After the onset of the coronavirus PANdemIC in the United States and the soft lockdown in my new home state of Florida, peace of mind has been hard to come by. Just as I was finding a foothold in the new school I was teaching at, learning was shifted to the virtual environment. I live alone, and if I step outside, every diversionary amenity in the area is closed right down to my apartment complex’s pool. I’m hyper connected to the internet, as we all are, and when I do engage, all I’m greeted with is a din of political, cultural, and medical histrionics. I’m not going to mince words. For a few days, I flirted with falling into a depression.
In this mini-Hero’s Journey that we’re all on though, I passed the test and proceeded to the Inmost Cave. I think most of us are there right now. The metaphor is actually perfect. Our homes are now the place where we must face and resolve an inner crisis both as individuals and a nation. Only then can we overcome this ordeal of the PANdemIC in its multiple levels. For myself, how I passed the test is directly informing how I’ll overcome the ordeal in a very immediate way.
As I started to slip, I made a very conscious choice to disconnect from the data, reports, and opinions that were stoking the flame of my discontent and reconnect with the life-affirming activities that have brought me success and contentment thus far in life. I also found an excuse to go outside as I signed up to deliver for UberEats. Driving has always given me a sense of freedom. When I’m in my car, no one is going to stop or cares to stop me from going where I want to go (and can’t stop me without turning to a level of extreme violence). I’ve also always taken a large amount of pride from working hard no matter how menial the labor, so being able to earn some extra money in the current climate gives me a feeling of capability–especially as I’m able to deliver food without a single fear of getting sick to people who are isolating in their homes. Perhaps most importantly of all, when I return home from my drives (or before I leave for them) and in between my virtual office hours for school, I made a conscious decision to limit my media consumption to a binge watch of Boy Meets World on Disney+.
Boy Meets World is one of my favorite television shows ever not just because it’s an exquisitely crafted sitcom but also because it was so impactful on me while growing up. I feel a certain kindredship with Cory Matthews. Like him, I grew up average. I didn’t earn good or bad grades. Girls were never particularly interested in me nor were they repulsed by me. I was neither popular nor unpopular. In many ways, this identity was the foundation for the concept that would become The Midside (so maybe Cory should be our mascot). Truthfully, until this rewatch I had forgotten how kindred we are. Although upon this reflection if I had realized our similarities I may have transitioned into teaching sooner considering that Cory became a teacher (for his daughter’s class) in the 2014 sequel series Girl Meets World.
Inside of that emphasis on teaching in the Meets World mythology is where the answer to our ordeal lies. Since watching Boy Meets World‘s first run growing up, I’d seen random episodes many times over the years but had never rewatched them in order. Doing so now has reminded me just how insightful the series is, as several moments have moved me emotionally and intellectually at the same in a way few pieces of modern art do. One such moment came in the nineteenth episode of the fourth season “Quiz Show.”
In the episode, Cory and his best friend Shawn end up participating in an educational game show they drove Cory’s girlfriend Topanga to when her two usual teammates are late due to their bus breaking down. Their teacher and Cory’s next-door-neighbor Mr. Feeny doesn’t want them to participate because he coaches the team and it represents John Adams High. However, the game show’s producer insists and finds that Cory and Shawn, in all their averageness, excite the usually bored crowd. She begins to cater the game to them, making them champions over and over again. Soon, the show has a sponsor and is more popular than it ever has been. The only problem is that the game isn’t educational anymore. The questions are about pop culture. Additionally, Cory and Shawn are now convinced that they’re smart even though they still don’t pay attention in class. All of these events further frustrate Mr. Feeny, bringing about one of the show’s most insightful moments.
“Mr. Feeny, look, the show’s proving that we’re absorbing the right type of knowledge, right? I mean, that’s why we’re the champions,” Cory argues in their defense.
“Champions of what, Mr Matthews? Of a generation whose verbal and mathematical skills have sunk so low when you have the highest level of technology at your fingertips? Guttenberg’s generation thirsted for a new book every six months. Your generation gets a new webpage every six seconds. And how do you use this technology? To beat King Koppa and save the princess. Shame on you. You deserve what you get,” Mr. Feeny scolds the entire class.Boy Meets World Season 4 Episode 19 “Quiz Show”
That this takedown cuts to the core of the millennial generation (and continues to apply to even younger generations) reveals how true it is. Mr. Feeny is correct. We grew up playing Nintendo, watching X-Men: The Animated Series, and loving football. That childhood and adolescence are exactly why video games, Marvel, and the NFL are such cultural forces today–and while my intent is not to criticize these things, you have to agree that we haven’t used the technology given to us in the best possible manner. I can vouch for the fact that the same is true for Gen Z as well, perhaps more immediately so. As I stand in front of the classroom, the students are more interested in keeping their airpods in, texting, and watching videos on YouTube.
To a certain extent then, my teacher side agrees with Mr. Feeny in saying we get what we deserve. You have to take advantage of the resources that are available to you to build the best possible life for yourself. However, as I sit here in the middle of local stay-at-home and federal socially distancing orders with no end in sight, I know we don’t deserve what we’ve gotten and want to yell what the Gen Zers surely would back at him: “Ok, Boomer.”
Except Mr. Feeny wasn’t a Boomer. He was a member of the Silent Generation, a generation who valued hard work and keeping your head down as the means to affecting change. True the character was written and created by the Boomer producer of the series Michael Jacobs, but through the process that is television production, actor William Daniels who played George Feeny had a huge influence on his portrayal before the show even shot one scene. In his memoir, Daniels wrote that “I told [Jacobs] I didn’t want to play a high school teacher who’s made to look foolish for the sake of some cheap laughs” and recounted how after the first table read he was so unhappy that Jacobs went home that night and delivered a rewritten storyline for him to play. Additionally, the character was based on one of Jacobs’ own teachers who was highly respected and surely from an even earlier generation than Mr. Feeny. Thus in many ways Mr. Feeny stands as an aberration, a character created by a Boomer writer that retained the cultural wisdom from an earlier generation that was being washed away by the art and education crafted by that writer’s peers.
Considering this character and scene in this light perhaps reveals the secret to the show’s insight and impact (and maybe why Girl Meets World didn’t fare as well). It provided guidance and stability to a generation that sorely needed it. Boomer parent characters Alan and Amy Matthews most likely more closely mirrored Jacobs than Mr. Feeny did. Notably, the Matthews parents were largely ineffective at disciplining their children, unintentionally leaving Cory to figure out his own problems–with the guidance of Mr. Feeny. Alan in particular is shown to be incredibly lax on Cory’s older brother Eric, leading to Eric being directionless and self-defeating in the show’s middle seasons and goofy and aloof in the show’s later seasons. In other words, Mr. Feeny raised Cory, Shawn, Topanga, Eric and the rest of their friends more than their own parents did. Topanga even tells Mr. Feeny in the show’s final scene, “You were more of a father to me than my own dad.”
Mr. Feeny parented the group by allowing them to make their own decisions, never protecting them from the consequences, and ensuring that they learned from every mistake they made. Not only did this approach make for a well formatted television series, it allowed Cory, the middle child who was largely left to figure out the world himself, and Topanga, whose parents are largely nonentities in the series, to grow up differently than the rest of their generation. They didn’t sleep around. They didn’t do drugs. They didn’t drink (except for that one episode). They grew up together in love and built a life and family they were responsible for and protected.
I imagine them inside the lockdowned New York City, the setting of Girl Meets World, and know they wouldn’t deserve what they’re getting. Do we? I hope not, but for years our generation has turned to authority figures and the system as both the solutions and causes of our problems. Now that system is telling us it can’t protect our health out of one side of its mouth while saying out of the other side that the only way it can protect us is to take away our freedom. Yet, we accept the orders and mandates and just wait for the system to tell us when our lives can start again.
As a new public school teacher, I can tell you that how Daniels feared Mr. Feeny would be portrayed in a television show is the reality of how teachers are seen and treated today–foolish for the sake of a cheap laugh. I can also tell you that, in the middle of this PANdemIC and my Boy Meets World binge watch, Daniels was right that they should be more like Mr. Feeny.
I don’t know what we deserve. Hell, I don’t even know what the world will look like tomorrow anymore. What I do know tis hat when, if, I get back in the classroom, I will endeavor to be more like Mr. Feeny and teach my students to, as he says in the series finale, “Believe in yourselves. Dream. Try. Do good.”
It’s the only way we’ll solve our inner crisis (both individual and national) and overcome this ordeal.