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Poor Reception

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Why do people tune out television shows that feature teachers and schools?

Like television, I'm going to tell some stories so that maybe from the mustering of a few intimate details we will arrive at the Bigger Pixel.

There was Jonathan Kozol on public television on a Thursday night in September 1996 talking about how little money our nation spends on educating the children of the poor and how much we seem to resent even these pinched pennies. The splendid rage of this Citizen of Virtue—Robespierre came to mind, so did Spinoza grinding lenses—reminded me of 30 years ago in Boston, where the very same Kozol had shamed me into teaching reading and composition to an attic full of teenage girls in an Episcopal church in the Roxbury ghetto. These quick-witted, slow-burning, high-flying Caribbean birds of paradise had been discarded by Boston's School Committee: bagged, tagged, and trashed. Yet they'd show up two nights a week in our attic to read Paule Marshall and Ralph Ellison, to discover metaphor in the lyrics of Bob Dylan, to proceed from diary keeping to short story writing, and to tell me things I had not wanted to know about the streets. Much later, I would receive invitations to several graduations from colleges such as Spelman and Shaw. But this was some years after all we yogurt-faced do-gooders had been told to leave Roxbury in the spring of 1967, pursuant to the secret resolutions of the Newark Black Power Conference. Or else.

As furious as I was to be bagged, tagged, and trashed myself, I was also relieved. Teaching was harder work than writing novels. I would try it again, for a year in the late 1970s, commuting by Amtrak Metroliner between New York and Philadelphia for a fiction workshop at the University of Pennsylvania, which was harder than writing articles for the New York Times. And I would try teaching for a third time for several years in the late 1980s at Columbia University, traveling by bus to Morningside Heights for weekly seminars on practical criticism, which was harder than reviewing books for National Public Radio, television for New York magazine, and the politics of culture for New York Newsday—especially because all the journalism grad students wanted from me were trade secrets on the trick of attitudinizing, as if they already knew how to think.

I miss Roxbury, but not teaching. The pay's lousy, and not only do students talk back, but they're also needy. They have alcoholic fathers, passive-aggressive mothers, problems of sexual identity, and anxieties about money. And I am not worthy. I know just how unworthy I am by looking around me. I am surrounded by real teachers.

My wife teaches history and political science at a private school in Manhattan. My daughter teaches the Middle Ages and the Reformation, and my daughter-in-law teaches comparative literature and postmodern theory to college freshmen on the Left Coast. My stepdaughter, when she isn't writing for slick magazines, tutors troubled kids in English, French, and math. They are heroic, and there is no good reason why they shouldn't be celebrated on prime-time television at least as much as doctors, lawyers, cops, and cowboys. Most of us, after all, will spend more time in school than we will in hospitals, courts, or prisons, not to mention on a horse.

But it hasn't worked out that way. Though the TV schedule is subject to periodic seizures of enthusiasm for the classroom as a contested site for competing narratives—for instance, five new teacher series in the fall of 1996—the audience resists. The audience has always resisted. Gunsmoke moseyed on for 20 years in prime time, and Perry Mason kept winning cases for 17, but you won't find a single teacher show in the top 100 TV series since 1948. Mr. Peepers, with Wally Cox teaching science and Tony Randall teaching history, lasted three years in the 1950s and got its highest rating when Mr. Peepers married the school nurse. Our Miss Brooks, with Eve Arden teaching English and Richard Crenna teaching biology, lasted four in the same decade, though Miss Brooks didn't get to marry Mr. Boynton until they made a Hollywood movie. Mr. Novak, with James Franciscus teaching English and Dean Jagger and Burgess Meredith as principals, lasted just two seasons in the 1960s. Room 222, with Lloyd Haynes teaching history and facing up in the inner city to drugs, dropouts, and racial bias, had a comparatively long run of four-and-a-half seasons, through January 1974.

I don't miss teaching. The pay's lousy, and the students are needy. They have alcoholic fathers, passive-aggressive mothers, and problems of sexual identity. And I am not worthy.

Although Fame, set in New York City's High School for the Performing Arts—and introducing us to the talents of Debbie Allen, Lori Singer, Cynthia Gibb, Janet Jackson, Nia Peeples, Carrie Hamilton, and Eric Pierpoint—also lasted four years in independent syndication, it had been canceled by the NBC network after a single season, in 1982-83. The Bronx Zoo, with Ed Asner playing a high school principal very much like Lou Grant, also vanished after a single difficult season, 1987-88, during which Ed himself got shot. TV 101, a dramatic series about a high school media workshop, got the ax after one controversial season during which it had the temerity to suggest that a pregnant teenager might actually contemplate having an abortion. Nor did Montel Williams do much better, despite the help of veteran filmmakers such as Joan Micklin Silver, moonlighting from his talk show for one abbreviated season in 1995 as an ex-Green Beret teaching high school science.

Slapstick seasoned with stupidity apparently contributes to a longer run. Welcome Back, Kotter lasted four years on ABC in the late 1970s, with Gabe Kaplan indulging a Brooklyn high school remedial class of "sweathogs" that included John Travolta. Head of the Class lasted five on the same network, from 1986 through 1991, with Howard Hesseman as the substitute teacher of a class of nerdy geniuses—among them Robin Givens before she married Mike Tyson—who knew everything about physics, literature, and the density of oxygen on Mars but nothing about sex or baseball. (From Head of the Class, besides jokes about Einstein, Phil Donahue, Marilyn Monroe, William F. Buckley Jr., and "getting it on with Sara Lee," we also learned that all the poems of Emily Dickinson can be sung to the tune of "The Yellow Rose of Texas.") We seem more comfortable spending classroom time in the company of scholar-athletes, as in The White Shadow, with Ken Howard as a white coach of a mostly black high school basketball team, which lasted three years on CBS. The Wonder Years isn't usually counted as a school show, although, in the six-season span of this growing-up-in-the-'60s sitcom, Fred Savage spent more time daydreaming at Robert F. Kennedy Junior High School than he did at home with his bewildered parents.

Of those five new teacher series in the fall of 1996, four were canceled in the summer of 1997: Dangerous Minds, a movie spinoff with Annie Potts in the Michelle Pfeiffer role of an ex-Marine who brought to her classroom the compassion and cunning of a social worker and a nun, plus the survival skills of a navy Seal and a Zapatista; Pearl, in which Malcolm McDowell as a godlike college professor met more than his caustic match in Rhea Perlman as the blue-collar grandmother (with idiosyncratic opinions on Moby Dick as Charlie the Tuna) who had decided that it's never too late to go back to school; The Steve Harvey Show, with the comic as a 1960s soul musician reduced to teaching music and drama to an out-of-control hip-hop generation ("I haven't worked this hard since I filled in for one of the Pips"); and Mr. Rhodes, with Tom Rhodes as a worst-selling novelist who, between Michelle Pfeiffer jokes, would rather teach The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test than Silas Marner at a stuffy prep school. The worst of these five, Nick Freno: Licensed Teacher, survived for a second season on the fledgling seminetwork WB. Mitch Mullany played the title role, an out-of-work actor, "emotionally stunted man-child," and Jim Carrey wannabee who substitute taught with Forrest Gump shrimp-boat jokes while leaving his needy students in the lurch whenever there was an audition for a part in a soap opera.

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