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Saturday, August 25, 2012

Disney's Recess

When I was in elementary school, I had a love/hate relationship with recess.

For those of you who may not be familiar with the term “recess” (as some of you reading this blog might be from outside of North America), a recess is a portion of the school day which serves as a break from instruction and lessons.  During a recess period, children were sent outside to go play on the schoolyard equipment, sign out sports equipment to play a quick game of basketball, or build sand castles in the sandbox.

If I remember correctly, up until seventh grade, my school had two fifteen-minute recesses, one in the morning, and one in the afternoon. 

Now, why would I have a love/hate relationship with recess?  I’ll explain.

There were a lot of perks when it came to school recess.  For one, it gave all of us kids a chance to go outside and get some fresh air, and for another reason, it gave all of us a chance to recover from the killer math lessons just before recess began.

On the minus side, I didn’t particularly like recess because I didn’t really have anyone to play with.  I basically kept to myself and watched everyone else have fun.  And, it didn’t really help matters much that on the occasional recess, I would often be beat up by bigger kids in the back corner of the school playground.

(Let’s put it this way...I actually wished during my school years that it would rain every day during recess period so we could just stay inside.)

So that’s why I loved recess, yet hated it at the same time.

But for the children that you’re about to meet in this blog entry, they were kids who lived for that wonderful period known as recess.  In fact, some might even say that these kids were a little bit obsessed with recess, and treated recess as if it were as important as working a full-time job!

In fact, today’s blog topic is all about...”Recess”!

Yes, we’re taking a look back at Disney’s cartoon series “Recess”.  The show was created by Paul Germain, Joe Ansolabehere, and Mike Berenstain.  Debuting on ABC’s “One Saturday Morning” line-up on August 31, 1997, the program ended up running new episodes until November 2001.  The show proved to be so successful that three full-length films were released between 2001 and 2003.

Anyway, the show depicts the lives of six students in Miss Grotke’s fourth grade classroom, and the various adventures that they happen to experience during Third Street Elementary School’s recess period.

TRIVIA:  Miss Grotke was voiced by Allyce Beasley, famous for her role in “Moonlighting”.

So, I suppose that you would like me to introduce you to these six children, wouldn’t you?  All right, I will. 

First, we have the leader of the group.  Theodore Jasper “T.J.” Detweiler (Ross Malinger/Andrew Lawrence/Myles David Jeffrey) is a stocky kid who is rarely seen without his trademark red baseball cap, usually worn backwards.  He appears to give off the impression that he is nothing more than a troublemaker, as he often pulls pranks on teachers, especially the recess monitor, Miss Finster (April Winchell).  However, T.J. does have a heart inside of him, and he often is the first one to stand up for the rights of the other kids in the school playground.

There’s Ashley Spinelli (Pamela Segall Adlon), a tomboy who would rather be called by her last name, as she has the unfortunate distinction of having the same first name as a group of snobbish girls who hang out in the playground (we’ll talk more about them later).  She won’t admit it, but she does have a bit of a soft spot for Miss Finster, and Miss Finster often gives her advice on how to deal with various problems.  And while Spinelli would rather use her fists rather than calmly solve a problem, she has shown that she can dress girly if she feels like it, and she does have a keen eye for art.

Gretchen Grundler (Ashley Johnson) is the brainiac of the group.  More often than not, she’ll be the one in the group who speaks completely in monosyllabic words and phrases.  Known for having a brain as large as her glasses, she is nicknamed “Smart Girl” by her peers.  Despite her high intelligence and superior book smarts, her street smarts are lacking, and she sometimes appears naive, and trusts people a little bit too much.  She is rarely seen without her “Galileo” (a device similar to a calculator/smart phone), and although her best friends don’t share her scientific intellect, she can’t imagine not having them in her life.

Vince LaSalle (Rickey D’Shon Collins) is the jock of the group.  He plays every sport possible in the school playground, and he usually wins at every sport as well.  The tradeoff of this is that he sometimes exhibits a huge ego when he brags about his accomplishments.  However, when he does get in a situation where he is taken down a few pegs, he does have his friends to help build him back up, and he is usually remorseful.  He can usually be found as T.J.’s right-hand man during his schemes, and unlike Gretchen, Vince has the street smarts necessary to help talk the group out of trouble...well, most of the time, anyway.

Mikey Blumberg (Jason Davis) is the biggest, tallest kid of the group, so he certainly sticks out.  But don’t let his intimidating size scare you...he’s really a softy on the inside.  He writes poetry, dances ballet, and is probably one of the most philosophical ten-year-old boys who have ever existed.  Really, Mikey is a kid that could be considered a gentle giant...well, unless you take advantage of him, then he goes all “Incredible Hulk” on you.

TRIVIA:  On a couple of episodes, Mikey performed a song or two.  The person who provided his singing vocals?  Robert Goulet!

Finally, we have Gustav Griswald...otherwise known as Gus (Courtland Mead).  He doesn’t appear in the first couple of episodes, as he is introduced in the episode “The New Kid”.  He’s a military brat, who ended up attending a dozen different elementary schools by the time he was ten. For the most part, Gus is considered to be the geeky and unpopular kid.  However, if he gets pushed, he ends up showing great leadership skills...sometimes rivalling T.J.’s personality!  He is a fairly good dodgeball player, and he has played the guitar.  But the fact that he is the new kid means that he isn’t exactly up to speed with the hierarchy of the playground.

That’s right.  That’s the secret of the Third Street Elementary’s recess period.

You see, the television show “Recess” had the school playground running almost entirely on a microcosm of traditional human society.  In fact, one could say that the whole playground is run on a monarchy, with a sixth-grade student named Bob serving as its king.

(No, seriously, he really does go by King Bob.)

The playground ends up running on a series of rules that emphasize rigid values and social norms, and it is expected that every student at the school playground conforms to these rules, or face the consequences.

The playground has its own set of unwritten rules and a class structure.  The lower the grade a student is, the lower the class structure.  And to me this made a lot of sense in my own life and times, as I enjoyed recess more as a sixth grader than I did as a second grader.

Most of the episodes of the series deal with the struggle that the main characters have to deal with.  Do they go with the flow and follow the unwritten rules to be like everyone else?  Or do they risk getting in trouble or beat up by other kids to do their own individual thing?  I admit that for me, it is a tough choice.  With teachers like Miss Finster, and Principal Prickly (Dabney Coleman) sticking their noses in and threatening to take things away during the recess period, T.J. and his friends needed to stay strong to stick to their own guns.

Of course, it wasn’t easy, as the adults weren’t the only ones to worry about.  You had Miss Finster’s sidekick, Randall J. Weems, who proved to be just as obnoxious as Miss Finster, if not more.  There were the stuck-up snobby girls who called themselves “The Ashleys” (seriously, all the girls were named Ashley, which explains why Spinelli was ashamed of her first name).  There were The Kindergartners, who were a large group of five and six year old students who were decked out in war paint and tribal feathers.  They are seen as the most uncivilized students at the school and have even attempted to EAT the other kids!!! 

Yeah, Third Street Elementary was not your typical school.

Some kids even had their own personal arch-enemies.  T.J. and Vince, for example, had a rivalry with Erwin Lawson.  Gretchen has had scuffles with the organization obsessed Menlo.  And of all the Ashleys, Ashley Quinlan is the one who gets under Spinelli’s skin the most.

But, you know what?  I think in some ways, I can relate to every single situation that the “Recess” kids had to endure.  Because while my recess experiences weren’t as fun as the ones that these cartoon characters had, I did have similar classmates.

My school playground had a “King Bob” in it.  In my case, it was a kid that was in the fifth grade when I was in grade one.  Although now I can see that he was a complete jerk, when we were kids, we had to listen to him and his cronies...or else we would have our faces shoved into the sand or snow (depending on what season it was outside).

You know the snobbish group in “Recess” known as the Ashleys?  We had one...only at my school, they were called the “Jennifers”.  Funnily enough, I ended up becoming friends with one of them because once I got to know them, they were quite kind. 

The kindergarten kids at my school never resorted to attempted cannibalism.  But I can definitely remember being in sixth grade, looking at kindergarten students and thinking they were some of the wildest, most out-of-control kids in the world.  Demon children they were.

(Now I realize that these demon children are 23-24 years old, and suddenly I feel really ANCIENT!)

But that’s the point.  We all likely had similar recess experiences.  And we survived them all the best way we knew how.  I think that’s a great thing!

I survived my recess experiences...and now I can look back on them fondly knowing that others went through it too.

Even though they were fictional characters.

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