816 North Opinion

Susan Vollenweider: The Amazing Cosmic Reference of Afterschool Specials

“She wants to play with you,” Sporty Mom Christy said to her daughter during a baseball game last week.

She pointed toward a cute, towheaded little girl sitting a couple rows below us who was looking from her basket of small toys to Christy’s daughter and back. Siblings go together with youth baseball just like Cracker Jack, bleacher butt and mosquito bites, but sib boredom sets in quickly.

“But she’s little,” Christy’s daughter quietly pointed out.

“You were her age only two years ago,” Christy whispered, “and remember how it felt when the older girls wouldn’t play with you?”

She sighed, stuck out her lower lip, batted her eyes…

…and then slipped down the bleachers to join the little girl.

I patted Christy on the shoulder and joked, “That was almost like an Afterschool Special.”

We watched the boys on the field play for only a moment before Christy’s daughter walked away from the little girl to sit with another her own age. We both sighed heavily.

“You know,” I told Christy, “we need new, grown-up Afterschool Specials to teach us parenting.”

Afterschool Specials aired sporadically during the school years from 1972 to 1997. Each individually produced program was themed around tween and teen issues long before “tween” was a thing. Christy is almost 10 years younger than me and grew up in a different part of the country but she knew exactly what I meant.

My kids can flip on the television and find a cornucopia of shows and channels geared to them, but back in “the olden days” we had three channels (a fourth — maybe — if the wind was in the right direction and we maneuvered the aluminum-foiled bunny ears into just the right position). Most of the offerings were targeted toward adults.

But not Afterschool Specials.

Afterschool Specials showed kids our own age experiencing things that we or our friends might be going through. Sometimes animated, but mostly live action (and in a lot of cases, based on books) these shows gave us examples of how we might survive in our world. I never have confessed this before, but I watched them all the way through high school.

Parents getting divorced? You, friends or parents drinking or doing drugs? Self-esteem issues? Problems in school? Yup. Yup. Yup. Yup. There was an Afterschool Special for all of those.

Were they cheesy, even by late 20th-century standards? Sure. Did most border on preachy? Yes. Did I care? Nope. I was entertained, accidently educated, and I got to see all the cute boys from Tiger Beat magazine in action from my living room.

The shows won shelves full of awards, but the greatest may be that they still live in our memories. My own favorite aired in 1976: The Amazing Cosmic Awareness of Duffy Moon. As an awkward and shy middle schooler I needed to hear the message that the power to accomplish big things in life is within — and is engaged by puffing out our cheeks and saying, “You can do it, Duffy Moon,” only, you know, with your own name. I tried to get my kids to watch it on YouTube, but they are snobby about production values.

In 30 years the kids at the ballpark that night will have their own common media references and their own kids who won’t want to hear about them. They will know that a two-year age gap isn’t anything, and — hopefully — how to find their own inner strength.

But that night, Christy and I traveled back in time to our own shared Special memories and wondered what influences our children will bring to their own futures.

Freelance columnist Susan Vollenweider lives in Smithville. For more of her writing, visit thehistorychicks.com.