Pop Culture

Everything I Learned (About School), I Learned From ’90s Cartoons: “Recess”

Much like Animaniacs taught me about authority and control in the classroom, Recess prepared me for some of the social sorting and clique forming that happened directly outside of the classroom.

There has been much scholarship written about the pros and cons of ability grouping in classrooms. Ability grouping is grouping students together based on their perceived subject-based abilities (reading, comprehension, writing, etc.) so that teachers can modifying their teaching to address the needs of each ability group. The idea is to meet the academic needs of each child while using these peer groups for support. Critics have said that students learn and perform better when placed with peers of differing ability. A recent article in the New York Times suggests that ability grouping has made a resurgence in recent years, likely due to the increasing standardized examinations and accountability measures in school.

However, this article will not be a thorough examination of the literature surrounding ability grouping in classrooms and equity for all students. I’m not that kind of writer (okay, I could be), and this is not that kind of article series. This article is a brief examination of how these ideas of social sorting and grouping influenced the late ’90s cartoon series, Recess.

I was a 5th grader when Recess began its run, and its focus on similarly-aged kids taught me a lot about the social aspects of school. Playground groups formed because of common interests or goals, like kickball or double dutch. Talents and skills played heavily into their sorting, because you obviously wanted the kid who kicked a home run every time, on your team. Not to overexaggerate, but these social groups could potentially change your life, or at the very least, make for some amazing elementary school heists and adventures.

Let’s revisit this theme song just to get a quick glimpse of the different groups that inhabit the Third Street School (and see an example of one of these heists in action):

The main characters all play into some stereotype or basic characterization: T.J., the ringleader; Gretchen, the nerd; Spinelli, the street-smart tough kid; Vince, the Jock; Mikey, the funny, fat kid, and Gus, the shy, new kid (who assisted in exposition for the viewers). Of course, over the span of the show, each of these characters subvert the tropes of their characterization. At the same time, these prototypical students helped represent kids that existed in your own school. There probably wasn’t a duo of students creating an elaborate tunnel system underneath the playground (and even accidentally digging to China), but there probably was a group of girls who were known as gossip queens, or maybe even a “hustler” kid who tried to sell black market toys or candy. (Not even joking, that “hustler” kid was my younger brother, and he sold leftover Halloween candy after anyone had any left. He would graduate to selling custom mixed CDs in his middle school years, when burning CDs was still cutting edge technology.)

Having attended a school that was K-6, much like the Third Street School, I am very familiar with the grade-imposed heirarchy, where kindergarteners were shielded from the rest of the school (maybe for their wild ways, or so they wouldn’t be trampled by students who were physically much larger than them), and 6th graders ran the blacktop (because they were the biggest and oldest and therefore had the most power). At the Third Street School, as in many cartoons where things are heightened and exaggerated, this took form of a school-wide playground monarchy, where there is quite literally a king, with his brown armchair throne atop the jungle gym. King Bob maintained strict control of the playground with an elaborate rule system, which emphasized social control, conformity and order.

Seriously, the rules were amazing and intense and maintained by both a security team and a secret security force.

Rigid rules, a strict monarchy, and conformity probably all contribute to this overarching message of a place for every one and every one in their place. Recess suddenly doesn’t look so fun and whimsical anymore, even though recess was the time when students experienced some sense of freedom. Marx would probably say that recess, in this case exemplifies some sort of false consciousness, where students believe they are experiencing true freedom, when in fact are recreating the same processes and systems that oppress them inside the classroom. Nothing says devotion to social control like getting rid of recess, so now even the illusion is gone.

This cartoon introduction to social sorting and (modified) ability grouping, helped explain why I was drawn to certain people for friendship while in school, and why certain social groups seemed more lasting than others.  Recess probably subconsciously informed much of my sociological interest in schools. Okay, based on this complete deconstruction of the show, basically implying that the creators were hinting at the darker themes of recess as a social control and sorting mechanism, Recess the show, definitely impacted my sociological explorations of schools. So next time you’re enjoying the exploits of T.J. and company, think that this was all part of mass conspiracy to get kids to sort themselves on the playground according to skills, a very capitalist notion. Or it’s just a great kid adventure show, that happens to take place during recess.

If none of this convinced you about the signifance of social sorting as represented by Recess, I highly suggest you click on over to the amazing Wikipedia page, where some great person (not me) wrote a hilariously spot-on description of the show.

I swear I didn’t write that Wikipedia entry.

By Karishma

Karishma is a twenty-something living in New York City and is trying her hardest to live out every cliche about Millennials. This involves eating her feelings, drowning in debt and mocking infomercials. She likes sociology so much that she has two degrees in it, and is still warding off her parents' questions about a real career.

2 replies on “Everything I Learned (About School), I Learned From ’90s Cartoons: “Recess””

Well, shucks, now I wish I stayed at the same elementary school long enough to see this happen…but also, my school was a little more clearly segregated. Grade levels were kept apart. I like your analysis though. And this whole 90’s TV deal. Reliving my childhood!

Leave a Reply