Gabe: Did I ever tell you about Robert Hegyes?
Julie: No, but you will.
Bliss: He died on my birthday. : (
TV’s Welcome Back Kotter often opened with a story about one of Mr. Kotter’s relatives. One if it’s stars, Robert Hegyes died last week.
He was one of my favorite characters on the sitcom Welcome Back Kotter.
For those of you who may not be familiar with the show, it’s central character, Gabe Kotter (played by Gabriel Kaplan) was a high school teacher who returned to his alma mater to teach a group of ne’er do well students known as the sweathogs, among them a Puerto Rican Jew named Juan Epstein (played by the late Robert Hegyes.)
We are all sweathogs
Nowadays we mainstream our sweathogs. We no longer hide them in the high school basement in rooms with names like the room of opportunity, the blue room, or the special room. We allow them to eat beside us in the cafeteria and participate in our gym classes.
We have learned that we are all sweathogs.
We have all felt isolated, belittled, and different at some time in our lives. Some of us were physically segregated, others emotionally, but we all have sat in Mr. Kotter’s room at some time in our lives. That is why the show was so wildly popular with teens.
We all have at least one Mr. Woodman (John Sylvester White) who believes only in our inabilities and our shortcomings. We must never accept Mr. Woodman’s assessment of us, it is poison.
We have all felt like Arnold Horshak (Ron Palilo), awkward and out of place. Not really fitting into the sweathog role, but not belonging with the mainstream.
We have all hidden our hurts like Freddy (Boom Boom) Washington (Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs). We mask our insecurities with false confidence and a deep “hi there.”
We are all Vinnie Barbarino (John Travolta) at some point in our lives, allowing life to just happen around us – “what, where?”
Most of all, we have been Juan Epstein, having more excuses than dedication to our goals. When we tire of the hard work needed to reach our goals, we conveniently produce a note “from Epstein’s mother” explaining why we cannot be held accountable.
Mr. Kotter to the rescue
The thread that held the sweathogs together was that no one believed in them except Gabe Kotter.
Mr. Kotter was once a sweathog, too. He became their mentor, their role model, their coach.
For every Mr. Woodman in our lives, a Mr. Kotter will emerge. There will always be someone who believes in you, even if you do not believe in yourself. There will always be a person who has walked along the same path that you are walking and can has reached their destination.
That person will always be glad to give you a hand up.
I was a sweathog
Although I started college at age 16, my education became a casualty of my parent’s divorce. At age 17, I had no means of continuing my education, nowhere to go, no money and no hope for my future. I was lost in the room of opportunity.
I struggled with minimum wage, part-time jobs, unable to see any way out and then my Mr. Kotter came in the form of a technical school.
I graduated with honors with a degree in computer programming and was able to do amazing things with that simple piece of paper. I started my own business and became a lead instructor of technology at a community college.
I didn’t earn my Bachelor’s degree until 2009. Only I had no idea what to do with it – until.
There it was, a mere 2 miles from my house, my alma mater. They were looking for people to teach business to a new crop of sweathogs.
My classroom is filled with Horshaks, Barbarinos, Washington’s and the occasional note from Epstein’s mother. More importantly it is filled with hope.
Although I give my students business skills so that they can support themselves and their families, they give me so much more than just a paycheck.
They give me the ability to pay it forward.
Thank you sweathogs.
Signed Epstein’s mother.
If you know of a positive blog that I can feature here, let me know on Facebook.
- Robert Hegyes of ‘Welcome Back Kotter’ Dead at 60 (celebs.gather.com)
- Robert Hegyes, 60, of ‘Welcome Back, Kotter,’ Is Dead (nytimes.com)
- “Welcome Back Kotter” Star Dies at 60, Robert Hegyes A.k.a. Juan Epstein (brittaj17.wordpress.com)