What I Learned As a Children's Birthday Party Edutainer
Every week, I'd dress up as a Mad Scientist and entertain children with lab experiments like melting a Styrofoam cup with nail polish remover. As embarrassing as it was, it made me feel important.
The year I turned 25, I became a children's birthday party entertainer. Or, actually, I became a Mad Scientist™ children's birthday party edutainer. At the time, I was going through your standard-issue millennial crisis and came to the realization I should "try acting," because that's always worked out well for people. I based my decision on my love for the craft, as well as my acting experience (zero) and my acting skills (also zero). "It's my dream," I told my mother, who then politely hung up the phone.
The thing about acting jobs is that they tend to be given to actual actors. And while I had an A+ Kid Rock impression, my resume pretty much ended there. I was in graduate school for social work, but I dreamed of becoming a drop-out. But the only company to even respond to my email for acting gigs was Mad Science of Brooklyn, a science edutainment company looking for "funny and fun!!!! Mad Scientist birthday party entertainers!!!!!!!" While I've never really liked science and I've certainly never liked "fun!!!!!" I still showed up early to my interview, hopeful and deluded.
Mad Science was located in one of those Brooklyn warehouse buildings that looks like a great place to either stage an art show or kidnap someone. Their office was in the basement, in a room with no windows. There, I was greeted by Proton Paul (his Mad Science alias has been changed for privacy purposes), a jolly fellow who spent half the interview performing magic tricks. Once he discovered I met all of his qualifications (yes, I ran my high school's science league, no, I am not proud of it), I was hired. For the next two years of my life, I'd travel around Brooklyn as "Hydrogen Heather: Mad Scientist Children's Birthday Party Edutainer!!!" bringing joy to children, and shame to my family.
Most people tend to think of children's birthday party entertainers as tragic clowns, surly criminals with terrifying music tastes. But Mad Science was just the opposite. Though clown membership is on the decline nationwide, Mad Science operates on five different continents in more than 20 different countries. There's Mad Science of Bahrain, Finland, Spain, Qatar, Oman, Nigeria, Peru, and even West Virginia. Divided by country, united by slime, Mad Science is, without a doubt, the largest organization of mad scientist children birthday edutainers in all of human history.
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Proton Paul was the perfect embodiment of all the science-positive ebullience Mad Science had to sell. He was a chemist by profession, and told me he started the franchise because it combined the two things he loved most: "science and kids!!!" While I obviously found Paul's answer to be gross, I loved him as a person. He was an enthusiastic coach and a patient teacher. Throughout the first month of my training, Paul helped me to build rockets and stop crying in the workplace. Paul was confident that one day—"with just enough practice, Heather!"—I too could become "The Chief Mad Scientist in All of Brooklyn" (not a real title).
Soon enough, "Hydrogen Heather" started doing parties all across the borough. Every week, I'd drag my 200-pound rolling suitcase up and down subway stairs to the Magic Jungle in Coney Island or the Creepy House in Crown Heights. Traditional science experiments, like creating soda bottle tornadoes, were heightened by outrageous science stories and my acting abilities. One of our most popular experiments involved me melting a Styrofoam cup with nail polish remover, then letting kids breathe in the fumes. "Smell that smell?" I'd ask them. "That's the smell of polymers, melting!" Thinking back, it might have actually been the smell of "your lungs, melting," but I was too drunk on my popularity with children to notice.
I didn't understand these people. Every party I went to was full of loving parents and children scrambling to get to the front row so they could learn on their birthday. How beautiful, I thought, how disgusting. My clients differed in age (most were between three and nine, with some loser 13-year-olds thrown in) and class (although predominantly middle-class, because who else spends $500 on "Edutainment?") but they were all identical in character. These kids were intelligent, earnest—the future bullying victims of America. "What gives slime its elusive properties?" a child asked me once. "That's not a word you should know at seven," I told her. "What is the Kelvin to Fahrenheit conversion ratio?" another asked. "I don't know and neither should you," I said. I didn't worry about what I said to these kids. I knew they would all attend private colleges, join a cappella groups, land pushover partners. Their lives would be embarrassing and fine.
It didn't make sense that Hydrogen Heather could help four-year-olds make magic but Real Heather couldn't get adults the help they really needed.
The truth was, working for Mad Science felt so much better than everything else in my life. While I trucked around Brooklyn with enough Borax to decimate ISIS, I was also in grad school for social work. I had a social work job where, every week, I was responsible for finding different and creative ways to say no: "No, we can't find your family housing." "No, your son will not graduate." "No, you won't get that check." "We don't have space." "We don't have jobs." "I am sorry." While I had held social work-type jobs for years, it felt particularly painful to hold both of these positions at once. It didn't make sense that Hydrogen Heather could help four-year-olds make magic but Real Heather couldn't get adults the help they really needed. I wanted to give these people everything, but the most I could often manage was a bus card.
I started to spend more and more time at Mad Science, where—and I'm ashamed to say this—I felt important. But while I dominated every children's birthday party (it's hard not to dominate when you're 20 years older), my finances lagged. Mad Science collected between $225 and $375 per party, but I received just $40 of that total sum. Yes, I could receive tips, but because the families didn't know that I got just 17 percent of their payment, my tips never went much higher than $20. (Another possibility: I was not very good.) If I factored in the time I spent commuting, I sometimes made as little as $6 an hour. I might have imagined myself as the "New York's Hottest Mad Scientist," but my paychecks said otherwise.
Sometime towards the end of my second year, I got a call to do a party at 9 PM on a Friday night. I thought it was a strange time to hold a party for a six-year-old, but I was a brazen and dedicated (single and bored) edutainer, so I took the gig.
When I first got to the party, everything appeared to be normal and boring. The just-vacuumed rug was home to a roving gang of violent tweenagers, covered in snot and Cheetos dust and filled with rage. "It's my dad's birthday too!" the birthday boy said when I walked in. There was lukewarm pizza and slices of bologna and an ambitious pile of celery sticks, clearly untouched. Just your traditional shitty American party, I sighed to myself, while downing some Capri-Sun.
About halfway through the party, I noticed something bizarre. A Jeep pulled up in front of the house, and a group of women—with great legs, Sketchers platforms, and hairstyles last seen in 1982—headed towards the back door. Have they all come to see me? I thought. God, I've really blown up. But weirdly enough, these ladies strutted straight past the living room and down into the basement, where I heard a group of loud men, shouting in Russian. "Party's in here!" I wanted to shout, before it hit me. These people weren't here to see Hydrogen Heather. This was a father-son joint birthday party. The kids didn't want to talk to the adults, and the adults didn't want to party with the kids. So they came up with a solution: For the child, they had hired a Mad Scientist, and for the father, a stripper.
I was in the presence of genius.
Needless to say, I made very good tips that night, no doubt benefitting from the "spirit of giving" that historically accompanies strip shows. While the kids had no contact with the strippers, I noticed they were slightly more feral than usual. Two punched me in the stomach, one asked me if I had "big balls" (I do not), and in what can only be described as a hate crime, a baby spit up on my lab coat.
Still, there comes a point in every Mad Scientist's life when you decide this needs to stop. I had come to Mad Science because some part of me actually, sincerely thought I could make it big. As lame as this is to say, I felt big on stage. But the paychecks, the slime, and the strippers—they all dissented. Handing out Metrocards at a methadone treatment center didn't make me feel important either, but at least the work was closer to my goals of creating substantive change in my community.
So I quit.
I believe this is the point in the essay where I'm supposed to go: "It's been six years since I last did Mad Science. Sometimes, I pull my lab coat out of the closet and wonder—what if?" But that's not true. I don't care and that baby did a fucking number on my lab coat, so I'll never put that thing on again.
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