The Beauty of ABC’s ‘Abbott Elementary’

My mother has worked in the school system since I was in preschool. For most of that time she was a teacher. When she retired, she ran for the school board and won. She is now serving her third term. She’ll be 80 years old in November.

My brother is also a teacher, as is his daughter.

All my life I have seen up close the struggles and joys of teaching: the papers spread out on the dining room table, separated into two stacks, the ones that had been graded and those that had not. I would help my mother with her bulletin boards in the beginning of these years and help her process through the long parent-teacher conferences in the middle of these years.

I remember the home visits she made, sometimes to talk about a student who was struggling, sometimes to take dinner to a family that was hard on its luck.

I remember the students in our home as my mother bounced back and forth between helping them through homework and making dinner, so deeply connected to the children that they all called her Mama.

Maybe that is why the series “Abbott Elementary” has struck such a chord with me, because it reminded me of the beautiful struggle of people like my mother, who take on the all-consuming task of teaching.

That show is about a gaggle of well-meaning teachers — both Black and white — at a struggling, majority-Black Philadelphia elementary school with an aloof and incompetent principal. But it could well have been set anywhere.

The show is a sensation. It set ratings records for ABC and is only growing in popularity, resonating with many more people than just teachers and the people who love them.

The show illustrates that while there may be inequities in funding for these schools, there is no shortage of teachers who care and are determined to do the best they can for their students.

It refocuses the lens on the nobility of the profession, the way that teachers are driven more by mission than money, more by the need to make a difference than to make a killing.

There is a purity and innocence in it. It offers comfort in a time of strife and anxiety. Race is always present but not always central. This is a story about shared humanity.

It reminds you that many teachers are everyday heroes, not only teaching our children, but inspiring them, loving them and protecting them.

It is interesting that this show has burst onto the scene at the same time that a culture war is playing out in our schools and the teaching profession is straining under the weight of the pandemic.

Republicans in state after state are introducing bills to prevent educators from teaching a comprehensive, accurate version of American history, with all its complexities and trauma, especially as it relates to race. A report by the education website Chalkbeat last week found that at least 36 states have “adopted or introduced laws or policies that restrict teaching about race and racism.”

A Florida bill, backed by that state’s governor, would prohibitschools and private businesses from making people (read “white people”) feel “discomfort” or “guilt” based on race. Good luck enforcing that. Exactly how does one measure discomfort and guilt? Are those floating emotions, presenting differently in different people?

Every Black child, or child of color, or gay kid could argue that the absence of accurate representation of their groups in class discussions makes them feel discomfort. The blindfold can always be flipped.

Furthermore, there is a raging debate about masking and vaccination in schools as the pandemic has been politicized. As an Axios/Momentive poll from August found, a parent’s political party tended to align with their opposition to school mask mandates, with 56 percent of Republican parents opposed to the mandates versus 24 percent of Independents and 4 percent of Democrats.

Because of this, the threats to teachers have increased dramatically, so much so that in October, the United States attorney general directed the F.B.I. and the U.S. attorneys’ offices to discuss strategies for addressing what it called a “disturbing trend”: “an increase in harassment, intimidation and threats of violence against school board members, teachers and workers in our nation’s public schools.”

On top of all that, and perhaps because of it, teachers are leaving the profession in droves, including Black teachers. According to a report by the RAND Corporation last year, “nearly one in four teachers overall, and almost half of Black teachers in particular, said that they were likely to leave their jobs by the end of the 2020-2021 school year.”

The teachers in “Abbott Elementary,” particularly the young, Black, idealistic ones, show us what is at stake as we tighten the vise on educators. They remind us that these are not just pawns in a political game, but real people, often the best kind of people, doing the best they can with too little and not been applauded nearly enough.

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