Every other Tuesday in Storied, K. B. Hoyle explores the ways our cultural narratives act on us individually and in society as a whole.
In episode one of Abbott Elementary, second grade teacher Janine Teagues just wants to get new rugs for her classroom, and there’s no budget to make that happen. In a perfect world, it would be an easy fix, but low-budget public schools are not perfect worlds, no matter how hard teachers fight to make them the best possible environments for their students. Janine’s need for new rugs is a simple problem with a seemingly impossible solution, but she is bound and determined to make her classroom welcoming and comforting for her young students, because she understands that it is more than a space to learn numbers and letters—it’s a second home.
Abbott Elementary, which airs on ABC, is a sitcom that follows optimistic and indefatigable Janine (played by show creator Quinta Brunson) as she perseveres through the challenges of being a teacher at an inner city Philadelphia school, Abbott Elementary of the show’s title. The usual obstacles to teaching are exacerbated by the situational circumstances of inner-city life, but Janine takes it all in stride with vocational joy. While the other teachers at Abbott Elementary bring their own degree of perseverance to the job, Janine is the “Little Engine that Could” of the faculty. Not only because she is physically little, being roughly the same height as her young students (as she quips in episode one), but also because she keeps the energy and motivation of everyone on the faculty and in the student body in high gear, believing the best of her students and coworkers alike—with perhaps the exception of the exasperatingly unhelpful principal Ava, played by Janelle James. Janine never gives up on anyone or anything that needs doing, even when the odds and all conventional wisdom are clearly stacked against her.
Abbott Elementary is funny. It’s funny because kids are funny, and the situations that arise from schoolroom scenarios can be naturally hilarious. Anyone who’s ever spent any time in a classroom knows that teaching young kids is often like herding cats—barely-controlled chaos balanced with moments of poignancy and sweetness. And Abbott Elementary lets the chaos breathe for the sake of ethos.
But Abbott Elementary also bends genres. Lending a hefty dose of drama to the comedic elements of the show are the realities that make being a teacher—especially of young children—eternally weighty. Janine and her colleagues fill much more than the role of educational instructors. They are mentors, caregivers, comforters, and mental health advocates to classrooms full of children who will bond with them for ten months and then leave their care forever. Like all good teachers—no matter the circumstances—in order to teach their students, Janine and her fellows at Abbott Elementary have to love them with their whole hearts, even knowing that the nature of their job might make those relationships fleeting. The children will leave, more children will come. This is what it takes to be a teacher.
Although the first season focuses on the tenacity and perseverance of Janine, it is nearly as much about the struggle of long-term substitute teacher Gregory Eddie (Tyler James Williams) to find his place. Gregory steps in to teach for a suspended teacher early in the season, and he’s unsure how he should relate to the students—or his physical place in the classroom itself. Because he is a substitute, he feels his impermanence in the lives of his students even more keenly than teachers usually do. When, in episode three, Janine chides him for the bare walls in his room, he remarks that he doesn’t see a point in decorating when he’s just passing through. But, “the walls are the soul of the classroom!” Janine says. As with the rugs on her floor, she sees and understands the relational aspect in all areas of Abbott Elementary, even the building itself. “Let them speak from you, to your kids,” she tells Gregory about his walls.
In an effort to please Janine, to decorate the “soul of the classroom,” and to connect (without really connecting) with his temporary students, Gregory goes to an office supply store and purchases the first several motivational posters he finds, which he then slaps haphazardly on the walls. Meanwhile, his students—who love him unreservedly, as children do—have been drawing pictures of him and giving them to him as gifts. His desk drawers are filled with student artwork (and not just any artwork, but artwork of himself), but his walls reflect back to his students impersonal pithy motivational phrases and bad generic art. Gregory hasn’t figured out that just because his place in these kids’ lives is temporary doesn’t mean that it’s not worth cultivating relationships with them.
Teachers, of course, are always sojourners in the lives of children, whether they are substitutes like Gregory or full-time faculty members like Janine. And teachers are always cultivators—gardeners planting seeds they don’t usually get to see grow to full bloom. It takes a lot of faith, and a special kind of love, to cultivate relationships in temporary spaces.
It reminds me that life itself is temporary, but what we do here—in our relationships with people and with creation itself—has eternal ramifications. God did not set us into this world to live and work and die in meaningless and fruitless ways, but to fill the earth and subdue it, and to participate in the work of reconciling all things back to him. We are permanent people in a temporary world, and I think teachers understand that more than most. The classroom is a microcosm of the “Now and Not Yet”—the lifecycle of a teacher’s time with a child can be a picture of the unreserved love and stewardship we should give to the people who pass through our care.
Gregory eventually figures out that he should decorate his classroom with the artwork his kids have made of him. Even though his time with them is temporary, he shouldn’t be afraid to cultivate relationships with them. It’s important for his students to know that the “soul” of their classroom is mutual love and respect. It’s as important as it was for Janine to figure out how to get new rugs for her classroom in episode one, or how to fix any of the other maintenance issues she takes on throughout the season. The school may be a temporary place for the students to pass through, but the relationships she and the other teachers cultivate with the students have the potential to grow with them for eternity.
To Janine’s students, rugs are not just rugs any more so than the walls of Gregory’s classroom are just walls. When I watch Abbott Elementary, I’m reminded of second homes and the sacredness of the spaces we occupy, even when they’re impermanent. Because the impermanent houses the eternal.