2.1 Bart Gets an F
Bart has one more chance to pass a test or be held back a year.
I like that the writers make Bart clearly horrible to deal with, but also have Krabbapel get just the slightest kick out of his failure. I had a relationship with an English teacher that was a lot like this. I was whiny about receiving criticism; she was twisting the knife more than a professional educator should. If you had recorded us venting about each other, we’d have both been right. If we’d been excusing our own behaviours, we’d have both been full of shit.
(Hi, Ms. Klan 😘)
Point being, conflicts usually involve both parties being wrong, albeit in different ways. Maybe one party is more wrong, but there’s always another level of self-awareness you can gain from conflicts, if you’re willing to.
Anyway, I’m always appreciative go how The Simpsons manages to moralize without necessarily taking a strong side.
It’s the little character consistencies that make the show so deep. As he attempts to study in his room, Bart reads his book aloud, just as he does with his intelligence test in “Bart the Genius” back in season one. He clearly needs to verbalize information as he processes it, which, while being a completely valid way of learning, is a hundred percent incompatible with the school system. School privileges a very specific way of learning, which works great for kids like Lisa and myself, but handicaps kids like Bart.
Homer and Marge see that Bart has fallen asleep studying. Marge asks why he keeps failing, and Homer replies, “Just a little dim I guess.”
I used to think the Bart Simpsons of my class were just dim, too. Sadly, most of my teachers pigeonholed them in the same way, as have other adults in their lives, I would imagine. Bart teaches us a very important lesson about underachievers; if they don’t want to do well or fit in, it’s because the system beat that desire out of them.
As a person with a disability who put five years’ effort into a workforce that just wasn’t made for me, it’s a lesson I’ve come to understand quite powerfully.
The next morning Sherri and Terri can see he hasn’t studied, and they feed him wrong answers on purpose. Despite being natural enemies with Bart, Martin tells him he was misinformed. I love the long shot where Martin tells him this, as it shows the entire school in the background with Bart looking like an ant, crushed by something systemic as much as by his own doing.
Sherri/Terri and Martin represent ways in which we all have the potential of reacting to people who aren’t benefitting from an unfair system. We can be cruel or we can try to help them. Depending on the day we might choose a different approach.
Martin helps Bart study, and Bart helps Martin gain some social savvy. Besides its being hilarious, imagine if schools tried to build community from an early age by actually having kids do stuff like this. Without that systemic foundation the kids’ deal ends up having a corrupting influence on both of them. Martin becomes a troublemaker and Bart overcorrects to the point of self-harm, as he slaps himself in the basement while trying to absorb information.
Both Ms. Krabbapel and the school psychologist repeatedly ask Bart why he’s underachieving, as if a ten year-old child would have the self-awareness to be able to tell them that. You can yell “apply yourself” to a child all you want; our brains are different, and if you don’t learn in the way the system prescribes, you can’t apply shit.
This is a phenomenal episode, and Nancy Cartwright turns in an Emmy-worthy performance as Bart. It explores similar themes as “Bart the Genius” does, but the level of Bart’s emotional investment makes this episode stronger.
I do wish that “Bart Gets an F” was more challenging of the harmful and ableist assumption that repeating the fourth grade is some tragic personal failure. Suppose Bart does fail, just barely. Going from 12% to 59% is extraordinary. The hardest I ever worked in a class was Math 11, and I got 75%, my lowest grade in high school (other than P.E. but who cares. Hi, Mr. Ridge 😘). I went from 67% in first term to just under 90% second term. That jump right there might have been my best academic achievement.
Best Moment: Bart realizes he kissed Krabbapel.
Best Quote: “I got held back in the fourth grade myself. Twice. Look at me, man. I drive the school bus!” -Otto