I heard about Abbott Elementary from the place I hear about all my new TV shows: Twitter. To be honest, I was hooked from the mere mention of Quinta Brunson, the show’s creator of ‘Oh he got money’ fame. I always loved her, ever since the Buzzfeed YouTube channels were colour-coded. So when I heard she came out with a new show, I had to watch it (after the obligatory three months of procrastination, of course.)
When I finally did get around to watching it, god did I wish I had started sooner.
For those of you who haven’t heard of Abbott Elementary, the show takes place in Philadelphia in an underfunded public elementary school (or an underfunded state primary school, depending on your persuasion). The show follows Janine Teagues (Quinta Brunson), a new second-grade teacher at William R. Abbott Elementary who is as full of optimism as she is hopelessly naive. She is joined by a cast of other teachers, including Barbara Howard (Sheryl Lee Ralph), a veteran at Abbott, Gregory Eddie (Tyler James Williams), a new substitute, Jacob Hill (Chris Perfetti), a corny 6th grade teacher, and Melissa Schemmenti (Lisa Ann Walter), a streetwise South-Philadelphian. She is also supported by an incompetent principal (Janelle James) and a wise-cracking janitor (William Stanford Davis). While this show harkens back to the many work-place mockumentaries before it, this one in particular hits home for me for several reasons.
Some much needed context. I grew up in Baltimore City, Maryland, two hours south of Philadelphia. If the first thing you think of when I mention my hometown is Hairspray, then you’ve got yourself a very inaccurate picture of my childhood. If your first thought is The Wire, well, you’re a little bit closer.
If you’ve never heard of Baltimore City, here’s a couple of helpful statistics. Baltimore City is a medium-sized city of 585,000 residents. It is 64.2% Black compared with the United States’ 12.1%. According to the 2020 census, 20% of Baltimore residents live in poverty compared with America’s 11.6%. Our murder rate per 100,000 is 49.3% higher than the whole of the United States’.
Like 82,000 other young people in my city, I attended public school my entire life. Our public schools are notoriously underfunded. In 2017, when I was a junior in high school, Baltimore City Public Schools experienced a $129 million budget deficit which resulted in the layoff of 1,000 teachers and staff. A coalition of parents, teachers, and civil rights activists recently alleged to a Baltimore circuit court judge that our schools were underfunded by between $442 million and $705 million. This is due to many factors, race being chief among them. After all, 74.3% of students are African American and 15.7% are Hispanic/Latinx. I was among the 7.3% of students who are white.
My schools definitely saw the impact of this lack of funds. Our boiler constantly broke down in the winter, which left us shivering in coats and gloves in maths class. We didn’t have aircon, which meant sweating on 38 degree days. Our pipes burst the year after I left school which saw my friends wading through gray water puddles on their way to English. Our desks and school supplies were often as old as our gymnasium, which was added to the main building in 1978.
I began watching Abbott Elementary expecting a silly comedy with small conflicts that drove each episode. I didn’t expect to tear up at a shot of water dripping from the ceiling into a bucket during a rainy episode. It just hit me all of the sudden. That feeling of déjà vu overwhelmed me. At that moment, Abbott Elementary wasn’t a fiction school in Philadelphia, but a school in North Baltimore that I remembered all too well.
When I watched the scene in the pilot wherein Janine let her student sleep on the classroom rug during lunch, I was transported back to my kindergarten. Suddenly, Janine wasn’t Janine, but my teacher who let my classmate continue sleeping past nap time because she didn’t get much sleep at home.
When I watched the scene when Greg gets hit with the squirty, malfunctioning toilet, I was transported back to high school and to our toilets that used to overflow and burst the pipes if you flushed all of them at once.
Janine Teagues, and all the other teachers at Abbott, are so familiar to me, it is as if I had taken their classes myself. I know Abbott Elementary as well as if I had walked its halls. Honestly, I basically have. Quinta Brunson has created a masterpiece of a show, not just because of its characterisation and comedic timing, but because she is able to conjure the true image of an underfunded public school in a poverty-stricken, crime-ridden city with the finesse of someone who also lived through it. The only difference between the experiences of the Abbott kids and mine, is that I’m old enough now to appreciate what teachers like Janine did for kids like me.
So whether you’re a fan of The Office or an American public school alumni, Abbott Elementary is a delight of a show which is bound to continue being so in the seasons to come.
Image courtesy of ABC/Pamela Littky.