‘Abbott Elementary’ invests in understanding the past to positively inform the present and future of being an educator
If you want to share your opinion on a cultural, political or personal topic, create an account here and check out our handy article to learn more.
ABC Abbott Elementary School is a whole intellectual and absurd atmosphere.
In the tradition of Office and Parks and recreation, Abbott is the creation of an agile and subtle comic genius, Quinta Brunson, who stars as second-grade teacher Janine Teagues. Brunson directs a stellar and diverse cast and a bevy of child actors of African descent (African American and Afro-Latin), who flesh out the cast.
Teagues’ antagonist is a scheming, narcissistic, and sexually harassing doomsday prep, main Ava Coleman played by Janelle James. As despicable as Principal Coleman is, you can’t help but love her because she’s so sleek, well-groomed, and topped off with a lovely smile.
Wait. Narcissism is vile and sexual harassment is immoral and illegal. The verdict has not yet fallen on doomsday preparations, especially given the current pandemic.
OK, loving Principal Coleman, who puts his self-glorification above the best interests of the children, is more than problematic. Additionally, because of these traits, “she’s horrible at her job”. Even so, there is great interest in knowing what quirk or deficit in his personality will emerge in each episode. Who could have predicted that she would be an apocalyptic prepper? We also learned that she is an unethical social media influencer. Her ethics depend on who she posts and whether they won’t read the post. More on that later.
“Happy” is a word viewers, especially of a certain age, have at every sight of the Sheryl Lee Ralph, who plays co-worker, homeroom teacher and Teague’s mother, Barbara Howard – “a proud Christian.” An original “Dreamgirl” from the Broadway musical dream girls, Ralph retained his beauty, brilliance and timing. The pairing of Ralph and Brunson is a study in contrasts in terms of physique and demeanor. As characters, Ralph as Howard seems a foot taller than Brunson. Aren’t children much more often at least as tall if not taller than their parents? The size disparity lends itself to the quality that Teagues remains childlike, innocent, loving, and totally optimistic.
As a mother, Howard is much more experienced, wise, pragmatic and straightforward. Ralph brings so much composure and compassion to his role. His eye, swag, code-switching side is sharp in each case. She is neither a helicopter mom nor a tiger mom. Ralph’s character offers a refreshing take on motherhood, where she’s more of a mentor as part of professional comedy. In every episode so far, she has given Brunson’s Teagues the opportunity to overtake even though she warns him not to. In short, Howard allows Teagues to grow into your budding role as an educator at a fictional Philadelphia-based public elementary school. Howard skillfully applies a mother’s humor, dismay, sarcasm, support, affirmation, and even protection against Principal Coleman when she goes beyond pale as a scheming narcissist is prone to do. .
It is Howard who is subjected to Coleman’s unethical social media overreach in episode three. We even see Coleman filling Teagues’ teachers’ wish list with self-care items in a virtual social media post. Principal Coleman is, to say the least, wild and opportunistic.
Philly is the heart of Abbott Elementary. There are references to the Eagles, the NFL club and the R&B group Boyz II Man, originally from Philadelphia. Lisa Anne Walter, of parent trap fame, plays Melissa Schemmenti, a seasoned sophomore teacher who brings a sense of Philadelphia authenticity as a South Philly Italian. Schemmenti is street smart, the scion of a mass blue-collar network that she sources to benefit her beloved colleagues and students. She teaches children the common core and the equivalent of the street. For example, she teaches children that 100 is also a c-score. Schemmenti and Howard are friends and colleagues. There is respect and equanimity between the two. In short, it prepares them for life beyond the confines of Abbott’s elementary and formal education.
Teague is not without colleagues. Chris Perfecti plays Jacob Hill, another second-grade teacher like Teagues. She shared that they were forged as part of a “traumatic bond”. Hill is a well-read ally informed by the likes of public intellectual Cornell West and author Robin DiAneglo. Due to his propensity to share quotes and insights from his reading list and his work history somewhere on the African continent, Teagues hilariously refers to Hill at one point as “Ta-Nehisi Quotes”, a reference to Ta-Nehisi Coates, New York. Times bestselling author of between the world and me and The Water Dancer. Cultural references are cleverly placed with each episode of Abbott Elementary School.
Tyler James Williams who plays substitute teacher Gregory Eddie is a cultural reference in himself having played the main role in Everybody Hates Chris, a sitcom inspired by Chris Rock. There’s an expressiveness to his eyes and facial expressions that plays well in the mockumentary genre. His tall, lean body with broad shoulders plays well as he brings physicality to his role. He is a man among children in a world historically dominated by women. He is respectful of everyone. So much so that when Howard invites him to “sit” at a child’s desk while asking for advice, he does so without protest. Somehow, he fits his lanky body into the tight space between the back of the attached chair and the desk.
Abbott Elementary School is a clever comedy. A full appreciation requires knowledge of cultural and historical references – with many, but not all, unique to the African American experience. A failure to read and make themselves available to travel and a variety of places of people Abbott Elementary School beyond his understanding.
In an early scene, Brunson and his writers set out to depict the disparity, injustice, and malfeasance that cities often engage in when investing in sports stadiums beyond the education of their children. This scene is reminiscent of the scene at the beginning of the first episode of Ava DuVernay and Colin Kaepernickis exceptional Quail in black and white, where it is made clear that the physique at the NFL Combine is a throwback to the auction block of the era of chattel slavery in the United States. Today’s most athletic men are gagged like humans who buy and resell.
Another actor worth mentioning is William Stanford Davis, who plays Mr. Johnson, the school janitor. It depicts middle-aged men who, by circumstance, were either very skilled with their hands or had limited employment opportunities due to their melanin content and the era in which they were born. He is a janitor, but he reigns over his perch: building maintenance. Johnson also represents those who believe in conspiracy theories (or what are believed to be conspiracy theories). We learn, when Principal Coleman sets it up as a temporary emergency submarine that, as he points to the word “Illuminati” on the board, “who runs the world, the children.” At another point, Teagues mentions that he “voted for Kanye for president.” Johnson is the epitome of a nation’s failure to educate its citizens – poignant for our times and fitting for this comedy.
Artists like Brunson and a multitude of creatives from the BIPOC communities and their allies are the conscience of the United States. They are the ones who invest in understanding the past to positively inform the present and the future. That’s why it’s great that Brunson and his team put education at the center. For this, we owe his mother, an educator, a debt of gratitude.