There’s a theory that birth order influences a child’s personality. Those born last, the hypothesis suggests, are more likely to be risk-taking attention seekers with strong senses of humor. The claims haven’t been scientifically proven, but for 32-year-old writer, actress, producer and comedian Quinta Brunson, they seem to be spot on.
Brunson, whose first name is the Spanish word for fifth, is the youngest of her parents’ five children. Born eight years after her closest brother and 20 years after her eldest, she was the child instructed to “do the dance” for the amusement of her household.
“They kind of looked at me for entertainment,” the 2022 ESSENCE Black Women in Hollywood honoree says of her childhood family dynamic. “They peddled me around the house and around their friends and had me do little dances and little impersonations.”
Thankfully, Brunson didn’t mind the attention. Instead, she felt performing was a way to bridge the gap between herself and her older family members. But the West Philadelphia native, who initially made a name for herself through viral videos and Internet memes, makes it clear that she was never a clown—in class or at home. On the contrary, the former producer for BuzzFeed Video and BuzzFeed Motion Pictures, whose mother was a schoolteacher, approached “funny” like a student.
“I was always more of a person drawn toward humor. Humor is kind of conceptual, the shared emotion,” Brunson says. “And that’s where I always lived. I was never cracking jokes or trying to make anyone laugh. I focused on the nuances of what made people laugh. That was more interesting to me.”
Brunson’s mom Norma Jean was her kindergarten teacher, and the two were in the same school building every day for the next five years. In those days, Brunson would travel with her mother to school in the mornings and spend the afternoons in her classroom before the two went home for the evening. Sixth grade was the first time the mother-daughter pair were apart, and the transition proved a bit challenging for Brunson who says she suffered from separation anxiety and was a bit of a crybaby. Fortunately for her, there was a woman by the name of Joyce Abbott, the teacher after whom Brunson named her hit television show,
Abbott Elementary, who would change her outlook.
Ms. Abbott, who has been an educator in the Philadelphia Public School system for the past 27 years, says that when Brunson got to her classroom, she was reserved for the first six to eight weeks. “You could see that she was very shy and withdrawn,” Abbott remembers. “When I found out she was a comedian, I was in shock.”
The schoolteacher encouraged her students to speak up and engage with one another and Brunson thrived under her instruction, so much so she ended up becoming the class spokesperson.
“The year Quinta was in my class, we had news coverage three or four different times,” Abbott says. “Quinta would get up and speak, and one of the newspapers even noted, ‘We entered into the classroom and we were met by the articulate Quinta Brunson.’ She really came out.”
Inspired by Brunson’s mother’s experiences as a teacher,
Abbott Elementary honors the educators who are dedicated to their students, despite facing constant challenges like out-of-touch administrators and a lack of resources. Brunson, who was recently reunited with Abbott via video chat on Jimmy Kimmel Live!, fondly recalls her being one of those committed faculty members.
“We sold candy to learn about money in our class,” Brunson says. “She told us we were going to take a big, fancy trip. We used all our candy money to rent limousines and go to a fancy boat restaurant in Philadelphia. Everyone had to be dressed to the nines. It was so sweet. But I think it also taught our whole class that those kinds of experiences could be accessible to us if we wanted them.”
Brunson’s show certainly lives up to the example Abbott set of going above and beyond.
Abbott Elementary became the first ABC comedy to quadruple its ratings since its debut this past December. While her former teacher may be surprised at Brunson’s career choice, evidence of her determination to succeed was apparent even as a child.
“She was always driven. She would get very upset If she didn’t get the top grade. She always strived for excellence, and she was very polite and kind on top of that,” says Abbott. “She was a good friend, an awesome student and a good classmate.”
Despite all the new eyes on her as a result of the success of her sitcom, Brunson is rooted not only in the love and support she received from her family and teachers, but also the self-work she began at the age of 18. The latter effort, the actress says, has paid off immensely in both her life and her career.
“Going on a true self-worth and introspective journey before you go out into the real world, it’s lifesaving,” Brunson states. “I really want that for more young Black women. It’s a lot of stuff that’s thrown at us. And if we kind of do the work to know the ins and outs of who we are, it can provide a protective shield.”
Brunson recognizes how cruel and callous the world can be. It’s the reason she created
Abbott. And while the show, in reflecting real life, tackles some of the harrowing aspects of our education system, its intention is to make viewers feel better after watching.
“Life can be dark and horrible, but what makes humans so resilient is their ability to find the light in dark situations,” Brunson says. “I think that’s the only reason why we’re still on this planet. It’s certainly the only reason Black people are still here. Our ability to shine the light is really strong. That’s really important and I wanted to be a part of providing that.”
Writer: Veronica Wells @vdubshrug
Photography by JD Barnes / @jdthecombo Makeup: Renee Loiz using Dior Beauty at @tmgla Hair: Randy Stodgill @hairjunkierandy for Opus Beauty using GHD Stylist: Scot Louie @scotlouie for the @thewallgroup Stylist Assistant: Chad Hudson @treatment28 Fashion Market Editor: Marissa Pelly @marissa_pelly Manicurist: Alex Jachno @ajax_jachno at Opus Beauty using Chanel Le Vernis Prop Stylist: Charlotte Malmof @charlotte_props Video: Harold Henderson Editor: Tabitha Corley @giftoftabmedia
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