Justin Long is the last to introduce himself. First, the 35-year-old teacher asks his twelve students to say their names and do a dance move. The neurodiverse teenagers and adults in this musical theatre are bursting with energy. Long is Zooming into class from his creative studio in Pasadena, CA. He’s taught at The Miracle Project for two years. It’s a Tuesday night in January, the first class of a new semester.
During weekly introductions, Long waves one hand wildly. He smiles, revealing a prominent dimple just below a birthmark. He has a curly mohawk, which he dyed golden blonde months into the pandemic. He’s in a black t-shirt, with clunky black headphones. His brown stubble has gone slightly gray at the chin. When he introduces himself, his hands move up and down, in rhythm with the syllables of his name. Just-in. The students imitate him, all smiling. Most have done this before. One student, Laura, who’s 43, unmutes her microphone to tell the class, “I’m very lucky to get to know you all.”
You can see Long’s brightly-lit computer screen in the pupils of his brown eyes when he leans into his camera during facial warm ups. He purses his lips dramatically, squishing his face into a ball, and then expanding it as though he hopes his chin will touch his knees. He goes the full mile with every exercise: the goofier, the better. More important than singing or dancing, he insists, is building self-esteem. “Seeing everyone be so comfortable in their own skin, sharing their experiences and taking creative risks makes me smile,” he tells me later.
Long begins a sing-a-long, but a student, Elena, interrupts to tell the group she just had a birthday. Long gets everyone to sing a spirited “Happy Birthday.” “I love to sing,” he declares, pausing before adding an emphatic, “So much!” His voice overpowers the rest with a well-trained vibrato (he studied theatre in college and has played at some of LA’s most renowned theaters). He drops an octave for the final “happy birthday to you,” letting his voice blend into the cacophony of others. Although he always has a lesson plan, his top priority is to be present and listen intently to his students. He says he follows the “need of the moment.”
Long introduces the group song, at one point dropping briefly into a theatrical British accent. He plays the track — “Tonight Belongs to You” from the movie-musical The Prom — and bobs his head left and right to the beat. As the melody picks up, he gets his shoulders involved, and by the chorus he is full-on lip syncing, eyes wide and hands in the air. He occasionally holds his headphones, as though recording a song in a studio. His curls bounce when he giggles at a witty lyric. Two students lean in until they are just inches away from their cameras. Some jump to their feet and dance. Long is just as animated as he was an hour ago, at the start of class. “Their smiles make me smile,” he says after class.
Long sings the chorus acapella, so the students can hear the melody. One student, Heather, tells him, “You’ve got a great voice!” Long blushes. Although he loves to sing, he never wants to steal the spotlight in this class. He quickly encourages his students to try singing solo. Nearly everyone volunteers. As each sings, he cheers them on. “If I can help students find the courage to try and unapologetically be themselves, that makes me happy,” he says later.
When Long announces the end of class, many students place one hand in front of their cameras, preparing for a virtual “hands-in-the-middle” huddle. Faces inch forward as Long counts to three. They shout in unison “THE PROM,” in honor of the song they just sang. Their hands fly into the air. Long’s grin doesn’t fade as the students leave. Even after hours of virtual singing and dancing, he feels “energized and inspired.” Next Tuesday, he says, can’t come soon enough.