In 10th grade, Bob Brush was blessed with one of those rare teachers who left an indelible imprint on his life by encouraging him to write and to trust that if he wrote from his heart about emotions and experiences he cared about deeply, other people would care about them too.
That memory helped provide the impetus for an episode of "The Wonder Years" that Brush wrote. "I wanted to write an elegy to all those teachers who made an impact on us," he said.
The episode, which repeats at 8:30 tonight on Channels 7, 3, 10 and 42, was his way of saying "thank you," Brush said, explaining that by the time most people begin to appreciate these instructors' inspiration and consider acknowledging them, the teachers have retired or died and can't be reached.
The episode was singled out this month for Emmy Award nominations for Brush's screenplay, Michael Dinner's directing and Dennis Vejar's editing. Fred Savage, who portrays Kevin Arnold, was also nominated as best actor in a comedy series, and the show itself, which this fall will move to 8 p.m. Wednesdays, was nominated as best comedy series for the third consecutive year. Brush is the executive producer.
In tonight's show--the final installment in a trilogy last season involving Kevin and his math teacher, Mr. Collins (Steve Gilborne),--Kevin decides to embark on an intense two weeks of after-school tutorials with Mr. Collins in preparation for a midterm exam. Just before the big day, after several wonderful sessions of progress and rapport, Mr. Collins inexplicably breaks his appointment, suggesting only that Kevin, a solid-C student, continue his studies on his own.
Angry and disillusioned, Kevin intentionally fails the exam, answering math questions with such snide comments as "Who cares?" and "Factor This!" After a long weekend of regret, Kevin returns to school to apologize, only to learn that Mr. Collins has died of a heart attack--but not without leaving one more lesson for Kevin to learn.
"On the show we often present teachers as just fractured images of human beings, because that's all the students ever see," said Brush. "Teachers are kept at a distance. They get nicknames and reputations and that's the only view most students have of them. They can't see through to the human qualities, and that's why we generally have just one or two teachers who stand out, who got beyond those barriers and touched us in a way that was more human, that helped us learn in a way that was more than just by rote."
One of the keys to the Collins-Kevin relationship and to the best teacher-student relationships in general, as Brush sees them, is revealed when Kevin, dismayed that his teacher would abandon him in the middle of his quest for a better grade, lashes out: "I thought you were my friend." About to climb into his car, Collins straightens up and proudly utters, "Not your friend--your teacher."
"I think that distinction is true of truly good teachers," Brush said. "Mr. Collins constantly rebuffed Kevin's attempt to create a friendship because he sees it as Kevin's way of avoiding what he has to do. A child can get love from his parents and he can get friendship from his friends, and Collins is proud to say that 'I'm not someone who tucks you in at night. I love you on a different order. I will give you knowledge. I will give you strength.' I feel that way about the teachers I remember. They are usually the ones who were not trying to work out their own problems on their students."
Many of the teachers portrayed on "The Wonder Years," however, are anything but wonderful.
There's Mr. Cantwell, played by Ben Stein, the monotoned science geek, who knows his lesson plans and slide projector backwards and forwards and wouldn't detour from his age-old monologue if a bomb exploded in the middle of his classroom.
There's Coach Cutlip, played by Robert Picardo, the militaristic buffoon of a gym teacher, who is out to win the hearts, minds and bodies of his gangly and uncoordinated boys.
And there was, for one episode, an overeager chorus teacher named Miss Haycock (Andrea Walters), who, buoyed by the enthusiasm and hubris of youth, believed she could mold a bunch of pubescent-voiced boys into a real choir. Based upon his own experience in eighth-grade glee club, Brush had the boys sing "Stout-hearted Man" at a public recital and fail miserably--so miserably, in fact, that this hapless young woman, who had been focused on her own dreams of becoming a great teacher and not on who the boys actually were, disappeared in a fit of embarrassment.
"I hope that what comes from the show is a real loving respect for teachers, but also a healthy knowledge that the majority of the teachers we had were either imminently forgettable or incompetent, and the most we did was suffer through them," Brush said.
This season, there will be a new member of "The Wonder Years' " faculty--"a troglodytic shop teacher," as Brush describes him. "If you remember back to ninth-grade wood shop, it was like living in a forest and many of the shop teachers were like some kind of forest creature."
As for other changes to come this season, as Kevin and his friends turn 14 and enter the ninth grade, Brush simply says that the show will mature as his actors mature. Savage, Josh Saviano (who plays best friend Paul) and Danica McKellar (who plays best girl Winnie) are all "a year taller and more emotionally capable," and so, Brush said, the problems and relationships they encounter will become more complex. Paul, the proverbial nerd, will even make some strides at outgrowing his nerdiness.
While Brush acknowledges that the adolescent problems of 1970 suburbia seem far tamer than the adolescent crises that prevail in most U.S. cities today, he insists that the stories and emotions explored in "The Wonder Years" are relevant nonetheless.
"The things that are important are still the things of the human heart; they are not time-related and they are probably everlasting," Brush said. "Even though times have changed, 14-year-olds haven't changed. Even if they are involved with drugs or having sex by that age today, they are still 14. They still fall in love and have problems with friends and they still do stupid things."