Chances are that if Jack Black got serious for a moment, he could sing a lulu of a version of “To Sir, With Love,” pop culture’s ultimate three-minute valentine to the teaching profession.
But if not for drama teacher Debbie Devine, it's far from certain that Black would have become a comic actor and musical humorist who has audiences keen to watch and listen.
Devine has been a highly-regarded teacher, director and producer on the L.A. children’s theater scene since the 1970s. About 30 years ago she became the first educator to get through to Black and set him on a course that led eventually to stardom.
When Devine first eyed him in her classroom at the now-defunct Poseidon School on Pico Boulevard in West L.A., he seemed bound for disaster: a thoroughly alienated kid sitting with his arms folded and a standoffish “who cares” look on his face.
Now, whether he sings it or just says it, Black is ready to express his gratitude Monday morning in the L.A. kickoff event for a nationwide initiative called Thank a Million Teachers.
Created by L.A.-based Farmers Insurance, it establishes a website, www.thankamillionteachers.com, where all comers are invited to drop a note of appreciation to a teacher who made a difference in their lives.
Farmers agents across the country will help track down the teachers so they'll know they're beloved. The company is promising to donate up to $1 million to schools in the coming year, part of it earmarked for some of the million thanked teachers. Chuck Browning, the insurance company's head of corporate giving, said they'll be able to submit proposals for grants that could enhance their work in the classroom.
Pilot websites launched in October to elicit appreciation for teachers in Nevada and Montana recorded about 11,000 "thank yous," prompting $75,000 in grants from Farmers.
Devine, 62, met Black while she was teaching at Poseidon, a last-chance educational stop for teenagers who’d dropped out, been expelled, or otherwise had made it obvious they weren't cut out for the kind of secondary education that works for most kids.
“He came into my class arms folded. He wasn’t going to be involved in any damn thing, anywhere,” recalled Devine, who runs her own theater education program and professional performing company near USC, the 24th Street Theatre. She also oversees drama instruction at the Colburn School in downtown L.A. and helps the Los Angeles Philharmonic put theatrical flair into its concerts and educational programs for children.
Black eventually became interested enough in the drama class to unfold his arms and begin discovering the talent he'd ultimately manifest for the masses -- first in HBO videos in the late 1990s by his humor-rock duo, Tenacious D, then in a scene-stealing turn in 2000 as a wild-man record store clerk in the film “High Fidelity.” He cemented his stardom in 2003, playing a manic rocker who commandeers a grade-school classroom in “School of Rock.”
Black spent his freshman and sophomore years of high school in Devine's class. “When he began to participate, he just rocked it," she said. "He was fantastic and funny and wonderful, and we really enjoyed him being in the room.”
Monday’s announcement of Thank a Million Teachers will hardly be the first time Black has publicly thanked Devine. One instance, reported by the California Alliance for Arts Education, was in 2010 at a forum on “Education, Creativity and California’s Future” at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.
“My life was quickly swirling around the toilet bowl, about to be flushed,” Black recalled then. “I don’t know what I would have done if I hadn’t met Deb Devine, who inspired me and for the first time gave me a reason to really love going to school. [She] opened my mind and soul to an exciting world of literature and communication.... All of a sudden I knew all these new things.”
Black, who'd been touring in Europe with Tenacious D, wasn't available for an interview, but recalled in an email that "all the kids loved Deb's infectious sense of adventure....My school experience before taking her class was pretty dull. Without the spark of adventure it was very hard for me to focus....I guess this is a long overdue thank you. I'm not too good with the mushy stuff, but she knows I love her."
Having found his educational foothold at the Poseidon School, which received funding through the Los Angeles Unified School District, Black went on to graduate from the private Crossroads School for Arts and Sciences in Santa Monica, then enrolled at UCLA. He joined the Actors’ Gang, the L.A. theater company founded by UCLA alum Tim Robbins, and there began his long-running partnership with actor Kyle Gass, the other half of Tenacious D.
Devine says she was ecstatic about her former student’s progress long before he became a box-office magnet. She recalls reconnecting with Black when she saw him in 1990s Actors' Gang productions of Henrik Ibsen’s “Peer Gynt” and Bertolt Brecht’s “The Good Woman of Setzuan.”
“He was so glad to see me, and I was so proud of him.”
The first favor a somewhat reluctant Devine asked of Black after his career took off was to appear at a ceremony dedicating a mural at the Poseidon School.
“He said, 'Oh my god, of course I would do that,' and he’s been there ever since” -- especially for the 24th Street Theatre, where Black has donated both money and talent. He's featured in a video sequence that kicks off "Enter Stage Right," an educational program the theater company offers for L.A. schools.
The corporate-giving wing of Farmers Insurance has supported the 24th Street Theatre for several years, and liked "Enter Stage Right" enough to make it available nationally by underwriting a video and lesson plan schools can request for free. That connection led to its recruiting Black and Devine to help launch Thank a Million Teachers.
Teachers were once students, and for Devine, Mrs. Green, her eighth-grade history instructor at Valley View Middle School in Duarte, was the one who made the biggest difference.
"She brought American history to life, just performed it,” said Devine, who also learned from Mrs. Green, who was no beauty, that “no matter how somebody looks physically, they can elevate themselves by their confidence, their posture and their wardrobe.”
Devine went on to major in history at UCLA, meanwhile launching her career as an actor on L.A. stages. Discovering that she loved teaching and working with kids, she founded a Saturday series of children’s plays at the Burbage Theatre in L.A., then established the Glorious Players, a professional troupe that began with a residency at the Odyssey Theatre, then evolved into the 24th Street Theatre.
Among her keepsakes is a book of memories signed by the cast of a play she and her students created at the Poseidon School in 1985. She pulled it out and read Black's inscription.
“On the last page, he writes, 'Debbie, Debbie, Debbie. I always look forward to going to your class above all others. Not because it’s the easiest, but because it’s where I get the most happiness.’”