Abbott Elementary Recap: Toxic Positivity
Season 2 Episode 8 Editor’s Rating4 stars ****
Photo: Gilles Mingasson/ABC Welcome back to the halls of Abbott Elementary after a brief break in episodes last week. The wait was worth it — Janine learns the dangers of toxic positivity when she insists her second-graders participate in the eighth-grader’s egg-drop lesson. This is an important canon moment for Abbott Elementary as this confirmed the school teaches middle-school-aged students. Although I knew Jacob teaches older kids, I had no idea there were students as old as eighth grade at Abbott. I love this because with older students comes a whole other set of problems. By eighth grade, the idyllic days of nap time and storybooks are long gone. The world becomes harsher and less forgiving. Right and wrong go beyond sharing and being a good friend — now there are consequences and the scientific method.
Personality types like Gregory and the eighth-grade teacher Mr. Morton thrive within the rigidity and confines of science. But others, like Janine, prefer open-ended creativity where everyone wins as long as you believe in yourself. When Gregory asks her if the egg drop may be too advanced for her students, Janine replies, “Learning should be fun and about new experiences and not whether or not the eggs break.” Gregory counters, “It’s actually only about whether or not the eggs break.”
All this egg talk gets Melissa interested, and now her class is participating in the experiment, too. The second-graders work hard on their egg containers with the project essentially being another arts-and-crafts activity. They use glitter, construction paper, pipe cleaners, and googly eyes to adorn their little egg carriers as Janine gushes over their imaginations. One student, Eli, loves his creation so much he names it Ralph and proclaims he’s his best friend … and his only friend.
The second- and eighth-graders convene in the gym to test out their devices. Mr. Morton is reveling in the methodology and empirical elements that come with the physics behind the egg-drop exercise. He rattles off the dimensions and payload capacities of his students’ mechanisms before begrudgingly handing it off to the second-graders. Terrified of heights, Janine climbs the ladder at an excruciatingly slow pace and begins to drop her students’ egg carriers. It results in a puddle of yolk on the ground and the sound of children gasping as their creations explode before their eyes. Eli rushes to the remains of Ralph, yelling out for a Band-Aid while frantically trying to put his friend together again. Janine tries to patch up the situation with affirmations and enthusiasm, then passes out participation medals to the shell-shocked (sorry for the pun, I had to!) second-graders staring at the mess of yolk, proclaiming there are no winners or losers. Eli pleads to his broken egg, “It’s okay, Ralph, you just have to believe.”
Confused about how her egg drop ended in tears while everyone’s eggs in Melissa’s class went unscathed, Janine asks her co-worker how she did it. Melissa, who went before Janine at the demonstration, admits to cheating. Instead of using raw eggs, she hard-boiled the eggs to prevent them from breaking, thus keeping smiles on her students’ faces. She says of course she’d love to teach her class quantum mechanics, but second-graders are simply unable to understand it.
Janine is distraught about making her students feel as if they failed, but Gregory points out that failure is a large part of science and, really, learning in general. It’s the basis of the scientific method — the academic version of fucking around and finding out. Learning is all about trial and error and using problem-solving and critical thinking to make it to the next step. Failure is one of the most natural parts of the human experience. This doesn’t mean it should feel good; it just means it’s inevitable.
Janine struggles with failure as a concept because her entire worldview is dependent on the philosophy that, as long as she tries hard enough, she can achieve anything. Gregory asks her flat out if she even knows the science behind the egg drop — something I was wondering since she got the idea to do it. If she wants her kids to understand the assignment, Gregory says, she’s going to have to understand it herself. Amber canceled their plans for the evening, so Gregory offers to stay after school with Janine to teach her how to do it. As they walk through the lesson, he sees that Janine is further gone than he realized when she proudly maintains that anything at all can be handled if you just try your hardest and have confidence in yourself. Gregory argues you can’t “positive attitude” your way through physics and proves it by asking Janine to touch his hand. Stretching his arm above his head to its over-six-foot height, the vertically challenged Janine tries her hardest, even pulling out a chair to assist. She falls, further proving Gregory’s point.
Janine admits to the cameras that her own history with failure motivates her to prevent her students from feeling like she did. As a kid, she had a hard time keeping her shoes tied and was made fun of for it by her peers. So she started wearing Velcro shoes. Projecting her experience onto the next generation, she vows to get her students metaphorical Velcro shoes. Three hours of YouTube videos later, she has her class remake their contraptions. She asks Mr. Morton to redo the presentation, but he’s moved on to the next lesson and recommends she teach them something easier … like tying their shoes. Bloop.
Irritated, she vents to Gregory, who finally tells her that her intense positivity can do more harm than good, and she needs to face the facts: The assignment is too hard for second-graders. Always tenacious, Janine pivots. Instead of forcing the students to do something too advanced, she shifts the assignment to be appropriate for their level of learning. She turns it into an egg lift and experiments with the class to find out how many balloons can successfully lift the egg. Yes, the balloons fly into an air vent and violently pop, but I think Janine has learned her lesson. And the broken eggs fittingly left egg on Mr. Morton’s face. R.I.P. Ralph Jr., though.
Meanwhile, in the B-plot, Barbara goes from being the perennial voice of reason to learning a lesson of her own while everyone else is preoccupied with the egg drop. After seeing the provocative tattoo of one of her student’s parents — a large inscription of “Bitch” across her chest — she requests the mother cover up. The mom obliges, zipping up her hoodie, which has “Slut” written prominently on the front. Barbara cannot fathom why a grown woman would choose to present herself to the world that way and seeks advice from Ava and Melissa. Melissa tells her to confront the mom, and Ava agrees, not because she judges the tattoo but because she merely thinks the placement is inappropriate. The next time Barbara sees the parent, she patronizingly gives her a pamphlet for a single-moms’ group and recommends a clothing swap for “young professionals.” The mom essentially reads Babara for filth, revealing that not only has she been married for six years but she’s also an entrepreneur with her own clothing line.
In the breakroom, Barbara browses through the mom’s website, Forever Bitch Apparel, which has Savage X Fenty energy, featuring lingerie and more risqué clothing. Barbara is even more appalled that this mom chooses this kind of lifestyle. Ava surprisingly takes on the voice-of-reason role and reminds Barbara that if the child isn’t being harmed, what’s the problem? Barbara realizes she’s misjudged the parent and apologies for her harshness. The mom admits it’s not the first time she’s been judged for her style and business and even concedes that she can work on being more age appropriate around her child. Barbara may never understand the ways of this new generation of parents raised on Foxy Brown and Lil’ Kim, but as Ava asked rhetorically, does she need to? Amen to that!
• The bit at the beginning of the episode with the bones in the garden was hilarious. I also love the subplot with Jacob correctly clocking Mr. Morton’s passive aggression. Jacob was nearly bursting trying not to overshare why the two teachers have beef.
• Ava pouring mountains of sugar into her coffee is amazing juxtaposed against a few episodes ago when Gregory put exactly three grains of sugar in his. I love ongoing gags that emphasize the character’s personalities.
• We’re getting incrementally closer to a real romantic moment between Janine and Gregory. Ava’s face when he offered to stay after school to help out Janine was probably the face 90 percent of us made at our screens.
• The discussion about science in the breakroom was golden. Jacob saying science is basically history and math combined, Melissa denouncing the moon landing, Mr. Johnson saying the moon isn’t even real, and Ava questioning pigeons and saying Stevie Wonder isn’t blind gave us an amazing deadpan look to the camera from Tyler James Williams, whose faces never disappoint.
• Finally, here are some of the funniest lines from this week:
Ava and Jacob singing the Boyz II Men’s song from the Soul Food soundtrack: “Mamaaaaaaaa”
Barbara trying to avoid telling a kindergartener what the word slut means: “It stands for the St. Louis University of Technology.”
Jacob: “I believe gluten intolerance is internalized white guilt.”
Barbara: “My favorite b word? Barbara. Bible. Blessing. Blueberries!”
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