When My Parents Split Up, Saved By The Bell Became The Babysitter

Photo: © AF archive / Alamy Stock Photo.
There is a period of time from our youth that my sister and I now laughingly refer to as “largely unsupervised.”

It was less funny at the time. Our parents had recently split up, we were each going through a wretched period of post-divorce funk, and — by virtue of the fact that we lived across the street from school — we often beat my mom home from her new job. Suffice it to say that Caroline and I were suddenly alone, a lot.

I was in fifth grade and my sister was in third, so we proclaimed ourselves too old to tolerate a sitter. Thankfully, we had enough self-discipline to sit down and do our homework on our own long before dinner. (Don’t you remember? That was the rule.) Most days, we met at the crosswalk and arrived at our abode together, where I opened the door, made us a snack, and turned on the tiny television in the kitchen before working through multiplication tables and grammar exercises.

The show that was always playing in the background? Why, it was the often zany, consistently moralistic, teen rom-com-drama Saved by the Bell. The irony is not lost on me that — despite the fact that we had escaped school for the day — Caroline and I tuned in to the reruns of a series that played out inside classroom walls.

There was something comforting about the structure of each episode: 10 minutes of (often silly) setup, followed by another 10 of high-energy action, and a few final minutes of earnest wrap-up. SBTB had the effect of making things feel normal for us at a time when little else did. It was consistent, predictable, and reliable — not just as background entertainment, but as a spirit-lifting story.

Little by little, the series became our babysitter, hovering over us during homework hour, interjecting little lessons in morality, and giving us shimmering glimpses of a future in which SAT prep, locker room antics, and young romance reigned.

Those half-hour episodes were a safety zone that relieved the pressure of everything going on with our parents. The series offered audiences (specifically, me) relatable teens with their own set of solvable problems that we could contemplate each afternoon. We watched three episodes every day for one year, Monday through Friday, starting at 3:30 p.m. and ending at 5. And — like any good subliminally instructive series — it left us with plenty of moral-of-the-story moments. The characters may not have been real, but the lessons I learned from SBTB were very much so.

For example: I — like many '90s youths — learned to fear caffeine pills the way that some people balk at cocaine, thanks to an episode called "Jessie's Song," in which Elizabeth Berkley's character becomes dependent on "drugs" to study for her SATs. (You may remember the now-iconic line, "I’m so excited, I’m so excited, I’m so SCARED!”)

But I also learned something else from that episode: that SATs were a thing I would eventually need to study for, and that I better start thinking about my grades if I wanted to get into a good college down the line. It wasn't my mom or dad who brought up that idea first. It was SBTB.

Another plot line that remains close to my heart: After an entire school year of flirtation, Zack finally asks Kelly to the prom. She accepts, and then her dad loses his job, which means she can’t afford to buy a dress. When Zack finds out what’s going on, he stages their own private dance outside the school gym, complete with an adorable alfresco dining setup and a shining banner that reads, “Zack and Kelly’s Prom.” While the show wasn't always a beacon of feminist sensibilities, I did learn something about what kind of young suitor to seek out: someone who would still want to take you to the big dance even when you don't have a brand-new dress.

Yes, the characters on SBTB were fictional. But they also had big hearts, and a kindness about them that you don't find everywhere. They were patient with and supportive of one another. Being immersed in the series during a vulnerable time taught me that we get through the hard stuff with help from our friends — and that the cool kids, and the geeky kids, and the kids who came from perfect nuclear families, and those who didn't could all still stick together.

Inevitably, the school year came to a close, and summer kept us occupied with non-TV related activities. The following fall, my sister and I both became mired in extracurriculars. Not so very long after that, we became teenagers ourselves, and the idea of deriving lessons from anything as dated as Saved by the Bell merited an exaggerated eye roll. The fracture in our family began to heal over. We giggled more. We wanted to be alone less.

We never formally said goodbye to our SBTB "babysitters." But if that were possible, I would go back and tell that band of boldly wardrobed teens who watched over us for a year of late afternoons that I was grateful for their company, and for the levity they brought into our lives through a small screen every day. Saved by the Bell was more than just a series: It actually swooped in and saved us from being all by ourselves.
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