On Teaching, Drag, and Crying in Parking Lots

Wig and styling by Moth Moth Moth, 2020. Photo courtesy of Marcus Menefree Photography.
Wig and styling by Moth Moth Moth, 2020. Photo courtesy of Marcus Menefree Photography.



By Moth Moth Moth



My name is John, most of the time, and for the rest of the time my name is Moth. I have worked as an art teacher in different camps, schools, and museums since around 2013. I have been a drag queen since 2016. I have a pink house, a handsome partner, and four cats. I teach kids of all ages throughout the week – from little babies to early teens. By day I am teaching my kiddos about printmaking, papermaking, drawing, painting, sculpture, and anything else we are interested in – sometimes we even make soap. By night, I am rearranging my face in the mirror, twirling on a stage, giving a midnight lecture on queer history, or making a new wig out of yarn and old videotapes. I also paint and write a lot.



I would say that I traverse many worlds throughout the day.



In my early career I made efforts to stifle my loud and proud extra visible queerness before walking in the door. I woke up early to get the paint off my nails. I worried that if people knew that drag was a big part of my art career then they may assume that I am a party animal and a heavy drinker. Only one of those things is true. I worried that if I explained myself as a queer, nonbinary, hyper-liberal freedom fighter it may be too much for the nerves of the daylight crowd.



As time went on, I felt a fear compounding within me. I love teaching kids, I love being a drag artist, and I love living in Memphis. How could I continue to do all three without one unraveling the other? What is the glass ceiling for a drag queen who prefers a PG-13 rating? How long could I work in education in the South before it all blows up, leaving me with nothing but an unpaid mortgage and a mouth full of ashen dreams?



There was a time when I found myself working in environments where there was no way to be myself. The chaos and confusion. At the time I had been searching for a new “grown up job” and one became available to me. I grabbed at the chance. I lasted a few months, but not without mental and spiritual damage sustained.



If I could astral through time and sit in the car with myself, crying in the parking lot of that former employer, I would say this: Hey starlight, those folks in there, they aren’t going to get it. While I know that you don’t like to give up on the humanity of others, you are going to have to make an exception and get yourself out of here. You walk in fear every day. When you leave you will promise yourself that we will not arrive here again. There are bigger, better, and more beautiful places to be.



Thankfully I don’t have to travel back in time to convince myself to quit. All it took was a Solange Knowles song and a couple of minutes of rocking back and forth under a table in the basement. The worst thing about navigating in this environment was that for months I felt like a failure for not being able to make it work. In all my cleverness, I was too stupid to find a livable angle. This is not what Carly Simon wanted for us.



I quit. Then I worked several jobs to get myself through. Including lots of drag shows, loads of walking ghost tours downtown, and an abundance of peanut butter sandwiches. I taught any class that I could. I saved money. I spent a lot of time looking into what part of the field would be exciting and inclusive. A public school would never take me, and I did not have the experience needed to open my own studio yet. After the year of one thousand gigs I found my way into another museum, this time working officially as their art teacher. This time in a secular organization with contemporary-minded people.



For the first time, I was encouraged to bring myself to work every day, which changed everything in my life. I am able to navigate my experience as a queer person who is a teacher on my own terms. I am allowed to prove my wits and talents. That acceptance is all I needed, and what every young queer person in the field deserves.



Moth performing at Gardens and Gowns, Fall 2018. Photo courtesy of the Dixon Gallery and Gardens.



I am lucky to have found a soft, supportive place to land, as I have spoken with so many who live under different stars: a woman who had to go back in the closet so she could transfer into a well-paying job, a nonbinary person of color who had been turned away from several jobs before the interviews had even begun. I have yet to meet a trans person who works full-time in children’s education. These stories should wound us. In a world that needs good teachers, how rotten it is to have so many cut off at the knees.



I do not know that I have any sage wisdom, but I can speak on my singular experiences. With the support of my organization, I was able to not only teach with my painted nails and flowered hats, but I have been able to bring Moth along for some educational adventures as well! From lectures on drag history to literacy programs, I have been able to bebop around in a big blue wig to entertain and inform families of all kinds. Having the space to bring all my vocations together generated the birth of a new vision for myself as an artist, teacher, writer, performer, and person. I am at my happiest when I get to stand in the intersection of these little worlds. As time goes on, I feel them all getting closer together. I hope that when the time comes it can all form a singularity and birth the next vision for my life. Until then, I can only offer these words. I hope that there is a darling soul who may find them useful.



Moth teaching printmaking at a Dixon Family Day Event, 2019. Photo courtesy of the Dixon Gallery and Gardens.



You have every right to stand tall no matter where you are or what you do. The world may try to frighten dignity out of you. I promise that you have the power to resist it. Look to Marsh P. Johnson, Walt Whitman, and Rebecca Sugar for guidance.



This generation of queer people are practically a new species. Many of us didn’t spend our young adulthoods in closets that turned into unhappy heteronormative marriages. Less of us have been chased by men in trucks with baseball bats. When I look at the crowd, I see a hundred shining eyes ready to invigorate the world with new ideas. I see light in us every day.



In closing, I can only say, if you are reading this and it is reflective of any part of your journey; I love you, and I will always believe in your power.



Moth Moth Moth is an artist, writer, educator, performer, and lover of this world.