Saint Abbott Elementary

Brian Howell

With my own years of teaching fifth grade on my mind, Abbott Elementary immediately rang true, from the ill-conceived plans to revolutionize teaching through technology to the seemingly small (but bureaucratically huge) infrastructure needs. I had all the feels as I watched the ABC/Hulu comedy series, including recognition of how the teachers and staff come together to love and serve their students. In the process, they learn to understand, need, and even love one another.

At the heart of this community is Janine Teagues (Quinta Brunson, who also created the show and wrote a handful of episodes). In her second year at Abbott Elementary, an under-resourced school in Philadelphia, Janine is still eager to serve the community and change the world. Alongside her is über-woke white guy Jacob (Chris Perfetti), who aims to “elevate the voices” of his students, and (potential) love interest Gregory (Tyler James Williams), who just wants to get through the day. The veterans of the staff are regal kindergarten teacher Barbara Howard (Sheryl Lee Ralph) and South Philly toughie Melissa Schemmentti (Lisa Ann Walter).

The subtle and significant dynamics of race, class, age, and gender provide honest and vital context for the series. In the first episode, Janine laments the lack of funding for basic needs while the city pays for a multimillion-dollar improvement to the Eagles’ football stadium. (There is an ironice touch involving the Eagles at the end of the episode.) Watching these (mostly) dedicated staff members come together to face the challenges of an unjust and broken world, I was reminded of another diverse, messy, at-times humorous, and mission-driven community facing insurmountable obstacles. This is the church.

As Abbott Elementary contrasts the enthusiasm of Janine with the realism of her more experienced colleagues, it immediately brought to mind the contrasts we encounter in the body of Christ. As new believers, we come to our faith energized by the vision of a beloved community and the kingdom of God. At the same time, we often start out with unrealistic visions of how we are going to “Make a Difference 4 Jesus.” We may be impatient with the older saints who seem too willing to let things go, take it slow, or talk about just “doing the work” instead of trying to change the system. Where’s their passion? Where’s the righteous indignation? Why do they seem so willing to accept flaws and limitations?

But then we encounter a bit of reality ourselves. In one episode of Abbott Elementary, Janine notices that a student is frightened by the flickering, fluorescent lights in the hallway. An Enneagram 8 if there ever was one, Janine declares that this problem will bend to her determined will. “The more senior teachers,” she informs us in one of the show’s many direct-to-camera addresses, “are just used to giving in, but I, however, am young, spritely, and know where they keep the ladders.” It’s not much of a spoiler to say things do not turn out as Janine expects. Later, in a heart-to-heart with Melissa, Janine laments the trouble she caused and asks, “How do you and Barbara stop yourselves from caring too much, if that’s a thing?” “Because it’s the opposite,” Melissa responds. “We care so much we refuse to burn out. If we burn out, who’s here for these kids?”

This captures a tension that lives at the heart of the show, and in the church. We all are called to care, but we can’t all live out that care in the same way. We need those idealists who, through the gift of faith, push to be “poured out like a drink offering.” We also need wise voices counseling us “to live a quiet life.” There is a need for each of us to bring ourselves to the mission of Christ, each in our own way.

TC Podcast: Perseverance (Abbott Elementary, Eddie Vedder’s Earthling)

Of course the church, like Abbott Elementary, is more than a mission. “In Christ,” writes Paul, “we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.” That part is the hard stuff. From Ava (Janelle James), the inept principal, to the decrepit building to the lack of funds, challenges continually arise, just as challenges arise to divide the church. How often has a congregation moved to build a new church in a more affluent area? How often do “problem” members of the community find themselves subtly excluded? Abbott Elementary can’t just pick up and move, nor can the teachers turn away their students. Perhaps the church shouldn’t, either. It’s not a matter of finding the nicest neighborhood or the easiest congregants, but loving the people in front of us and, perhaps most importantly, loving one another in the community where we are, with the people we are.

After carpooling to work with Jacob at the start of a mid-season episode, Janine learns that Jacob has been in a relationship with a significant other for two years, something he hasn’t shared with her in all their time together. To her chagrin, he explains the omission by saying that they’re “work friends.” In the teachers’ break room, Barbara tells Janine, “Look, we come here, we love our kids, we engage in some delightful repartee. We are good colleagues. And then we leave. There’s nothing wrong with that.” But Janine knows, and we know, there is something wrong with that. As we have seen throughout the season, the mission to love the kids and teach them well is more than just each individual doing his or her job. It takes all of Abbott Elementary loving one another, pulling each other up when they lack faith, coming around the weaker members, and even figuring out how to work with those who cannot, or will not, serve well. (We’re looking at you, Principal Ava.)

Like Abbott, the church is more than the work we do. The church is meant, as Janine says to her coworkers, to “love each other, like one, big happy family.” The others push back, but Janine presses on. (And presses, and presses.) We can take a page from Janine. Being a family is not just an evocative metaphor in the Bible. The church is transformed by the Holy Spirit to become children of God, as well as brothers and sisters to one another. Learning to love one another is not simply for the sake of what we must do; it is who we are.

Topics: TV