Vincent Safuto’s Weblog

Notes and observations

Gabe Kotter, enemy of America

In general, it’s dangerous to mine old 1970s sitcoms for deep ideas, mainly because most of my co-workers have no idea what I’m talking about, but a recent story in the news brought back a lot of memories.

John Travolta, before he became really, really famous, played a high school student named Vinny Barbarino in a TV series called “Welcome Back, Kotter.” Of course, Travolta was in his 20s – as were the rest of the actors playing high school kids – but still, I had to deal with people calling me Vinny “Barbarino” a lot. I wish I could have had “Bar-Bar-Bar-Bar-Barbarino”’s action with women, though.

In any case, the word on the streets is that there will be a reunion of some of the ensemble cast at the TV Land Awards in April.

A series like that about education could only take place in the 1970s. It starred Gabe Kaplan as Gabe Kotter, a former misfit and underachiever who becomes a teacher at the same high school where he was a teenage misfit and underachiever, teaching in the same classroom where he underachieved.

You can’t imagine such goings-on today, but the students in that class were called “sweathogs” and Kotter was the model, apparently. On YouTube, I watched the old intro sequence with the song by John Sebastian, and some of the first episode. It is still funny, in that sepia-toned, nostalgic sort of way.

At work recently, I mentioned it to the 20-somethings on the copy desk, and wondered how such a show would play today in the age of standardized testing and iron-clad, zero-tolerance discipline. I suppose the kids today would see “Welcome Back, Kotter” as either evidence that school could actually be fun or that it explains a lot about their parents or grandparents.

I imagined episodes like “The Sweathogs Fail to Make Adequate Yearly Progress,” “Mr. Kotter Gets Canned for Being Ineffective” or “Mr. Kotter Gets Sent to the Rubber Room for Not Following the State-Sanctioned Curriculum.”

In truth, I was the antithesis of a sweathog in high school. I went to Newtown High School in Elmhurst, N.Y., from 1974 to 1978, and I will admit that there was some discipline, but some of the classes could be pretty free-wheeling at times. In one English class, half the time would be spent dissecting the previous night’s episode of “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman,” while in another a teacher would talk about his experiences in World War II, and another would talk about his wife and kids.

New York City was in the midst of its budget crisis and education had been slashed to the bone. There were no extracurricular activities, few electives and little in the way of sports save one basketball and one baseball team. Most of us in the school were used to getting our entertainment outside of school, in any case, so we were eager to vacate the premises when the bell rang signaling the end of school for the day.

There was standardized testing, and your life (and advancement in school) did depend on it. The dreaded New York State Regents’ exams in various subjects were a terror for us, and one sure way to get our attention was for the teacher to say, “This will definitely be on the Regents’.”

I was not the greatest student in the world, but I mostly paid attention, did the work and showed up for school. My diploma is listed “with merit,” and I graduated thinking I knew everything I needed to know.

The thing is, back then if you decided to stop trying no one expended all that much effort to reverse your course. And if you tried to blame the teacher for your inability to excel in class, you’d get a hell of a lecture from your parents about how blaming others for your screw-ups was not the right way. One teacher at Newtown had a saying: “Be not screw-ups.”

Certainly, there were performance standards for the teachers, but the idea of blaming the bad students on the teachers was just in its infancy.

Today, Gabe Kotter would be out on his ass, and probably Vinny Barbarino, Arnold Horshack and the sweathogs of James Buchanan High School would have been “zero-toleranced” out of school and into the justice system long before Mr. Kotter got to tell his first joke.

Teaching today is about pouring the contents into the curriculum into the waiting brains of the young, then awaiting the regurgitation of said contents onto scan-tron forms so teachers can get evaluated and politicians can take the credit for the success and get re-elected or move up, and the teachers can be blamed collectively for the failures.

The word is that Gabe Kaplan so far isn’t coming to the reunion. Maybe he has the right idea. Seeing what education has become would certainly inspire me to stay away, too.


March 6, 2011 - Posted by | Life lessons, Living in the modern age | , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

1 Comment »

  1. i am rolling on the floor in laughter at this.i thought i mwas the only one who felt like this

    Comment by pat safuto | March 18, 2011 | Reply

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