Thursday, June 01, 2017

Turning the Page

"Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity."

Horace Mann

My parents were both teachers. My mother taught first grade, and my father (who is still living) taught on the college level. Early in their marriage they were missionaries in Africa.

Neither of them ever spoke to me of whether they felt they had left their marks on their students — although I am sure that they, like all other teachers, must have wondered about that from time to time. I can understand that because I, too, have been a teacher, and I must confess that there have been times when I have wondered if I have influenced my students.

Well, I know I influenced some of my students but not all — and most teachers probably aren't satisfied with a batting average that low.

But there are so many variables in education. Sometimes it seems to me that teachers have to be happy with what they can get. It's a lesson most of us learned in Little League. You'd like to bat 1.000, but you can't. Sometimes the best you can hope for is to make contact with the ball. Maybe our problem was we learned that lesson in the context of the baseball diamond, not the classroom.

In the episode of Twilight Zone that premiered on this night in 1962, "The Changing of the Guard," an aging literature professor at a boys school (Donald Pleasence) pondered that very question after being informed that he had been terminated — although he was told to regard it as retirement, not termination, since he was well past the traditional retirement age.

Later that evening, after contemplating his years in the classroom and the countless boys who had paraded through it, the professor concluded that he had wasted his life, that he had left no mark on the young men he had tried to teach.

Despondent, he went out into the cold of Christmas Eve night with the intention of killing himself near a statue of educator Horace Mann in the campus courtyard. But just as he was about to pull the trigger, he was interrupted by the ringing of a phantom bell and he was inextricably drawn into his classroom — where he encountered the ghosts of some of his students.

One by one they told him how he had influenced them. Some had shown great heroism or courage when they died. Others had sacrificed themselves in pursuit of knowledge that could benefit future generations.

And the professor was persuaded that, while he may not have won one of Horace Mann's victories for humanity, he had helped others to do so and could, therefore, claim to share those victories.

It was kind of an interesting twist on the theme of "It's a Wonderful Life." The protagonist comes to realize the influence he has had on the lives of others. In that movie, of course, George Bailey discovered how different life would have been if he had not been there. In the episode of Twilight Zone that aired 55 years ago tonight, the professor discovered the difference his presence had made. It didn't imply a world in which he hadn't existed at all.

Nor did it suggest that the course of history would have been changed if he had not been there, only that he made his contribution. I guess that is the one thing we all crave — the reassurance that the efforts of our lives have not been in vain.

The title of the episode is a reminder to me of all the changes in life. Sometimes we're prepared for them, sometimes we are not.

A change is happening in my own life this weekend that makes this anniversary particularly poignant for me. I think I am prepared for it, but I guess I won't know until it happens. My father, a retired professor, is moving into a senior living facility, and I will be helping him with his move. I remember, as a teenager, helping him move my grandmother (his mother who was also a teacher when she was a young woman) into such a facility. It turned out to be the last stop for her, but she functioned independently for another year or so, driving her car and spending time with her friends, until her health would no longer permit it.

I expect this will be the last stop for my father, too, but there really is no reason he cannot continue to function as he has for awhile yet. He is in good health. He still drives. He enjoys the company of friends — and, even though he has made new friends in the place where he is moving, he continues to see the friends who have been part of his life as long as I can remember — and I am sure he will continue to see them, to have dinner with them, to attend the symphony with them.

At some point that will end. Everything does. And when it does, it will simply be another changing of the guard.