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I never cry while watching a drama. I can feel all the feels of a serious motion picture but it will never move me to tears. This isn’t a hyper-macho “dudes don’t cry thing.” I’m a pretty sensitive guy. It’s just a reality of my movie viewing experience that epic dramas won’t really lead to epic tears for me.

However, there are a few comedy shows where I bawled my eyes out. Not tiny tearing up. No, big ugly tears. The first one caught me off guard. It was Parks and Recreation final season episode about Ron Swanson and Leslie Knope. Written as a cheaper “bottle episode,” the entire show took place with two characters locked in the parks department office overnight. I didn’t expect much from the “stuck together trope,” but the story transcended the cliche with powerful acting and a strong emotional core and I remember crying ugly tears on my couch. It reminded me of reconnecting with my twin brother after a long period where we hadn’t spoken to each other.

The second time I cried was a Schitt’s Creek episode about love and vulnerability and identity. I won’t give away any spoilers but I’ll point out that I had “Simply the Best” stuck in my head for an entire week afterward.

The third was in The Good Place. It was a scene about the brevity of life, the way we choose our soulmates (more so than find them) and the things we remember about a life well spent. It was a montage moment with hardly any dialogue but so much was spoken by what wasn’t spoken. I remember watching that scene sitting next to my wife and our daughter and feeling so grateful for the life we had created together.

The final was a scene from Ted Lasso, where he writes a note of affirmation to an opposing player, Jamie Tartt. That scene reminded me of past mentors, including my former director Chad, who passed away from cancer a year ago. He used to write us notes of encouragement that he called living obituaries because he found it tragic that people waited until someone died to “brag about how awesome someone is.” At the time, I found it a little morbid but now I see just how right he was.

All four shows are, on some level, somewhat unrealistic. Okay, in the case of The Good Place, the show is extremely unrealistic. In each case, the characters begin almost as caricatures of our worst selves. It’s no wonder I began each show barely tolerating the protagonists (except for Ted Lasso, who was instantly likeable). But with each show, something happened. The characters became real. They grew complex.

And they changed for the better.

Most comedies have a trajectory toward caricature. Ross becomes absurdly neurotic with each passing season to the point that I wanted to warn Rachel that he was completely toxic. Homer becomes even more of a bumbling idiot to the extent that you wonder why Marge hasn’t left to pursue a life of her own. The whole Seinfeld crew grow offensively indifferent to the point you question their humanity on the final episode. The last season of The Office is downright unwatchable because the characters are mean and petty.

But Eleanor Shellstrop, the admittedly selfish “dirtbag” from Arizona? She transforms ever so subtly and emerges as a different person. She’s still selfish but she’s also selfless and kind and courageous because of the relationships she has with people around her. Call it unrealistic but that’s what I feel after 17 plus years of being married to Christy. I am different because of my wife.

David Rose might be petty and vain in the final season of Schitt’s Creek but he’s become kind and caring and empathetic because of the community of a small backwater Canadian town. And this is how I feel constantly because of community. I am introvert with a deeply independent streak but I am a better man because of my neighbors. We have grown into a tight community. We have sat with each other during tragedies and broken bread with each other as we share our whole vulnerable selves.

Ron Swanson opens up and lets people in because of friendship. He’s a different man seasons later. And that’s how I feel because of my connection to my close friends.

Call this sentimental. Call it unrealistic. But I’d argue that these comedies, goofy as they may be, remind me of two core convictions I hold. First, people change. Redemption is real. We are not defined by past trauma, mistakes, or even moral failings. This change is often subtle and slow and messy. But it is real. Second, we change because of people. Because of relationships. Because of community. Because of love.

I see this with teachers. I made a sketch video a few years ago and I thought I’d share it again. I’m convinced that teachers impact lives even when they can’t see it:





This is what I loved about teaching middle school. I would see students who seemed challenging or distracted or angry and I would watch them change over the course of the year. They would grow empathetic and kind, in a bumpy road kind of way, because of the relationship they had with the classroom community. A student would arrive with a cold hard stare that said, “I don’t want to be here and I’m not sure you want me to be here as well” and then they’d open up over time.

To my core, I believe we are broken stained glass windows. We are beautiful and broken, with sharp edges and shards but still capable of amazing acts of beauty when the light shines through. I made so many mistakes as a middle school teacher. I had times when I yelled at a class or when I accidentally shamed a kid or when I didn’t notice what was actually going on. But despite my own brokenness, I still got to witness the transformation that happened within a community.

I don’t get to experience this as much as a college professor. I don’t have as much time with my students as I did with middle school. But now, in a role where I am more of a coach and a mentor, I get to witness it secondhand. I get to watch a pre-service teacher, filled with doubt and uncertainty stumbling through mistakes, unsure of their own progress; emerge as an educator ready to change the world. I get to hear their stories of how they’ve connected with their students.

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John Spencer

John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.More about me

2 Comments

  • Sue Kingsbury says:

    I agree with you in that we all learn and grow in a “bumpy” kind of way. We learn from the people we are surrounded by, and those who we trust, and who have a vested interest in our development as a unique human being.

  • Inés says:

    Wow! What a deep and inspiring article! I was speechless for a few minutes…

    […] He used to write us notes of encouragement that he called living obituaries because he found it tragic that people waited until someone died to “brag about how awesome someone is.”[…]
    I completely agree. People need to know how important they are to others. We need to know our efforts are important and that there is someone who sees it and supports us. We need to feel encouraged and empowered by the people we admire, and we care. And this should be a mandate since we are born. How important are these persons, these mentors, these educators, these teachers, those parents… People who feel loved, encouraged, empowered, important will lead and contribute to build and leave a better world. We all need mentors no matter our age or stage in life.

    […] these comedies, goofy as they may be, remind me of two core convictions I hold. First, people change. Redemption is real. We are not defined by past trauma, mistakes, or even moral failings. This change is often subtle and slow and messy. But it is real. Second, we change because of people. Because of relationships. Because of community. Because of love. […]
    Clap, clap, clap. That’s what every single educator in the world should believe. I’ve witnessed many real changes. One of them, my own change.

    Thanks for writing and sharing such inspiring and empowering articles!

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