If there is any character that I can think of from my childhood who I could call a personal hero, TJ is most certainly it. Someone who I grew up respecting and respect now even more as an adult, looking back with both nostalgia and a greater understanding of just how smart the show he was the central character in, Recess, truly was. TJ was the kid that I always imagined myself to be. In some ways, I measured up. In others, I fell flat. But, as with all the other parts of Recess, with the characters in it, it never talked down to us. The kids in there were, while sometimes a little bit over-the-top (as with Vince and Gretchen), just like kids that you’d see in real life. Kids who you could meet on a given day on the playground, forever changing your childhood and making it that much better.
Recess was such a gem, and it kills me how kids now are not seeing it anymore outside of YouTube. A show that glorified the simple parts of childhood, it made the things that should be important stand out. What were those things – a sense of joy and discovery, learning more from each experience and, more importantly, valuing friendship and doing right by the people who you counted among your friends at that age.
TJ Detweiler was a central part of all of those. He was a chubby kid, but active enough to keep himself reasonably healthy. He was the leader of his gang of six friend. There was him, Vince LeSalle, Gretchen Grundler, Ashley Spinelli (who, if you call her by her first name, you’re getting a whoopin’), Mickey Blumberg and Gus Griswald. They were about as different as a bunch of people can be. Vince was a sports nut, who just happened to be good at every sport he set his mind to. Gretchen was a genius child who was shown to be so far above her peers that she was most likely wasting her talent staying in normal school. Mickey was a poet with an addiction to food, but still a kid who loved to play. Gus was the son of a soldier, fiercely loyal and far more determined than his cowardly exterior would suggest. Spinelli was a fighter. She would stand tall to anyone who went up against her and would do anything for a friend. You’d think that that mix would have been insane. But then there was the central element – TJ. The one who kept them all together.
The son of a very typical middle-class family, TJ was not the smartest kid in the world, where schoolwork was concerned. No, his intelligence was centered somewhere else. It was centered in something he had a pathological need to do – prank. This kid was so good at not doing what he was supposed to that he had shown himself intelligent enough to build feats of engineering, lead his little army of friends to accomplish huge goals, manipulate almost every figure of authority in his little world and most of all – get things that nobody thinks possible done. To his friends, and also to the rest of the playground world, he is regarded as a good leader, able to rally those to any cause that he deems worthy.
Something I always liked about him is that, while he constantly works to undermine authority figures, he bears very few of them any real resentment. He is the bane of Principal Prickly’s existence, yet has no ill will toward him. He simply can’t help that he has to prank and be a kid. He sees it as a balance. He has been to visit the Principal so many times that they have a working repore with one-another. He also sees Finnster (the woman who watches over the playground and students in most capacities where a kind of overlord is needed) as an adversary, but acknowledges her place on the playground. The only people he bears active resentment to are the people he sees as abusive and hurting people for no reason.
He stands by the everykid. A common plot point in the series is TJ identifying an injustice, then using his talent for getting things done to correct it. Whenever he comes across a kid who is hurting as a result of the actions of another, he will stand against it. That kind of loyalty is wonderful.
This also extends to his friends. TJ will do whatever it takes to help a friend. There is one episode where it is shown that he is skipping out on the rest to go see a common enemy of the group. The rest figure this out and go after him. It is then revealed that him and this person used to be friends once as well. They both went in different directions, but made a promise to always see one-another on their birthdays’. TJ kept to that, even though both of them were severely antagonistic to each other. Another episode features an assignment from their hippy teacher where they have to say who their best friend is. When he refuses to pick between any one member of the group, they all feel jilted and leave. He then says his report aloud, saying that he doesn’t have a best friend. He has five. You also find out that both him and Spinelli have an active crush on each other. It’s kind of cute, but never thrown in their faces. Vince is his oldest friend, so he goes especially out of his way to have his side, even when Vince’s talent and pride get in his way. However, he is also not above calling out a friend when he sees them doing wrong. That kind of loyalty is greater than the others, if you ask me.
However, for all the good things about him, there is a lot of bad. TJ truly is in capable of not breaking the rules, often doing it for his own amusement than for a good cause. He just does a good cause when he sees it. Underneath his good nature, he is still a kid. He breaks rules to do things that are fun or to make his life easier. There is an episode where it is revealed that he has a vast network of systems in place to make things easier around school for him. He is a manipulative little scoundrel sometimes, with it occasionally working against him. That is an interesting dichotomy, considering how much power on the playground he actually has. While not a figure of authority, it is pretty clear that almost every student has some affection for TJ. Even those who are openly antagonistic of him, like the Ashley’s, do recognize him as a good guy, even if they will never say it aloud.
The reason that TJ has been and still is my hero is that he is willing to break rules for what he sees as a good cause, has no fear of punishment (so long as the reason was worth it), is a silver-tongued devil who can wiggle his way out of most anything and above all – he has a wonderful passion for life that so few of us can actually match. If you have no idea who this character is, I recommend you find out. It is still the best show from my childhood, and one I will return to fondly.
Until next time, a quote,
“Good ol’ TJ can get away with just about anything.” -Spinelli, Recess