It’s safe to say that Tyler James Williams is having a moment. Honestly, the whole cast is having a moment, but this isn’t about them; this is about the recent GQ Hype cover star and Golden Globe Award–winning actor who has grown from a successful child actor to having a leading role in the most popular sitcom on the air. When Melissa convinces Gregory to get onstage and accept the Educator of the Year Award, she tells him, “You can’t choose when people acknowledge you. This is your moment.” I couldn’t help but think about Williams’s journey that brought him to where he is today.
I’m two years younger than Williams, so in many ways I feel like we’ve grown up together. For my generation of Black kids, Williams was a familiar face on the rare shows that reflected our lives. When we were babies, he was on Sesame Street; when we were prepubescent, he was on Everybody Hates Chris; when we were teens, he was on True Jackson, VP and Let It Shine. After a brief hiatus, he returned and gave us more roles that resonated with our lives, like Dear White People or A Black Lady Sketch Show. He’s one of the few Black child actors who has maintained steady roles into adulthood, which is genuinely a feat — in his GQ profile, he said that a producer on Everybody Hates Chris told him, “I’ll never see you as anything else, and you’ll probably never work again.” His Emmy nomination and Screen Actors Guild Award would beg to differ.
Now Williams plays the slim, the sensual, the strange Gregory Eddie (thank you, Ava, for these amazing descriptors). Gregory hasn’t been at his craft as long as Williams has; we watched him stumble into teaching on his quest to become a principal, but he’s proven to be consistent, dedicated, and continually improving. These aren’t the reasons he was picked to receive the award — we can thank tokenism for that — but he deserves his flowers either way, just like Williams does. Initially, Gregory doesn’t understand why he was chosen at all. On paper, it doesn’t make sense; how can he be Educator of the Year when he hasn’t even been a teacher for an entire year? His co-workers agree that he isn’t necessarily deserving, but the optics of having a Black man receive the award trumps logistics.
Gregory spends most of the episode perplexed as the local news and Elizabeth Washington, chief education officer for the Philadelphia Board of Education, follow him around to “shine a light” on a teacher “who represents what it means to be an exceptional educator.” They plan a ceremony after school that is a clear display of true performative diversity: The school board has prepared a children’s choir filled with little Black faces singing their hearts out as a young Black boy performs spoken word. Gregory’s hilarious staff picture (featuring his unsmiling face looking awkwardly at the camera) is plastered on posters around the gym. Ashley, Melissa’s old aide, receives the Teacher’s Aide of the Year Award as a “Latin-X” contribution. To round out the “diverse, kaleidoscopic POV” that will “bridge the gap between culture and education,” Washington has Melissa present the award to Gregory because, obviously, Italian American representation cannot be missing. White women matter! Gabagootz!
Janine deals with a problem on the opposite end of the spectrum as Gregory when a parent calls her a bad teacher. She’s been dealing with one of her student’s behavioral issues over the school year, but his outbursts have worsened, escalating from not raising his hand to throwing books. She calls an emergency meeting with the student’s mom, Cassandra, which goes from bad to terrible. Cassandra doesn’t understand how her son’s behavior is her problem and throws the responsibility back onto Janine and chastises her for not doing her job. It’s unfair to Janine — like Quinta Brunson said in her SNL monologue (so proud of her), teachers aren’t appliances; they’re people. They aren’t a one-stop shop that will turn children into successful adults. Teachers and parents should be a team; what happens at home and in the classroom are directly correlated.
But not every parent will understand that, and some parents don’t have the resources to be fully engaged 24/7. And some parents, because parents are just humans with kids, can be assholes. Cassandra seems to be a combination of all of this, and she blows up on Janine, saying, “If this is the best that you can do, you are the worst teacher that I’ve ever seen.” This hits Janine hard; so much of her personality and sense of self-worth stems from being the best educator she can be. She breaks down, and Gregory, her knight in shining armor, finds her crying in her classroom. He brings her to Barbara to help fix the situation, feeling like he can’t make it better.
Barbara is busy completing her continuing education classes that she’s been avoiding so she doesn’t have to deal with the technology. Jacob successfully sets her up on the computer so she can have an “intergenerational” conversation with a fellow teacher. Like one of her many blessings from Jesus, this conversation falls into her lap. She comforts Janine, who is distraught, never having dealt with something like this. As a seasoned teacher and a maternal figure, Barbara tells Janine to pick herself up, dust herself off, come back to work the next day and do her job. She shares with Janine, who is still growing and learning herself, that she’s been called a bad teacher more times than she can remember. She says, “People have thrown dirt on my name and others have given flowers. But it’s all a garden to me.”
In a mentoring moment that Janine has always craved; Barbara teaches her that, contrary to Janine’s belief, it’s not about always having a solution. It’s about showing up every day and doing the best you can. Sometimes success looks less like neat solutions tied up in bows and more like perseverance and giving yourself grace. After wiping her tears, she has Janine sign off on her worksheet, saying she’s completed that part of her training.
Melissa and Gregory meet before the ceremony so she can plan what to say in her speech. Gregory starts circling the drain as he thinks of all the reasons he doesn’t deserve the award, and Melissa settles on repurposing a Jalen Hurts tribute post. This actually works out great because, as Melissa said, he may not necessarily be the best teacher in the school, but he’s a damn good rookie. Gregory takes the stage and gives an acceptance speech about how being a teacher isn’t about being the best, it’s about doing your best, just like Barbara told Janine. He talks about the importance of being a constant in his students’ lives and the camera pans to some of the young Black students watching him in the audience, a moment that is reflective of not only Williams’s own career as a constant face on our screens but of Black role models everywhere.
It’s like the famous quote, “You can’t be what you can’t see.” Despite not being Abbott’s best or most accomplished teacher, he understands how big just showing up can be. In his interview with GQ, Williams states that this is his favorite part about playing Gregory. “What I love most about him is watching him try to bridge the gap between being something he hasn’t seen before and what his kids need,” he said, “I think a lot of Black men are trying to do something we’ve never seen before.” And for that, we’ll always love you, Mr. Gregory!
• Abbott has another great guest star this week with June Diane Raphael. She’s always a treat; most recently, I loved her on Black Monday. But the guest star I’m ridiculously excited for is Taraji P. Henson as Janine’s mom! That’s going to be great. Henson said that she asked Brunson to be on the show, and I’m happy it’s happening.
• Janine and Gregory’s love for each other is spilling over everywhere, and everyone is noticing. Melissa and Ava’s impersonation was on point. But, in addition to the slow-burn yumminess, I like seeing them establish trust as friends first and grow as individuals before getting into a relationship.
• The acronyms Jacob and Barbara read are so realistic to the annoying corporate language used in professional training. As someone who has gone through Starbucks barista training, it reminds me of an acronym for customer service they use called the LATTE model. I wish I was kidding.
• Mr. Johnson’s intergenerational training class needs to be played in every office everywhere, deadass. Ya feel me, stupid?
Finally, here are my favorite lines:
• Jacob: “Android discrimination is one of the last acceptable forms of hate in this country.”
• Ava: “Paging Educator of the Year, Mr. Eddie. Your essence is needed at the award presentation, so bring that punim to the gym!”
• Jacob, after Barbara asks for his help: “Oh, God, yes. Lord, build me a fence. Yes, what is it?”
• Lines from the spoken-word poem: “The wind beneath our wings, Gregory Eddie, a Black man with a plan. Ain’t that fly? Some may go low, but he won’t go get high…er learning with a hue and sense of humor. Take him down? Nah, son. His name ain’t Nas, but he’s God’s son.”