to work and I looked like I had a slight downtown attitude, which I didn’t really, I just felt like I needed to look that way… and when I came home to JP I ended up giving away a lot of my fancy clothes and it just became more comfortable to be who I really was, which is a person who is capable and who loves teaching and making things.

BRAVE LIGHT Creative Team Interviews