is like a time capsule of American adolescence in the twenty-teens - when everyone's an online video star, and those who want to be actual stars, like this actor-singer-dancer-writer-producer-director, have to shine that much brighter.
, dancing alone in a studio with great purpose and charm to Justin Bieber's "Baby." That big smile on our Justin's round brown face belies the serious concentration of placing each oversize white sneaker in exactly the right spot, popping and locking 'til all five feet of him is one thrilling blur of movement.
, delivering an original hip-hop paean to his school, a "24/7" online operation that follows him from LA to South Carolina to New York as he nails auditions and does his time on set. "School so cool, I feel like I'm in heaven," he raps. "This is The Justin Myrick - peace, I'm out."
, suddenly tall and slyly handsome - not a cute kid any more, but a striking young man - half-joking on his vlog about a recently soured romance, breaking into song about Black History Month, and promoting a couple of forthcoming gigs.
"Watch for me, The Justin Myrick, in the independent movie
with Hayley Joel Osment," he says, grinning at the camera. "And a new comedy coming out on Fox - can't tell you what it's called yet, but it's starring a couple stand-ups you all know, plus me, The Justin Myrick, as the little brother. You can't miss me."
How Justin S. Myrick, a fifth grader at West View Elementary School in Spartanburg, SC, became The Justin Myrick, soon to be seen with Alfre Woodard in a new film by a protégé of Spike Lee, is a familiar "Star Is Born" story with a particularly modern twist. Justin's mom, Lisa Lopez, who suggested his catchy stage name, remembers it this way:
Justin was in a play at our church - it wasn't even that big a part - but a mom came up to me afterward and said, "He's really got something, you should get in touch with this agent I know." I thought, for sure this lady doesn't know anybody in the business...but it turns out, she did. The agent we sent Justin's picture and bio to had us come up to New York right away and sign a contract on the spot.
Soon Justin was doing local commercials and sending off video auditions for national gigs. Fifth grade turned to sixth, middle school began, and suddenly Justin's theater dreams collided with what Lisa calls "the 8:05 to 3:25" hard-coded schedule of his brick-and-mortar school. Recalling this collision, Lisa said:
That fall he went up to New York to audition for The Lion King. He missed a day of school for that trip. Then he was one of 60 kids to get a callback - another couple of days of travel. Then they brought back 20 kids, and he was one of them - then it was down to 3 kids. By that point he'd missed more than five days of school and it was only October.
That's when Lisa and her husband Steve noticed the ads for the various virtual public charter schools that serve students across South Carolina. Though Justin did not in the end get The Lion King, he did get a new school,
, which has allowed him to stay on top of his studies through extended stints in California (for Nickelodeon, a Modern Family walk-on, and a bit in the hilarious online series Children's Hospital), New York, and elsewhere. He's done voiceover work, including audiobooks like Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, been featured in a national print campaign for Target complete with billboard-sized posters of his jeans-wearing self in stores across the U.S., and appeared in a "What Would You Do" segment on ABC about the practice of sandwich-board shaming as a form of punishment for recalcitrant kids. For that one, Justin plays a teen caught stealing and forced by his mom to wear a sign saying "I'm a Thief" and "Sticky Fingers" on a busy street corner. The real Justin Myrick - still a church going young adult who includes a "ma'am" in every sentence - would never find himself in such a predicament, and yet he was persuasive enough that 99% of passersby said they approved of his sandwich-board sentencing. That particular clip on his YouTube channel has been viewed more than 70,000 times.
Justin the student is also going strong. Now in his third year of high school, Justin is taking the usual junior course load: Algebra 2 English 11, Government, Physical Science, Spanish. He's maintained a solid academic record throughout his time in online school, mostly A's and B's, with just a few dips, mostly in math, along the way. Lisa admits to being a broken record about his GPA: "I keep saying 3.5, 3.5 - you maintain a 3.5 and you can get into college almost anywhere." For his part, Justin really likes the flexibility of virtual learning - "If I have a shoot at 1 pm, I can do school 'til 10 am, go to work, and then finish school after we wrap," he says - but he sometimes feels like he's a little too much on his own as a learner. "I can phone or email my teachers if I'm stuck, and they do get right back to me, but it's not the same as having them right there like in a regular school," he says.
Through his school Justin is part of a nationwide online Visual and Performing Arts "speciality academy," where he meets other young people as ambitious as he is. Visual and Performing Arts students gather in web conferences to trade career tips, talk about their work, and hear guest speakers (a TV producer here, a Grammy-winning studio musician there). They even staged an online talent show last spring in which Justin was a featured performer. The Visual and Performing Arts students are still talking about the "geek swagger" of Justin's streaming live performance of his original song, "Get It In," for which he swept off his Urkel-sized glasses (a recent addition to his look, along with Invis-Align braces) to rap, clap, and dance in a Cookie Monster T-shirt behind a vintage-looking Blue Snowball USB mic.
That's the kind of thing Justin wants to do more of: create his own material (whether musical, theatrical, or both) and produce it himself. "I'm learning how to use all of these new tools for shooting and editing, and I'm writing all the time," he says. He's been working on some "webisodes" (inspired in part by his Children's Hospital experience) and is focused now on building up his social media following, which should be helped by the emergence from post-production of two recent indie films he performed in. He's even launched his own production company. He's going DIY all the way, and he's grateful his school is flexible enough to accommodate each new twist.
Lisa takes the long view of her son's multi-hyphenate path. "Justin is laying the foundation he needs so that 20 years from now he'll not only be financially successful but emotionally healthy, with good friends and family around," said Lisa, "That means college and work he really cares about, not just short-term fame. He's smart that way."
Or as his latest lyrics say, "Clap your hands, stand up, stand up...The Justin Myrick never stops."
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Young people are taking control of their own pathway to careers, college and contribution. Powered by digital learning, "GenDIY" is combatting unemployment and the rising costs of earning a degree by seeking alternative pathways to find or create jobs they love. Follow their stories here and on Twitter at #GenDIY.
Mickey Revenaugh is Executive Vice President at Connections Academy. Follow Mickey on Twitter at @MickeyRevenaugh.