Photo: Gilles Mingasson/ABC
It’s been a long five months, but as of today the doors of Abbott Elementary are open again, just in time for the first day of fall. After Quinta Brunson and Sheryl Lee Ralph’s amazing Emmy wins, I’m even more excited to experience a full 22 episodes at my favorite Philadelphia public school. The staff and faculty of Abbott had hilariously predictable summers: Jacob went to Peru and also learned ASL, Ava had a hookah flavor named after her, Melissa spent time with her boyfriend, Gary, at the Jersey Shore, Barbara went on an all-inclusive cruise to Jamaica, and Janine adjusted to life without Tariq. Well, “adjusting” may be a stretch, as Janine is trying to convince us, and herself, that the breakup has not and will not interfere with her life. She’s starting this year with a fresh start and a new part. I feel her; every time I switch from a side part to a middle part I feel like I am transported to a different version of myself in a different universe.
The school year starts with Development Week, the preparation period the teachers use to get their classrooms ready for their students. In true Ava fashion, the principal kicks off development week with … an 8 am Eagles gameday tailgate (with paid parking, of course). After enjoying a barbecue breakfast, Ava hosts the Abbott teachers for orientation. Reminiscent of Michael Scott’s infamous slideshow slip-up featuring a picture of him and Jan on vacation, Ava “accidentally” starts her slideshow with two bad-bitch pictures of herself — and ensures Gregory notices them. She announces Janine’s contribution to Development Week: a teacher’s mixer featuring a segment called “Wisdom Swap” where senior teachers impart knowledge to the younger staff, an idea Barbara and Melissa scoff at. Janine, determined to be a new person this year, puffs her chest out and, instead of seeking validation, says, “I don’t have to change your minds, because it’s mandatory. So I will see you there,” gaining the respect of Barbara and Melissa.
In addition to the mixer, Jacob will host an ASL course, flexing the new skills he picked up after being inspired by CODE. I missed Jacob’s wholesome whiteness. Although he’s still picking up the language (at least now he knows knocking on the door requires hearing), his ASL comes in handy by the end of the episode when a deaf student arrives at the school. Accessibility is a theme throughout the episode, and the entire series, as Barbara is elated to create an accessible environment for a new student in a wheelchair. When helping Ava allocate the funds they received from the grant in the season-one finale, Barbara made sure to use part of the money to get a ramp installed in the school. The next part of her mission is to get an appropriate desk that would accommodate the wheelchair. Presenting accessibility in a non-patronizing and uplifting light is something I love about Abbott. The season-one episode in which Janine attempts to create a “gifted” program at the school but learns to celebrate the fact that all people learn in different, and equally respectable, ways is a great example of the subtle manner the show promotes equity.
Another thing Abbott does skillfully present the limitations of the American education system, specifically underfunded inner-city public schools. This year, Melissa is tasked with expanding her workload with a combined second- and third-grade classroom after gaining ten additional students because a nearby charter school took the third graders with high test scores, leaving not enough students to fill a class. Increased workload with little funding is a problem within schools across the country. Although COVID isn’t a barrier in Abbott Elementary (thank goodness — I love to escape the pandemic through my shows), it has exacerbated the overwhelming burnout and stress teachers feel throughout the country. The Alberta Teachers’ Association released a survey reporting that one-third of the teachers they surveyed were unsure about returning to the classroom. This high stress and anxiety have been ongoing problems even before COVID, and therefore they’re reflected at Abbott; one of the programs during Development Week is a mental-health-maintenance session.
A large contributing factor to burnout among teachers is the pressure to fit a large workload in a short period of time with limited resources. Gregory with his type-A personality is having a hard time with this in particular, and he vents to Barbara about the first-grade curriculum. Her response? “Welcome to the Philly public-school system, where you never have what you need.” He tries to solve this problem in the only way he knows how: micromanaging the issue to the point of widely unrealistic expectations. Creating an expansive calendar on his whiteboard, he meticulously plans the school year in its entirety, down to the minute. His painstakingly scrupulous tactics earn him an intervention from Barbara. She points out all the ways his plan could be subject to Murphy’s Law: What if a cold goes around the classroom, leaving students absent? What if one student takes longer than expected to grasp a concept? What if there’s a snow day? Funny enough, even though Barbara laughed at Janine’s idea of passing down wisdom, she ends up doing just that.
Gregory eventually warms up to the idea of relinquishing control. He comes to the conclusion that “everything is chaos, and we all lose,” but this is okay, because this realization is basically the first step towards mindfulness. Barbara once again mentors Gregory and gives him wise advice. She tells him, “Being a teacher is being asked to do the impossible year after year, and our only solution is to show up every day and try our best.” He rejects this notion, saying it’s unfair. She agrees but reminds him there’s really nothing to be done about it except do what they can, as she did with the ramp. Like the sweetheart he is, Gregory uses his attention to detail productively; remembering that Barbara said that Abbott has had students in wheelchairs in the past, so there must be an appropriate desk somewhere, he finds one in storage and surprises Barbara with it.
Janine is also in need of support and guidance; after breaking up with Tariq, she’s been struggling to keep up with her bills. She’s used to splitting rent 80/20, with Tariq paying 20 percent, but on her salary, she’s unable to keep up with living costs. She’s three months late on rent and dipping and dodging calls and emails from her landlord. When Jacob uses her computer to find a video, he sees one of the messages and immediately asks Janine if she’s in need of help. Janine, unable to admit to having a hard time post-breakup, brushes off his concern. Jacob goes to Gregory to try and talk sense into Janine, but she insists she simply has a repartee with her landlord. Trying to ignore her feelings, Janine throws herself fully into work and even arranges for the Philadelphia Flyers mascot Gritty to come to Abbott on the first day of school. Gritty is apparently beloved throughout the city, and the entire school is excited about his appearance. Except for Gregory, who doesn’t get Gritty. Honestly, neither do I, but I enjoyed their excitement.
Sadly for Janine, she unwittingly booked Gritty for the first day of school for the teachers and not the first day for the students. This happens right after her car gets booted due to Tariq’s parking tickets that went unpaid; Janine usually paid them, but in “an act of maturity” she chose to stop. The buildup of unfortunate events causes Janine to finally break down and admit to having a hard time. Her coworkers offer their support — Jacob loans her money he was intending to use on his student-loan payments and Melissa gives her advice that I may tape to my mirror: “You just gotta go through it, not over it. And you’re at the beginning, not the end.”
• I’d love a 15-minute mini-episode chronicling everyone’s summer, specifically Sea Barbara losing her shoes on the cruise and Jacob in Peru being called El Diablo Blanco.
• Zack Fox is hilarious; Janine saying breakups are hard for everyone then cutting to him bopping in the passenger seat to Lil Jon was perfect.
• Gregory and Janine’s will-they-won’t-they dynamic is so precious. Hey would be the only one to notice the change in her part. That made me melt.
• I missed Mr. Johnson so much. His answering random phone calls because around 2003 his phone number mistakenly got placed in numerous places in the school directory was too funny, and very on brand. I hope that school gets a replacement fire extinguisher eventually.
• Abbott may have the best one-liners in recent television. Here are my favorites from this episode.
Barbara: “I’m not playing with that boy this year.”
Melissa: “I don’t smoke or anything. I just like to be around it — it reminds me of my childhood.”
Barbara: “Mr. Johnson, that is a dining table from the cafeteria, and you are a fool!”
Ava: “Don’t put them glizzies too close to my rack old head!”