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Friday, September 09, 2011

TGIF: Welcome Back, Kotter

As teacher's week comes to its conclusion, I hope that everyone who has read this blog this past week has enjoyed this look back at some of the most beloved examples of people in the field of education (as well as a couple of duds). It's been a pleasure to talk about this subject, and I'm hoping to have more of these theme weeks in the future. In fact, I have another one planned in about a couple of weeks from now...but I'll let you know when it happens, as all I can tell you is that I'll be...switching it up for a week.

For now though, we have one final entry for this week, and since today is Friday, you know that we'll be visiting the world of television.

But before I head into a discussion of the television show, I really want to tell you a story about a song. Don't worry, it's related.

Have any of you ever heard of a singer known by the name of John Sebastian? I see some of you nodding your head as the memories flow, while some others are giving me a confused stare as if you have absolutely no idea who or what I am talking about.

John Sebastian is a singer. He also happens to have a Hollywood link, as 'I Love Lucy' actress Vivian Vance was his godmother. He was a part of the 1960s band 'The Lovin' Spoonful', of which you may recognize as the band that sang hits like 'Do You Believe In Magic' and 'Summer In The City'. In 1968, he left the band and embarked on a solo career, played harmonica on various albums (including on one song by The Doors) and wrote music for the Broadway musical 'Jimmy Shine'.

But it wasn't until 1976 that John Sebastian would score his one and only number one hit.

ARTIST: John Sebastian
SONG: Welcome Back
ALBUM: Welcome Back

And do you know why the song became such a success on the pop charts just two months after its release date? It all had to do with a television show. A show that used this very song as its theme.

Welcome Back, Kotter. A show that aired on ABC from September 9, 1975 to August 10, 1979. A show that made a star out of John Travolta.

A show that was a gem in the world of sitcoms set mainly at a school.

What made Welcome Back, Kotter stand out from the rest of the shows was the fact that the main character was brought in to teach the remedial high school class at James Buchanan High in the city of Brooklyn, New York.

Gabriel Kotter (played by comedian Gabe Kaplan) was assigned to teach the remedial class at the school which happened to have the gang that dubbed themselves the 'Sweathogs'. And whenever you dealt with four guys who went by the names of Horshack, Barbarino, Epstein, and Washington, you knew that somehow the phrase 'up your nose with a rubber hose' would be uttered in some fashion.

Certainly, Mr. Kotter had his hands full. Horshack was the class clown who had a rather unique laugh, and was quite comfortable with his oddball personality. Barbarino was cocky, but incredibly slow kid who had a way with the ladies. Epstein was short in height, but incredibly tough who was voted by his peers as 'Most Likely To Take A Life', while Washington, who often acted as the moral compass of the Sweathogs at times followed along with the group's zany schemes over the years.

If that didn't require Mr. Kotter to take ulcer relieving medicine each day, then he must have been a glutton for punishment.

But as the series progressed, the reason why Mr. Kotter took on a keen interest into teaching the Sweathogs became clear.

Years ago, when Mr. Kotter was a student at James Buchanan High, he himself was a part of the remedial class at the school. In fact, he founded the Sweathogs all those years ago!

This development in the plot was based on Gabe Kaplan's own experiences in high school. Like his character on the show, Kaplan himself was in the remedial class in his own school, and a lot of the character traits of the Sweathogs were based on some of his own classmates from the class.

But, anyways, back to the show.

Because Kotter had started up the Sweathogs, he knew exactly what they were going through. He knew because he had been there once before. He knew how hard it was to be going to a school where because he was in the remedial class, he was stereotyped as being slow, or dumb, or unteachable. He knew that simply wasn't true for him, and he worked hard to try and overcome those labels. Becoming a teacher certainly worked in his favour, and since then, he had the desire to help others overcome those same stigmas to become respected in the community.

As a result of his own experiences, Mr. Kotter developed the ability to maximize the potential of any student that came his way. He knew how hard it was to overcome the negative stigma of remedial high school, so he made it his mission to be a rock for his students to lean on.

Because of the support and encouragement that Mr. Kotter gave the Sweathogs, the group befriended Mr. Kotter, and they looked to him as a real role model. Their relationship became so close that it wasn't all that unusual for them to make house calls to Kotter's apartment, talking to him about their problems while simultaneously making fun of his wife Julie's tuna casserole.

Of course, Mr. Kotter certainly had his adversaries. One of them was the vice-principal of James Buchanan High, Michael Woodman, a curmudgeon of a man who openly dislikes the Sweathogs. He actually considered the group to be the bottom-feeders of the whole school. Mr. Woodman served as a mild antagonist in the career of Mr. Kotter, mainly because he didn't quite agree with the unorthodox methods in how Mr, Kotter taught his class. However, he did loosen up a smidgen as the series progressed.

Nevertheless, Mr. Kotter believed in his students and wanted them to succeed. And as far as I'm concerned, that makes a fantastic teacher.

Really, one lesson that one can learn by watching 'Welcome Back, Kotter' is that no child or teenager is incapable of learning. Certainly everyone has their own ways of learning, and their own methods of studying. One person might be a visual learner, while the other might be kinesthetic.

Some people may have additional difficulties that might prevent them from learning the same way as their peers. Learning disabilities such as dyslexia, or dyscalculia. Some people may have attention deficit disorder, or other behavioural challenges. All these things are factors that in the past have limited people's abilities to go where they wanted to go in life.

But if a person has a role model, mentor, or teacher that will be willing to work with them, and focus on developing the strengths they do have to overcome their weaknesses, then that will help steer them on the road to the brightest future they want to have, not a half-dim one that they might mistakenly believe in inevitable.

I believe this clip of the show will illustrate this point beautifully. When the Sweathogs were forced to go into a debate with a prissy, snobbish debate team, all odds seemed against them, until Mr. Kotter helped the Sweathogs triumph in one of the most brilliant scenes. You just have to see it.

I believe that the Sweathogs had everything going against them before Mr. Kotter came into their lives. With a vice-principal who didn't believe in them, and with the overall stereotype that they were too stupid to get anything out of the classes that they went to, it was hard for them to find that positive vibe for them to actively want to better themselves.

Mr. Kotter cared enough about them to give a damn. Remember how a couple of days ago, when I wrote that note on the teacher who made my first grade experience a living nightmare? I mentioned that I ended up becoming a better person because of the teachers who really gave a damn about me. So, for the end of this blog entry, as well as the conclusion of Teacher's Week, I thought I would list some of the teachers who for whatever reason made a huge impact on my well-being, and who inspired me never to settle for anything. You already read about my sixth grade teacher, Mrs. Woodfine at the beginning of the week, but there were so many more who shaped me into being the man I am today.

Such as my fifth grade teacher, Mr. Haskin, who taught me that losing my cool against bullies and people who made fun of me was never the right answer and that I should attempt to find a more calmer and rational way to handle them. It was a lesson that admittely took me years to grasp, but I think looking back on it, he had my back.

I loved French class in elementary and high school, and there were several teachers who I can thank for that. Madame Ruston, for praising my photographic memory. Madame Morgan, who encouraged me to help tutor other students in the class who were having trouble, and Monsieur Lacerte, who came up with some of the most creative French projects that allowed me to showcase other talents in addition to just French, making my learning experiences a little more well-rounded.

My ninth grade history teacher, Ms. Renusz taught me the importance of keeping an organized notebook and making sure that my workstation was tidy...something that none of my elementary school teachers could achieve. And she also made sure that we had thorough reviews on tests and exams before we took them because she wanted us to make sure that we passed. This of course meant that some concepts we spent half the period on, but I admire the fact that she let us learn at our own pace, which was nice. And as an added bonus, she was the only teacher that I can remember who used to give us Starburst fruit chews to snack on during these tests and exams. Brain food, if you will.

My twelfth grade teacher Mr. Wright helped me learn to love math again after a horrible grade eleven year where my previous teacher sped through math lessons like that John Moschitta guy (the one who spoke at ten times the speed on those Micro Machine commercials). I almost failed grade eleven math, and thanks to the teaching methods and easy to understand lessons devised by Mr. Wright, I went from almost failing to almost getting the highest mark in the class.

I also had a really good teacher for ninth grade math. Mr. Cristello certainly knew how to make learning about math fun, and it was mostly the little things that were not even math-related that helped with that. With his implementation of treat days, and having us make birthday cards for classmates at the beginning of each class, it really got us in a rather jovial mood. And students who are happy students tend to do better in math class than students who just exist in the class. Let's just say that the fact that my highest high school math mark happened to be in ninth grade was no coincidence.

I used to despise gym class, and part of that was due to the fact that I was the token fat kid. Because of my walking deformity during my elementary school years coupled with the diagnosis of childhood asthma in 1988, I very rarely got a grade higher than a C- in physical education. It also didn't help matters much when you consider that the kids made the most fun of me in gym class. That is until Mr. Corney came into my gym class world. I may not have been the best athlete in the class, but I tried my hardest to keep up. Some of the kids in my class were natural athletes and therefore never really broke a sweat...but I was determined to at least attempt to keep up with them. Sadly, it never came to be, but at least Mr. Corney took the effort I put forth into consideration. With the health classes we took, imagine my surprise when I ended up getting a higher mark than some of the jocks in the class. Oh, and the teasing in the locker rooms? Mr. Corney put an end to that right off the bat.

I also want to throw out a shout-out to my eleventh grade chemistry teacher, Mr. Pearson. Though my marks in chemistry were not the greatest, he was also responsible for trying to control the bullying that I was experiencing at the time, and for that I am eternally grateful, as I am to my computer teacher Mr, McDonald. You two have no idea what you ended up doing for me, and I honestly have no idea how I could thank you for it.

Lastly, I'm going to throw a thank you to a music teacher that I had in elementary school named Mr. Tripp. Mr. Tripp instilled in me a love of music that while I don't play it anymore, I do listen to it. A lot. Something that I never really used to do before until I had him for a teacher. And I'll never forget the time that we were playing a concert for the Spring assembly, and the eighth grade baritone player was a no show. We had to perform a piece called 'Ash Lawn Echoes' where there was a solo by a baritone player. A solo that was supposed to be played by the eighth grader.

And, since I was the only seventh grade baritone player, guess who ended up playing it?

And you want to know something even more ironic? I almost skipped out on the Spring assembly myself because of the fact that I was unable to get along with some of my classmates, and I thought that it would be better if I skipped. Well, Mr. Tripp ended up giving me a pep talk, saying that I need not let what the other kids were saying about me affect who I was as a person, and that despite all that, he knew I had it in me to play at the concert.

So, when the concert date arrived, I was the only baritone player, and I ended up doing the solo.

And, I nailed it. And the joy and excitement that I saw in Mr. Tripp's face was priceless. In that brief moment in time, he instilled in me some self-confidence. Self-confidence that had always been there, but never had the motivation to bring out until that concert.

I wish I could have told him how much that moment meant to me, but sadly, he passed away about ten years ago. I'm sure he knew though. I hope he did.

See, there were a lot of teachers that I had who never stopped believing in me or my abilities, and because of that, I feel that I am a better person.

Just like the Sweathogs became better people under the guidance of Mr. Kotter.

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