Hey hey hey! Time for another Christmas lesson from the Twilight Zone. Today’s lesson will come from The Changing of the Guard (S3E37). I’m sorry, I truly don’t mean to make you sad this week.
Warning: There will always be spoilers.
Do you leave an impression? A lot of people wonder that as they go through this world. We think about it when we help our friends, family, strangers. Did the advice go through? Did my words leave a big enough mark? Are we really important enough to change someone’s life? Think about this in the aspect of teachers. The dedication and drive it must take to be a teacher. You work with some of the brightest or most stubborn. You wonder if their information gets caught or does it slip through the cracks. You wonder if you really made a difference in a kids life once they move on. Day after day, you wonder to yourself, did I motivate? Did I leave a mark? Did I make an impression? The Changing of the Guard (E3S37) lay these questions out as we take a man through his years of teaching. At his lowest point, he finds out that he’s been very valuable to the many young lads he’s taught over the years.
The Changing of the Guard gives us just a glimpse into the life of Ellis Fowler, a teacher who has taught at a boys preparatory school for 51 years. Before we go any further, let’s give him a round of applause for teaching this long. Most teachers by this point either reach their breaking point or stage of retirement, but Ellis is going strong. We begin this story three days before Christmas holiday. School’s just about to end for the semester and the final grading of papers are just about done. After giving a lesson, Ellis finds the boys preoccupied in their daydreams instead of in their studies. He looks around the room at the boys while he reads from a poem. Yup, most of them are eyes front, but still in la la land. He realizes that these boys need something, a wake up call perhaps. After telling the kids they’ve passed and he’ll let them out early because of the holidays, he goes into insults, but makes up for it with the nicecitties. He states:
“It is rare, young men, that in my 51 years of teaching, I have ever encountered such a class of dunderheads. But… nice dunderheads, and potentially fine young men who will make their marks, and leave their marks.”
It’s very sweet and self-assuring. Even though his students daydream, half not paying attention to anything he says, he wants them to have the world. He wants them to leave their marks like students before them. He wants them to accomplish anything they put their minds too. Before returning home, the Headmaster asks to speak with him. He wants to know if he’s read the letter from the Board of Trustees. Ellis says no, but knows that he’s going to be up for renewing his contract and tells the Headmaster he’ll get right on it. The Headmaster has to break the news to Ellis. After 51 years of teaching at the school, he’s going to be replaced by a younger teacher. His contract has been terminated after next semester. Ellis is crushed, even cracking a joke about actually reading his mail, before he goes home and pulls out a gun for a plan that he thinks will be his only way out.
This is a bit of a dark story with a lesson I think we all could use in the holiday season and into the new year. Written by Rod Serling, this give a fresh take on a lot of different themes. Let’s visit the meaning of “The Changing of the Guard” first because that’s very important to Ellis’ story. The changing of the guard originated as a term for guards at Buckingham Palace when the guards would change rotation and shifts. Now it’s used for when there is a big or dramatic change happening in which people are replaced. Ellis has to not only deal with something big and dramatic happening in his life, but he is feeling replaced. Ageism plays a big role in this. Because of his age, the Headmaster and Board of Trustees want someone younger to be teaching these classes. Someone who can keep up, looking towards the future instead of always going back to the past. Ellis is way too old for his job now, he’s reached the point past the normal retirement and with his old ideas, he’s not qualified anymore.
After this, we not only see his life change, but we see his attitude shifting as well. Once so happy and proud to be a teacher, he now claims that he has done nothing. After teaching for so many years, what has he really done? I’ve seen teachers like this before. They think they’ve failed. They think the students don’t care about them or the material they produce. He tells his maid, “I moved nobody. I motivated nobody. I left no imprint on anybody.” His age came into question, now his teaching, which is basically his life’s work and his only meaning. He flees from his house, into the snow with the one object that can put an end to this nightmare he’s facing. However, let’s hop into our lesson before this gets too depressing.
The Lesson: As utterly sad (or hopeless) this episode might sound, something of a Christmas miracle happens to our protagonist. He pushes snow off of a statue and uncovers a quote from the school’s president. It reads, “Be ashamed to die until you’ve won a victory for humanity.” He feels like he has won no victories and metaphorically, there is a storm brewing in his head. Just when you think all hope is lost, the bells of the school ring. What is this? School’s out for the session! As he follows the bells, he ends up in his classroom once again, but here’s where the Christmas miracle comes in. He’s visited by the students of his past. This has a Christmas Carol feel to it, which is highly appropriate knowing that it’s Christmas time. The students show up as ghosts and in their smiles, they presents him with what he has taught each and every one of them. Artie, class of ‘41, was a military officer who fought in Iwo Jima and Ellis taught him courage. Bartlett, class of ‘28, was researching x-ray treatment until he tragically succumbed to cancer due to being exposed to radioactivity. Ellis taught him bravery. Each of the students name something he’s taught them with a quote from him that they always remembered. They name things like patriotism, loyalty, ethics, and honesty. He’s frozen, stunned beyond belief that he taught these brave kids who did tremendous things with their life and helped so many people. After they leave, he accepts his retirement gracefully, reviving the quote, “Be ashamed to die until you’ve won a victory for humanity.” He tells his maid that even though HE didn’t win those victories, he helped win them and that’s the best pleasure of all.
You really never know the impact you have on a person. You really never know. Most people won’t ever tell you how much something you’ve done or said means to them. It just carries along with them and it might be something that will pull them through in a difficult moment of their life. The same goes back to you. How many times have you reverted back to a person, book, movie, television show or video game for inspiration in your hour of need? It all reverts back to inspiring others. Ellis didn’t think he had an effect on any of the boys he taught, but instead, he needed some ghosts from his past to set him straight. They needed to tell him that they were courageous and brave from the books HE taught, from the lessons HE wove, from the things HE spoke. Ellis left an impression on so many young kids and will leave an impression on so many more because those lessons will be passed on to their kids and their kids after that. The Changing of the Guard really shows you that everyone makes a difference and an impression in whatever they do. You really never know what you say or do that can change someone’s life.
Not so depressing in the end guys! I told you we’d make it! Tune in Friday for the final Learning the Lessons of the Twilight Zone Christmas Special, just in time for your Happy Holidays. 😀