Hi. Welcome back to my re-watch of Punky Brewster. If you want to read my prior reviews, you can check them out HERE.
I am watching this show on the NBC App. For some reason, not all of the original run episodes are on the NBC app. As a result, I will only review the ones I can see. If I find the missing episodes later, I will blog about them, re-number my episodes, etc.
I will provide a short episode summary here at the top, then a long and detailed summary just below that. There’s a sub-section near the bottom (scroll down) labeled “reaction” if you just want to get right to my thoughts about the episode.
THE QUICK AND CLEAN SUMMARY:
Punky befriends the mentally handicapped school janitor, Linda, after tracking mud down the school hallway. Punky learns that Linda is worried about being fired and helps Linda clean up the shoe tracks. Later, Punky asks Henry why God made some people not as smart as other people and he tells her that she is looking at the situation in the wrong way. Henry tells Punky that instead of looking at what Linda is lacking, she should look at the qualities her friend does possess.
The next day at school, Allen makes fun of Linda while she is miming a violin performance using a dust mop handle and a spray bottle. Mike punishes Allen in front of the entire class. Punky consoles Linda in the hallway. After class, Linda apologizes to Mike for disrupting his class. While they are talking, Mike discovers that Linda is a musical savant and gets her started with playing the violin. The episode ends some time later as Linda plays the violin for Mike’s class.
THE EXTRA DUSTY RECAP AND REACTION:
When the episode starts, Mike is talking to the new school janitor. He tells her that since she started working at the school, it has never been so clean. He jokes that he no longer needs a mirror because he can see his face in her shiny floors. The janitor, who is mentally handicapped, tells Mike that this is the first job anyone has ever given her.
My Mom said I would get fired. But my dad said “Go for it, cupcake.”
The janitor confesses that she always wanted to attend regular school like everyone else but that she was not allowed because she was “too dumb.” She starts laughing. Mike asks why it is funny and she replies that the man said she was too dumb to go to regular school, and now she not only goes to regular school every day but that same man has to pay her for it.
Janitor: I’m not too dumb. [laughs]
She leaves his room and gives Mike a sticker. She tells him it means he is cool. After she is gone, Mike says “not as cool as you, Linda.”
Later that day, after school, Punky returns to her locker because she forgot a book. She tracks mud down the hallway. Linda panics and says that if the floors are dirty she will get fired. Punky apologizes and then starts trying to clean up, too. She tells Linda that if anyone gets fired, it will be her, but she points out that the law says she is required to go to school so they cannot fire her from attending school. Linda laughs and tells Punky that she likes her. She goes on to explain to Punky that most of the kids at her school laugh at her and call her a dummy.
They think I don’t understand them but I do.
Punky tells her not to pay attention to it and says that kids are always calling other people names. She then tells Linda that kids call her “Gunky.” Linda promises never to call Punky by that name. She then asks Punky if she wants to see her sticker book. Punky enthusiastically says yes. Linda gives Punky a sticker that says “#1 Friend.” Punky thanks her and says she will see her tomorrow.
That night, at the kitchen table, we see Punky put Linda’s sticker gift into her own sticker notebook. Henry asks her if she should stop playing with stickers and start doing her homework. She tells Henry that she finished her homework this afternoon and Henry is very pleased. Punky asks Henry what makes a person smart and he tells her that it’s the brain. She asks why everyone does not have the same brain. Henry tells her that if everyone shared a brain, we would all have to take a number and wait before thinking.
Punky persists. She asks Henry why some people are smarter than other people. Henry seems to intuit that Punky is thinking of someone specific and asks her what other people she means. Punky tells Henry about Linda.
Punky: Why would God make a person retarded?
Henry: Punky the world is made up of all kinds of people. Some are rich. Some are poor. Some are tall. Some are short. Some are smart and others are not.
Punky: But why? It doesn’t seem fair to all the poor, dumb, short people.
Henry: That’s because you’re looking at them as poor, dumb, short people. You’re looking at what they don’t have rather than what they do.
Punky says she does not understand so Henry asks Punky to explain what she likes about Linda. Punky tells Henry that Linda is friendly, that she works hard, and that she is pretty. Henry points out that Linda seems to have a lot of wonderful qualities. Henry explains that she should not pity Linda because Linda is not as smart as she is.
Henry: That’s like a giraffe pitying al the other animals because their necks are not as long as his.
Punky: Or like a centipede feeling sorry for me because I don’t have a hundred legs.
They joke about Henry having to find her that many different colored tennis shoes or worse, lacing them all up. Punky says she is going to stop feeling sorry for Linda and she tells Henry that he must be the wisest man in the world.
The next day in Mike’s class, Linda stands in the doorway as Mike shows the students a picture of an oboe but asks them if any can tell him what it is. Margaux offers that it looks like a clarinet. Mike says no, but that the instrument is a woodwind. Allen is called on, next, and says “don’t tell me, don’t tell me.”
Allen: I’ve got it! The buffoon!
Margaux: Allen, the only buffoon in this class is you.
Margaux tells Mike that Allen means the bassoon. Allen says that is what he meant and Mike tells them it is not a bassoon and Allen agrees saying he did not think so. Mike finally tells them that it is an oboe.
Next Mike holds up a picture of a violin. He asks who can tell him the name of this instrument. Linda looks as though she wants to reply. Then she does. The class turns to look at her in the doorway. She gets embarrassed and leaves. Allen mutters to another student referring to Linda as a dunce. Punky stares at him with the heat and fury of a thousand suns.
Mike redirects the class to their school work. He plays a violin solo for them and tells them to draw whatever comes to mind as they listen. As the violen plays, we see Linda mime playing a violin in the hallway using the handle of a duster and a cleaning bottle. Allen eventually notices and directs the class to look at her. The students begin laughing.
Allen: Next she’s gonna play a mop solo!
Linda runs out of the room and Punky chastises Allen. Mike also gives Allen a look of disapproval. When told by Punky he hurt Linda’s feelings, Allen replies that he did not.
Allen: Can’t hurt her feelings. She’s a retard!
Mike is now angry. He tells Allen to stand up and come to the front of the room. In front of the class, Mike tells Allen that he can never use that word again in his classroom. He then asks Allen why he thought it was a good idea to make fun of her disability.
Mike: Now would you have laughed at Linda had she walked on crutches?
Allen says no. He offers again though that Linda playing the violin was funny but Mike remains utterly unamused.
Mike: Allen, I’m ashamed of you.
Allen: So am I. I’m sorry.
Punky asks if she can go check on Linda and Mike says yes. Mike assigns Allen a three page report on the Special Olympics. When Allen asks what that is, Mike tells him that he has until 9 o’clock the following morning to find out. Mike tells him to be prepared to read the report to the entire class.
Allen asks Mike if he can not read because he does not read well. He tells Mike that everyone will laugh at him. Mike says that thanks to Allen, the class will not laugh, and that everyone has learned a lesson about what is funny and what is not.
Punky finds Linda in the hallway wiping tears away. Linda asks if Punky has come to laugh at her, too.
Punky: I would never laugh at you. You’re my number one friend, remember?
Linda: I am too dumb to be anyone’s friend. I hate being dumb.
She cries, points out that everyone saw her playing a spray bottle, and asks Punky why she acts so stupid. Punky tells Linda that she plays pretend all the time and relays a story about pretending to be Rapunzel while running down the street with a whole roll of toilet paper coming from her head. Linda cries again saying that unlike Punky, she is grown up, and she is still dumb. She cries saying she will always be dumb.
Punky sits down next to her and advises her to stop thinking about what she does not have. She instructs Linda to think about what she does have. She asks Punky what she has and Punky tells her that she is one of the nicest people she knows. She also tells Linda that she is really pretty and a good worker.
Punky: [Puts hand on her shoulder] As a matter of fact, you’re a wonderful worker.
Linda worries that because she broke the rule about disturbing the class, she will be fired. Punky assures her that she will not be fired.
Punky: It’s hard to find good help these days.
Linda thanks Punky for helping her to feel a lot better.
Sometime later, Linda enters Mike’s classroom. All of the students are gone and musical instruments are scattered all over the room. She finds Mike playing the keyboard when she comes in. When he notices her, she apologizes for disturbing his class. He tells her that he is sorry Allen made fun of her and he tells her that Allen is also sorry. Linda suggests that they are a sorry bunch.
Mike tells her that she looked earlier as though she enjoyed the music and she says she did. She tells him that she can tell how the violin song is supposed to go and she says the song he played earlier is like the L Train.
He is confused and asks her to explain. Linda tells him that she can hear the L Train where she lives. Linda says she likes how it sounds and that she can tell how many cars it is pulling without even looking. She says with the song he was playing earlier, she could just feel what was coming next. Linda says she can tell that sometimes with music. Mike notes that this is amazing.
Mike decides that Linda should try to play a real violin. After smiling at the idea initially, she suddenly pushes back hard and say no. She tells Mike that if she breaks it they will fire her. Suddenly, though, she stops. She say aloud that they will not fire her.
Linda: It’s hard to find good help these days.
Linda asks if she can hold the violin.
At some point in the future, we are back in Mike’s classroom. Punky is drumming. Margaux is playing the saxophone. The noise from their efforts is extremely loud. Mike finally gets their attention to stop.
Mike: Thank you girls for showing us that playing music can be extremely hard especially on the ear.
Mike explains to the class that for most people, musical ability has to be taught over a period of years. However, he tells them there are some exceptions. Mozart, he says, learned to play the piano at three years old. Punky asks how someone can be smart enough to play the piano at three years old and Mike answers that musical ability is not necessarily connected to intellect. He tells them that it is possible for someone with a severe learning disability to be a musical genius.
Mike: And when that happens, it’s called a savant.
Mike then tells them that their class has met a savant already and that he invited her to class to play for them. Linda enters. Mike asks her if she will play for them. She says she is afraid but after a thumbs up from Punky, she begins to play. The entire room sits in a stunned silence as she plays beautifully. All of the students give her a standing ovation when she is finished.
When I watch a show, I try to remember who its audience was. In the case of this show, the audience was children ages two to eleven on Sunday nights after the football game ended.
Did Punky Brewster do a good job addressing mental handicaps? For the most part, I think so. Mike made it abundantly clear that using as a pejorative what we now refer to in the U.S. as “the R word” is not acceptable. I also think the moral message from Henry to Punky was good: think of people for who they are instead of who they are not. That’s a digestible concept for children. The incident with Allen’s cruelty toward Linda was also a relatable lesson for children (and probably some adults.) Linda did something that would have elicited laughs from most nine year olds, I think, when she “played a spray bottle.” Sometime right around the age of nine is when children begin learning when to keep things to themselves to avoid hurting others. That incident between Allen and Linda felt very realistic to me.
Even as an adult, watching that scene, I can imagine the potential for my own thoughtless cruelty. That lesson surely cuts through to children, too.
I did not mind that the show provided the twist ending that Linda is a musical savant. Perhaps the lesson that there might be much more than meets the eye with anyone – however able or disabled that person might be – is worth teaching. The twist also gave the kids watching more of a happy ending feeling for the Linda character.
Here is what I did not like about this episode and it probably comes from my perspective as an adult.
Allen is the butt of a joke for his lack of intelligence in almost every episode of this show – including in this episode. Mere moments before Allen made fun of Linda, Margaux called him a buffoon in front of the entire class after he got an answer wrong, everyone laughed, and nothing happened.
OF COURSE Allen is the student who made fun of Linda. How many chances will he ever get to be on the other end of that paradigm? In one respect, I think Mike handled Allen’s punishment rather well. Through Allen, he communicated an important lesson to the entire classroom. But in another respect, the whole incident might have been avoided if Mike had ever, even one time, called out Margaux in particular for doing the exact same thing to Allen that he did to Linda.
Is the lesson of this episode of television that it is okay to make fun of Allen’s lack of intelligence because he does not have a mental handicap? The episode might have felt better and felt more concluded, to me, if Allen had been given a chance to apologize to Linda personally. Alternatively, I would have settled for more of a heart to heart conversation between Mike and Allen after Mike called down the thunder on him publicly. We’re a couple of episodes removed from Allen saying the following to Mike:
Wow! Nobody’s ever wanted to be like me… not even me!
I am going to need an adult on this show to tell that kid he has value before he wanders down a bad path.