Finding Miss Nelson

Posted 4/29/21

By JOHN HOWELL Miss Nelson is not missing. She is teaching fourth grade at Scott Elementary School. But this week, her class will focus on the University of Rhode Island Theatre Department production of the children's play "Miss Nelson is Missing."

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Finding Miss Nelson


Miss Nelson is not missing. She is teaching fourth grade at Scott Elementary School.

But this week, her class will focus on the University of Rhode Island Theatre Department production of the children’s play “Miss Nelson is Missing.”

There’s more to this story than the coincidence of names or that both the fictional Nelson and the real Nelson are teachers.

URI freshman Liam Roberts, who plays Detective McSmogg in the play, attended Scott School. His fourth-grade teacher was Tracy Nelson.

Nelson is not surprised Roberts should be involved in theater or that he has a lead in the play.

“He was always good in the arts. He has a great imagination,” she said. She adds that as a fourth-grader, Roberts had a good work ethic.

Roberts used “unique” to describe the Miss Nelson he remembers from elementary school. He said she had weekly writing assignments and would pull desk inspections that he feared.

He called the inspections “terrifying,” for if the desk failed to meet Miss Nelson’s standards, she would dump out the contents. Roberts kept a tidy desk so he avoided a desk dumping. He described Nelson as being kind yet authoritarian.

He credits her “with helping me grow in writing and being a person.”

Roberts is majoring in secondary education with a minor in theater. It’s a path that Nelson also followed, sans the theater.

Ironically, Nelson took the same theater course that ended up propelling Roberts into the cast of the play that is being streamed to classrooms across the state this week. A total of 470 teachers statewide signed up to show the production between April 25 and 30. Nelson won’t forget dancing and singing in the musical the class composed and performed. She learned from the experience that the theater was not a career she intended on pursuing.

“I didn’t say I was good at it,” she said.

She went on to earn a master’s degree in education, finding satisfaction in those “light bulb moments” when students are learning – to help, as she put it, “instill the love of learning.”

Roberts, who was active in theater as a student at Toll Gate, said he has enjoyed creating the character of Detective McSmogg. He carries a Scottish accent for the role and described McSmogg as “goofy” all with the purpose of soliciting lots of laughs.

Roberts has had roles in stage and radio plays, but this is a first before a camera rather than a live audience.

“It’s weird,” he said, “you don’t know if the jokes are landing.”

Liam, as Nelson said, “is the baby” of the Roberts clan. She also taught his older brother and sister. She said the Roberts family was engaged in Scott School and frequently involved in events.

Did Ms. Nelson play a role in Roberts’s decision to pursue education as a career?

Roberts gives that credit to another teacher, a member of the staff at Toll Gate High School who has been teaching there for 40 years.

“A lot of my inspiration stemmed from my high school Italian teacher Joseph Paliotta and the passion he instilled in me for the Italian language but without the encouragement to imagine and to be outgoing I received from my elementary school teachers it is likely I would not be pursuing a career as a teacher,” Roberts wrote in an email.

It couldn’t be determined whether Roberts might return to Scott School – perhaps as McSmogg – for the viewing of the play or the class projects Nelson plans around the play. Nelson thought that might prove difficult because of COVID regulations.

And does she think she fits the Miss Nelson in the play?

“I’m literally Miss Nelson,” she said. Nelson is not married, but she enjoys her role as “auntie.”

Yet, she has kids.

Roberts is one of many.


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