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How “Saved by the Bell” prepared me for life

Bill Rinner | Friday, January 16, 2004

Like so many others of our generation, I would rush home from middle school every day to settle into the couch cushion and watch perhaps one of the most influential television shows of my childhood: “Saved by the Bell.”

Despite its dearth of realism, its cookie-cutter character stereotypes and its overwhelming corniness, “Saved by the Bell” nevertheless provided wisdom that I still carry today. For the small handful of you who never watched the show during your adolescent heyday, it featured six high school students, led by the ineffably cool Zack Morris, who planned their schemes in the principal’s office at Bayside High, ate lunch at The Max every day and learned every harsh lesson to emerge as better people and closer friends at the end of each 30-minute installment.

Parents and critics alike panned the show as an unrealistic portrayal of high school life, and they were largely vindicated when we realized that the lines between the jocks, nerds, feminists and cheerleaders were more blurred than “Saved by the Bell’s” depiction. I felt particularly disappointed when my high school experience did not include a dance contest refereed by Casey Kasem, but my enlightenment would come in due time. Now that we have grown up since the awkward and ignorant years of junior and senior high school, we can evaluate the show to recognize the positive effects lurking amidst its flaws.

I’ll start by referencing an old classic, one that forever lingers in the memory for those fortunate enough to have viewed it. Entitled “Jessie’s Song,” the episode features the overachieving Jessie Spano, who later drops out of Stansbury University to pursue a career as a stripper, in the midst of a nervous breakdown only amplified by her addiction to caffeine pills. I’m willing to wager that every student familiar with the episode recalls the horrendous image of Jessie screaming “I’m so excited! I’m so … scared!” when they contemplate taking a No-Doz pill during finals week.

Not only did the episode offer a sentimental lesson on the nature of drug addiction, but the group’s intervention after A.C. Slater discovers her secret proves that a friend in need is a friend indeed, and Jessie ultimately recovers from her traumatic experience.

When not facing internal adversity, the group’s confrontations with societal injustice opened a young generation’s eyes to problems ranging from sexism to the destruction of the environment.

Who can watch the tragic moment when Zack’s pet duck Becky dies from an oil spill and not be enraged at the greed and utter inhumanity of oil companies with virtually no regard for the environment? Fortunately, the group overcomes the plot of an evil corporation and all other bounds of simple rationality to thwart the attempt to turn Bayside High into a giant oil rig at the expense of a duck pond.

Protecting the environment from evildoers was only the beginning of the group’s inspirational movement for social justice. When the new girl Kristi tries out for the wrestling team, she faces the institutionalized sexism inherent in the athletic world where females are not encouraged to utilize their physical talents. Her ardent supporters intervene, and she receives her chance to prove her ability on the wrestling mat, shocking the after-school television world with the stunning pin of a rival wrestler.

The episode proved a worthy allegory for the real-life introduction of Title IX, which has benefited countless college students who can look no further than the gym of Bayside High for internal justification of the controversial provision.

None can forget Zack’s encounters with his friendly nemesis, Mr. Belding, the bumbling principal. Remembering their rivalry and Zack’s string of moral victories against repression, a generation developed the courage and confidence required to question higher authorities. Notre Dame students, in particular, could benefit from a crash-course review of Zack’s antics, lest we forget that authority is not so much a permanent obstacle as a temporary inconvenience to our goals

Finally, as we prepare ourselves to venture out into the business world, the lessons about the glories and pitfalls of capitalism that “Saved by the Bell” presents are more relevant now than ever before. One needn’t major in business to learn basic marketing skills. Look no further than the episode “Model Students,” when Zack and company rejuvenate the failing student store by selling a women’s swim team calendar. As they discover, sex sells. Despite the moral or ethical downside to objectifying the body, we live in a beauty-oriented world where looks can be crucial to success.

“Saved by the Bell” offered a dose of idealism to an otherwise apathetic generation, proving that even nerdy students have their day and jocks can ultimately attain the elusive yet attractive feminist. We lucky few who witnessed its brilliance should never regret the valuable time spent on the couch after school when we should have been doing our homework.

Bill Rinner is a junior economics major studying abroad at the London School of Economics. After much thought, he fully endorses Rev. Al Sharpton for the Democratic presidental nomination. He can be reached at wrinner@nd.edu.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.