Ben Stein on ''The Wonder Years''
I hated junior high school. Not disliked, hated. It was a prisonlike brick pile, but the building was not the problem. The problem was that junior high is always horrible: It catches you at that vulnerable stage between child and adolescent. For me, it was a three-year period of being ignored by the cheerleader types I had crushes on, being threatened by various ”tough kids,” and walking home feeling like the lowest creature on earth.
This all comes to mind because on the set of The Wonder Years, Christine Kirby, who spends all day cooking goodies for the cast and crew, has put up a sign that reads, ”It’s never too late to have a happy childhood.” I used to make fun of slogans like that, but thanks to The Wonder Years, this one’s proven true.
I got called, at the age of 43, to return to junior high —in this case, Robert F. Kennedy Junior High, the daytime home of Kevin Arnold (Fred Savage), Paul Pfeiffer (Josh Saviano), Winnie Cooper (Danica McKellar), and the other kids who people The Wonder Years.
I am not an actor. I got called by ABC to play the same kind of person I have always been — a big, monotoned nerd, exactly what I was in the movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and what I am in real life when I teach at Pepperdine or UCLA or give expert testimony in securities law cases. I was drafted to play the kids’ slightly scary, extremely pessimistic science teacher, Mr. Cantwell, whose slide shows and lectures have often paralleled what was going on in Kevin’s life. I showed slides of earthquake devastation, and Kevin’s mother (Alley Mills) had a fight with Kevin’s father (Dan Lauria). I showed movies of praying mantises eating butterflies, and Kevin prepared to take Winnie to a ”make-out” party. Once I even blew up my lab when Kevin was having a blowup with Paul over school.
And from the first day I showed up at John Muir Junior High in Burbank to do location work almost three years ago, the whole experience has been a way to reprise-and repair — Junior High Hell. Instead of scary, pimply thugs pushing me into the lockers, there were assistant directors to show me reverentially to my dressing room as if I were the Dalai Lama. Instead of fierce opponents pinning me in wrestling class, there were tough gaffers and electricians to laugh with me and say how much they loved my ”work.” Instead of teachers who droned on when I yearned to be outside, I got to be the teacher droning on — with a camera on me, which is like basking in a beam of heaven’s grace.
However, sic transit gloria, and there’s a little bit of real life intruding even into Hollywood and the chance for second chances. On the episode that aired May 8, Kevin and Paul and the others graduated from RFK. It was a particularly moving show, with old friends facing separation, and loss and gain hanging in the gray clouds of the future. I even got to participate in a scary stunt involving something called an ”air mortar” that blows doors off classroom sets.
The sad part for me is that Kevin is going on to high school, and I’m not sure I’ll get to go along with him (though I do pray about it a lot). I got bandaged up in the final shot, and that make-believe wound measured how I felt about leaving the best school I ever attended. For me, real junior high has become RFK Junior High, in the town of Arnoldville, state of Arnoldland, circa 1972. Christine had it right. It’s never too late to have a happy childhood, especially out here at the end of the Yellow Brick Road.