It was recently brought to my attention that, when I was in the 7th grade, there was an incident on the bus with several classmates of mine. One of them was asking another, a girl of Chinese descent, to read instructions on a battery. The girl insisted it was in Japanese and she couldn’t, but the other kid proclaimed, ‘that’s all the same thing, why won’t you read it?’ At this point, apparently, I stepped in and forced the kid to stop harassing her, telling him it wasn’t cool what was being said or done. I don’t remember this event at all, and was both surprised and proud of my younger self for being so virtuous. My parents raised my sister and I to be extremely empathetic and altruistic, so it wasn’t terribly shocking, but the fact that I was willing to do so at 12 or 13 seems slightly traceable to values I learned from TGIF.
Boy Meets World had a penchant for the really heavy, very special episodes, so much so that it’s kind of notorious for them throughout its history: Shawn joins a cult, Shawn’s girlfriend gets beaten, Shawn’s dad dies of a heart attack when he finally confronts him about how shitty a parent he’s been. It wasn’t a program afraid to confront some big issues during its time on air, even if it was often a highly sanitized version of real life (like the later episode where Shawn becomes an alcoholic and woman beater; I’m sensing a pattern here…). But it still went after some pretty intense topics during its run, which began with the eighth episode, “Teacher’s Bet.”
An episode that ends with Cory calling Shawn “a wop” and shouting how “a fifteen year old girl is dead!”, because he’s shaken that Eric’s new girlfriend is the victim of a racial slur (“at our mall?”) isn’t choosing brevity. The path there is kind of shaky, beginning with Mr. Feeny calling out Cory for his constant class interruptions at the beginning (in a case of the show telling us one thing, Cory is the main instigator at school, while not really backing it up). Cory states his teacher is just “Vanna White pointing at letters,” and makes a bet that he can be just as, if not more, effective at educating the class. They agree that Cory will take over the Social Studies lesson for the week, a subject that “never changes,” and lead the class in reading The Diary of Anne Frank.
Cory is immediately confronted with the stupidity of his hubris when he discusses the bet with his parents. Alan is amusingly concerned with Cory’s end of the bet (“why does Feeny want that bike??”), mostly because he expects his son to lose and he just spent “good money” on a new bike. Cory assures his parents it will be a breeze, with an unbending belief that the assignment he’s tasked with teaching, about “Nazis and Jews, a long time ago…when there was prejudice,” is simple. Alan side-eyes his son about the notion that prejudice is an outdated occurrence and his nonchalance about potential pitfalls of the wager, but does follow Amy’s lead and trust it is one of those “Mr. Feeny lesson things.”
Cory’s first two classes are predictably chaotic, with Cory finding out fast the innate difficulties of commanding a group of 12-year old’s attention. His first day is a literal joke, asking his fellow students to call him “Hey Dude” (Hey dude…) and assigning the same homework from the previous day under the guise of giving students an extra chance to complete what’s required. Alan, still gravely concerned with Feeny’s nefarious desires for his son’s bike, warns Cory again about the error of his ways, and frightens him enough that the young Mr. Matthews finally takes his side of the bet seriously. The floodgates had been opened in his first class, though, and he is unable to corral his unruly classmates to get his lesson across during his second day.
It appears at this point we’re headed towards a standard ‘Being an adult is a lot harder than it looks’ plot based on the first half of the episode, ending with hat-in-hand, humbled Cory apologizing to Mr. Feeny for underestimating just how difficult the educator’s profession must be (which still does happen, but bear with me). It would have made sense given the common theme that ran consistently throughout the first season. But this episode had different ideas.
So we meet Eric’s new girlfriend du jour, Linda, a wannabe cheerleader of Asian descent who ingratiates herself to the family (particularly Morgan). Later in the episode, she and Eric return to the Matthews’ home hushed and upset. She cries while Eric comforts her, as a confused Morgan and Cory inquire on what’s happening, with Morgan asking despondently, “what’s wrong with Linda?” Eric explains “some jerk called her a bad name” at the mall. The show never notes what vile insult was hurled her way, but you can use your darkest imagination to connect the dots.
Understandably, between his actual reading of Anne Frank, and this tangible evidence of the continual presence of prejudice in our modern society, Cory attempts genuine teaching. After he makes the example with Shawn and racial slurs, he launches into a nice rant about our social responsibility to stand up against that which is wrong. “Real smart, totally cool people suffer,” he lectures the class, imploring them to read the book not for his own selfish benefits, but “because when someone calls someone else a bad name, it’s not good that just that one person jumps up; we all have to jump up.”
As I mentioned at the beginning, I have ZERO recollection of the time I stood up against youthful ignorance and jackassery. In all honesty I was somewhat surprised that quiet, withdrawn, junior high me was able to stand up like that. It’s hard to do what’s right, to speak out against prejudice or discrimination or bigotry in any form, at any age. It is so much easier to stay silent, slide to the side and pretend nothing is happening (particularly if we aren’t on the receiving end or the victim of such abhorrence). But young Adam didn’t stay quiet, and I did stand up for what was right. And if I had to venture a guess, it can only be that I learned the importance of doing so from Cory Matthews’ brief run as a 6th grade instructor.