Depending on what years you attended elementary school (and probably also in what part of the country you attended said school), the annual "Read-A-Thon" was either a welcome reprieve from normal class schedules or a challenge that just piled a lot of extra work (and pressure) on you. OK, that probably also depends on what kind of student you were and how you felt about reading too. But years ago, such an event was designed as a competition, with the kids (or class) who read the most amount of books in a specific time winning a prize. These days, in order to avoid kids from feeling left out or left behind, the event may be designed more to bring the community of classrooms together, rather than pitting them against each other. At least, that is how Abbott Elementary chooses to depict such an event in the aptly-titled Season 2 episode, "Read-A-Thon."
For the students of the titular Philadelphia school, simply participating in the event means they will get a pizza party at the end of it. But for the adults who work in that school and perhaps remember the way the event used to go, there is a bit more on the line. Namely, Melissa Schemmenti (Lisa Ann Walter) is looking to ensure her class comes in at the top of the list for most books read to take the technical win and allow her to keep her (very large, very homemade) championship belt. And because Janine Teagues (Quinta Brunson) is over-eager, the stakes are higher than ever for Melissa to defend that championship: The two teachers agree that whoever doesn't come out on top has to be a guest on Jacob's (Chris Perfetti) new Abbott Life podcast.
Everyone who knows the show knows Melissa has a guy for everything — but not this. This, she encourages the kids to do on their own, whatever it takes, even if it means slipping a book into a plastic bag and taking it in the shower with them. Unfortunately, that plan results in her three best readers being pulled out of school due to contracting pink eye, which leaves a young girl who struggles with reading to try to pick up the slack. She inflates her total to be a hero (and to cover how she struggles).
But, it turns out, Melissa is the guy for that. Because she struggled with reading as a young girl, she recognizes this girl's plight pretty quickly and, rather than just accusing her of cheating for winning's sake, helps her find a solution that will aid in her education without turning her off reading.
"Quinta saw what I did with some of the things I've done before — the work that she's enjoyed, like The Parent Trap, Bruce Almighty — where she knows that I can do the laughter into tears or the tears into laughter. That's kind of my wheelhouse. So she looks for things that can support [that]," Walter tells Metacritic of the surprisingly emotional turn the episode takes for her character.
It's far from the first time Abbott Elementary has shown a softer side to its tough veteran teacher, and it also won't be the last.
Here, Walter talks to Metacritic about the new piece of backstory she got in "Read-A-Thon," how much Melissa is rubbing off on the kids, and what to expect from her relationships in the back half of the season.
Because the audience knows, and the episode even points out, that Melissa cheats from time to time, there are moments where it seems like maybe this little girl is just emulating that idea. Is Melissa's personality going to influence her kids more as episodes go on? How much of an impact is she making?
I'm the daughter of a public school teacher and I got to be in my mom's class sometimes and her personality was an influence to the class, but just based on how they responded to or respected her. There wasn't as much of the, "Here's how you work the system" as Melissa is because I think Melissa's discussion about having a guy [and] working the system, that's the stuff that the teachers know. Who she is in front of [the kids] is just the cool, white teacher. She's the one that they can they know they can be themselves around and she respects where they come from and she's proud of where she comes from, so she can talk sports with them. But she's probably not going to be like, "Just mark down whatever." There is the line, "I don't need to know how you do it, just do it," and I think that that's on the edge of just, "Give it your best shot." But what Melissa is is incredibly encouraging: She wants the kids to believe in themselves and she wants for them to to do their best, but if they fail, then she'll find a way to make it look like it's not failure.
For me as an actor, the most important definition for Melissa and what she's giving to them is total support — being behind their efforts and fighting for them. So, like in "Egg Drop," she hardboiled the egg because it's stupid. She's not teaching them physics; they're not learning physics yet. So, I'm just going to do a thing that doesn't shame them. But come to this one, she wants them to read. And what's specifically important for Melissa is that she did overcome a disability.
Which is a new piece of backstory for the audiences. How early on do you find out such important parts of her character?
This specifically was not discussed [ahead of getting this episode], and I, conversely to the character, never had a problem with reading. In fact, I started reading at 3 years old, and I mean full books. My kindergarten teacher sent me to the upper grades to read to them because I used to get in trouble because I was so ahead of what was going on that I was trying to help them with their work and speaking out. And so, the smart teachers were like, "OK she's got the reading thing." My mother taught me. But I substituted it as an actor with that I was a fat kid and I was teased about it and shamed about it. And so, when you're trying to help a kid who you see is struggling with something, you just put yourself there and say, "I've been in your shoes; this is what I did, this is what can help."
There was an episode in Season 1 where she talks to her husband. [For that] specifically, what's the reason behind why Melissa and her husband broke up, I know as an actor what I think happened. You have to know the entire life and what they lived. It's not as simple as what's just in the script. All of it has to matter. You have to know exactly what their history is. Are you still mad at them? And is there a piece of you that still is like, "You were cheating with that whore down the street," you want to kill the guy? Or is it just that it didn't work out, you were too young? It's the threshold work.
Is that something we will actually get the answers to this season?
It would be funny to learn. And also, I think the stuff with Gary is so fun, but something's got to go wrong. You know how in all of your relationships you're always carrying whatever from your past relationships into this new one and screwing it up because of that? That could be a fun story.
Similarly, we got to go home with Melissa earlier in the season and meet her sister. What are the elements of Melissa and that relationship you most want to play next?
With Lauren Weedman, who plays my sister, she and I fight so brilliantly, but there are some things coming up and I can't tell you exactly because Quinta would murder me, but here is the promise I'll make to you: You will see some stuff coming up that are exactly the kinds of things that I want to play and it might involve us flipping the relationship a little bit.
I will say this, my sister and I — my actual sister — were a year and a half apart and we fought like cats and dogs over everything. Everything. She would steal my clothes. I'd be the one to save all my money and buy clothes and she was cheap and wouldn't buy anything. She'd go to Lerner's and she'd be like, 'You should buy this' and then the next thing I know, it's in her closet, I can't find it. So, we would come to blows over things, but when we were in upper grades — middle school and high school — I remember a couple of times where somebody at a party went over and got physical with her, some dude that was drunk yoked her arm up behind her back, and people said afterwards that they didn't even see my feet hit the floor. I went from one side to the other side of the room and I was on his back, punching his head. So I'm just saying. That's not going to happen, but
But having her around is a challenge, just like having a teacher's aide who doesn't really assist is a challenge. Is Ashley going to be back?
The whole season with Melissa is about being super challenged. Obviously teachers get challenged all the time: You have no budget, now you're teaching two classes at one time; you're gonna get help, but that help makes it worse. So yes, you're gonna see her come back, and I will just tell you this, it's hilarious.
Is it less challenging?
Not necessarily. That wouldn't be funny.
No, but maybe we want to see some growth. For Ashley anyway.
I think with all the characters we see changes and growth. The only one, to me, who is so entrenched that you go, "I don't know if they're gonna change" is really, Mrs. Barbara Howard. You go, "Why would she change?" She truly believes that she has got this nailed and she's perfect. But even with that, she learns little lessons along the way. And every scene I get to play with Sheryl, we are so comfortable together that, truthfully, the things that would be fun for me as an actor to play is a new dynamic with Ava because we are basically, in that school, the only ones that don't try to play the other one. Janelle [James] has said Melissa doesn't try to clown Ava; she's the only one she won't. But I think it would be funny to go a little head-to-head, and I think with Sheryl [Lee Ralph] what would be fun is for some things to come along where we don't have answers — where we are lost together, so that we are actually unbalanced. And that's fun because you see them doing things in a new way. Sometimes even when they care, they don't do things the right way. They probably wouldn't ultimately fail; it would be a lesson learned.
Abbott Elementary airs at 9 p.m. Wednesdays on ABC.
Get to know Lisa Ann Walter:
Among a certain generation, Walter is best known (and most beloved) for her performance as Chessy in the 1988 remake of The Parent Trap (Metascore: 64). Other notable film roles include work in Bruce Almighty (46) and Shall We Dance (47), but she has also been a television staple for just as long, beginning with her stint on My Wildest Dreams and continuing through work on Emeril, The Exes (49), Grey's Anatomy (62), and now Abbott Elementary (83).