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Tuesday, May 24, 2011

What Ralph Wiggum Taught Me About Myself


Would you believe that The Simpsons have been on the air continuously since the 1989 Christmas season?  That makes this season that just wrapped up season number twenty-two!  The Simpsons have been on for over two-thirds of my life!  That's absolutely mind-boggling to me.

Though, it's always been one of my favourite shows. Why? Because I love the fact that the Simpsons have never claimed to be the perfect family. They have their flaws, as most families do, but they also have their moments of mutual clarity and the occasional '80's style family hug moments of sugary-sweet family sitcom goodness.

I will admit that some of my absolute favourite episodes of the Simpsons were from the shows first few seasons. Think back to any episode that aired between 1990 and 1995. If I were to come up with a top ten list of my favourite Simpsons episodes of all time, I bet you over half would be from the first five years of the show. That either tells me that I'm a sucker for the classics, or the Simpsons have overstayed their welcome by sixteen seasons. I'm kind of hopeful that it's the former, though most people seem to think it to be the latter.

In fact, I'm just gonna come out with it. One of the episodes that will be in my top ten list is the one titled “I Love Lisa”. Would you believe that it originally aired way back on February 11, 1993? That's almost two decades ago. Man, I'm making myself feel old here, considering that I was barely twelve at the time of its first airing on FOX.

Anyway, if you don't know what the show was about, the airdate should give you a bit of a clue. It aired three days before Valentine's Day, so naturally the episode was about Valentine's Day. Note, I said Valentine's Day, and not Love Day, which was an entirely different episode altogether.

(Yes, I'm slightly on the obsessive-compulsive side over anything Simpsons related)

So, back to “I Love Lisa”. It's Valentine's Day, and everyone in Ms. Hoover's class are exchanging Valentine's Day cards to their classmates, and everyone feels loved. Everyone that is, except Ralph Wiggum. The poor paste-swallowing, red crayon munching misfit never got so much as a four-week old cinnamon heart from anyone in the classroom. Not even from the teacher. And, everyone knows that if teachers gave out Valentines, that everyone in the class got one.

I can say that I can sort of understand what poor Ralph must have been feeling that cold February day (but I can't say 1993 in this case, because if I did, Ralph Wiggum would be a little less than my age now, which is a mighty scary image to picture...LOL). I mean, sure, I never got ignored on Valentine's Day...I did get some cards from my classmates. But, I know what he must have felt like. Like Ralph Wiggum, I was considered the weird outcast of my class. No, I didn't eat crayons or gulp down a UHU glue stick the way most kids scarfed down Jell-o Pudding Pops. But, I didn't like it when I was excluded from classroom activities when everyone else got to participate.

It kind of reminds me of the time back in first grade, when we ended up having a fundraising drive for our school. Nothing too out of the was your typical Christmas fundraising catalogue where we could sell our friends and family all sorts of holiday themed merchandise. Wrapping paper, cards, ornaments. Everyone in the class got the basic fundraising package to canvas the neighbourhoods pitching their festive flair.

Everybody, except yours truly that is.

Granted, I was only a six year old boy at the time. I couldn't grasp the concept of what fundraising even was, let alone how I was planning on selling things that I physically did not have. But, the point was that all my classmates were able to have fun showing their families all the cool stuff in the catalogue, and I wondered why I was being singled out by not being allowed to participate.

I even went to my first grade teacher and asked her for a booklet that I could take home too like everybody else in the classroom, but she told me that she didn't have any more to give out. Of course, it didn't quite explain why she had five or six extra bundles of them right on her desk. This event might have happened all the way back in Christmas 1987, but I do remember two things very clearly. The first was that everyone in my class wanted a Lite-Brite (including me, and I did get one that year), and the second was that all the fundraising envelopes were wrapped in red paper with white snowflakes on them...and there were quite a few folders that had white snowflakes on her desk.

I never did get to do the fundraising that year. And this incident wasn't the only time my first grade teacher and I clashed.  I'll maybe talk more about it in future blog entries, if you're interested.

It hurt enough that I didn't feel like I was being included in things by some of my classmates...but I got over it, as we were only children back then. It was much different having the teacher (who was supposed to set an example for the children) openly exclude you from classroom activities for no apparent reason. Almost a quarter of a century later, I still am left without answers as to why she did what she did. Oh, well...when Christmas '88 rolled around, my second grade teacher wasn't so exclusive, and not only did I sell a lot of stuff, but I ended up being the third top seller of wrapping paper in the whole school!

I guess, bringing my super long tangent back to the “I Love Lisa” episode, I was kind of the Ralph Wiggum of my first grade classroom, because like my first grade teacher did with me, Ms. Hoover showed that she had little to no patience for Ralph at all. Honestly, looking at the show through adult eyes, Ms. Hoover was kind of a sanctimonious cow when she wanted to be, couldn't she? Hell, I'd rather have Mrs. Krabappel as a teacher over least Krabappel hated everyone equally!

As the episode progressed, Lisa Simpson saw the tears forming in poor Ralph Wiggum's eyes, and she felt incredibly sad for him. Unfortunately for Lisa, she had likely given out all of the Valentines she had brought with her to her classmates, but with a number two pencil and an eraser, she took one of her cards and put Ralph's name on it.

The moment Lisa handed Ralph the infamous “I Choo-Choo-Choose You” card was the moment that someone did something kind for him...probably one of the only instances in his eight years of life that he had experienced something so honest, pure, loving. Okay, so forget the fact that it was a secondhand Valentine's Day was the thought that counts.

From this scene, I can visualize myself in both the Lisa Simpson role as well as the Ralph Wiggum role. Obviously, I can see myself in the Ralph Wiggum role. Believe me, I never realized it until I became an adult, but aside from the paste eating, I could have been a Wiggum clone. At home, I wasn't an only child, but because my siblings were quite a few years older than I was, I more or less was left to entertain myself. Now, the good thing about this was that it forced me to have a vivid and powerful imaginative streak which could keep me busy for hours, and I think it also contributed to helping develop my writing style. The downside to it was that my childhood could also be quite lonely, and because I spent so much time on my own, I felt as though I didn't really develop any long-standing connections. Through the years, I've built up some strong friendships and kept them, but back in elementary school, it was a lot harder. So, whenever someone did something nice for me like Lisa did for Ralph, I admit that I was so happy about it that my way of repaying the kind gesture was to stick to them like glue. And, if you remember the episode, you'll know that Ralph walked Lisa home from school, sent her presents, and even invited her to the live Krusty anniversary celebration show. Ralph was smitten with Lisa, and admittely, when I was younger, I tended to cling onto friendships the way a spider would tangle up other insects in a web. I rarely had kids my own age around me...the last time I lived in a neighbourhood with kids my own age, I was only three years old. I didn't know anything about how to be social around kids my age because the opportunity didn't present itself until I was enrolled in school.

On the flipside, I identify with why Lisa did what she did, especially as I grew older. Why? Because in this episode, Lisa obviously wanted to make Ralph feel better about himself by offering a token of friendship. I would do the same thing for anyone else who needed it. I hate seeing people in pain or suffering over something that they can't control or can't change about themselves. Some may refer to it as rooting for the underdog, but I disagree with that statement, as I never really see anyone as an underdog. Of course, maybe one reason why I find that I identify with people who are up against a world that seems to be against them is because I was once in that role myself. Who can say, really?

So, back to the show, I'm sure you can guess what the climax of the show is. It seems that poor Ralph Wiggum misinterpreted the meaning of the “Choo-Choo-Choose You” card in that he thought it was Lisa's way of admitting her love for him. At the Krusty special, when Krusty sat down and interviewed Ralph Wiggum and Lisa Simpson, Ralph wasted no time in telling Krusty, the studio audience, and home viewers just how much he loved Lisa and how he wanted to marry her when he got older.

That was the pivotal moment in which Lisa (who had been bottling up her true feelings for days) exploded and told Ralph exactly how she REALLY felt about him, and let's just say that it wasn't flattering. In fact, it was downright cold. Cold enough that Bart Simpson could actually freeze frame the moment in which Ralph's heart “broke in two”.

I can imagine how humiliated Ralph must have felt. I can recall quite a few times in which I was publicly dressed down by classmates. Imagine having someone tell you how much they didn't like you, and how they were using you for things in a private setting. Kind of a drag, right? Now imagine kids in your class hanging around you at recess because you happened to have Rainbow Chips Ahoy cookies that you thought were great to share with friends, and then having those same kids call you names after the cookies were gobbled up right in front of everyone in the room. That's downright humiliating. I really did feel bad for poor Ralph, because other than misinterpret the real meaning of a cardboard Valentine's Day card, Ralph really did nothing wrong. In fact, he actually kind of acted the same way that I think a lot of women would want their boyfriends/husbands to act.

See, Ralph may not have been the Bradley Cooper, LL Cool J, or even the Justin Bieber of Springfield Elementary...but he sure knew how to treat a lady. I'm sure most women would love to have someone swoon over them, and take them to fancy places, and show them love and affection. Ralph did all that, and did all that almost flawlessly. Just think about that the next time that show airs in syndication.

Like every good fairy tale and storybook, the episode does have to come to an end. After Ralph's very public rejection by Lisa, Ralph was left hurt by the whole experience. To add insult to injury, at the President's Day pageant at the school, Ralph and Lisa were playing the roles of George and Martha Washington. Ralph was still hurt by Lisa...even burning the “Choo-Choo-Choose You” card that only a couple of days earlier was his most prized possession. And, he converted that anger and hurt that was inside him into a powerful and gripping performance that earned him a standing ovation from the crowd. This was truly Ralph's defining moment, and he ended up turning something that was so hurtful into something beautiful.

You know something, I too can identify with Ralph Wiggum in this case too. With all that had happened in school, I could have become a bitter person who wanted people to feel whatever pain he was going through at the time, but I didn't. I chose to write about my experiences in hopes that someone else could find their voice in all the confusion they were going through. In fact, if anything, I'd like to find some way to make something positive out of the whole thing, just like young Ralph Wiggum did that night.

Apparently, his performance must have evoked something in Lisa Simpson because she gave Ralph another Valentine's Day with the more generic “Let's Bee Friends” message. And, in that moment, I think Ralph had forgotten all about why he was mad at Lisa in the first place. In subsequent episodes, I think the friendship between Lisa and Ralph is still there, although probably not as strong as it was on that Valentine's Day.

So, what has this episode taught us? Well, it's taught us that sometimes, even the so-called “underdogs” win. It's taught us that sometimes misunderstandings can lead to friendships, even if the road to it might be filled with detours. It's taught us that sometimes we don't know what we might have until we lose it.

More importantly, it's taught me that I should embrace my inner Ralph Wiggum. Because we all have one who wants to claw his way out. Maybe if we all did, we'd all be better people for it.

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