‘The Twilight Zone’ for teachers: ‘Changing of the Guard’
In 1962 The Twilight Zone ran an episode titled “The Changing of the Guard.” It starred Donald Pleasence (in his first American television appearance) as an elderly literature professor who is forced into retirement and decides to kill himself on Christmas Eve when he’s overcome by the sense that his entire life and career have been futile because, as he sees it, nothing he has done or taught has meant anything, since (as he sees it) his teaching, which spans three generations of students, has never had a real, lasting impact on anyone. At the last minute, however, a collective supernatural visitation reveals that he’s wrong about this.
The episode feels — in a very good way — like a hybrid of A Christmas Carol, It’s a Wonderful Life and Dead Poets Society. The CBS Video Library describes it like this:
Expectant students scurry about apple-cheeked, wishing one and all good will and good cheer as they head home for Christmas. But for the saintly and elderly Professor Ellis Fowler, this holiday will be more than just a temporary respite from Academia. After 51 years of dedication to the boys of the Rock Hill Spring School, Professor Fowler is put out to pasture. Merry Christmas Ellis. Abject and miserable, he recalls the endless parade of students that came and went like apparitions in the night. Gun in hand, he returns to his classroom for one last class…but this time the Professor won’t be teaching…he’ll be learning a valuable lesson in another dimension.
A writer for Yahoo! places the episode at No. 7 on a list of “The 25 Best Twilight Zone Episodes” (published in 2009 in honor of the series’ turning 50 years old), and offers this insightful observation:
Subtly, you can…observe Serling’s respect for the teaching profession, a role he eventually played himself in Ithaca College in Ithaca, New York. Professors hold court for many years and while the students change consistently, the lessons and the settings mostly do not. It is not uncommon for them to wonder if anyone has heard their endless lecturing, if anyone looks back favorably on the role their teachers had in a life replete with accomplishment. Clearly Serling did, and in a nod to educators everywhere, he actually uses the word “perspicacious” in a conversation between the headmaster and Professor Fowler. You probably haven’t heard that word anywhere else on television in the last 50 years.
The Rod Serling page at the online Dictionary of Unitarian & Universalist Biography (which features Serling because he became a Unitarian with his wife after they got married) offers a window on his motivation for writing this particular script:
Serling enrolled under the G.I. Bill of Rights at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio. In the late 1940s Antioch was famous for loose social rules and a unique work-study curriculum. Serling was stimulated by the liberal intellectual environment and began to feel “the need to write, a kind of compulsion to get some of my thoughts down.” He was also inspired by the words of Unitarian educator Horace Mann, first president of Antioch College, “Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity.” Serling would later feature these words and a rendition of Antioch’s Horace Mann statue in the 1962 Twilight Zone episode, “Changing of the Guard.”
I’ve known about the episode for years, but I never watched it until two nights ago, and I must say I was hugely impressed, and also deeply moved, not least because I’m now closing in on the end of my tenth year as a professional educator (my fourth as a college instructor), and Professor Fowler’s despair is something I’ve more than flirted with a time or ten. Serling’s closing narration pings directly on this emotion by describing “Professor Ellis Fowler, teacher, who discovered rather belatedly something of his own value. A very small scholastic lesson, from the campus of the Twilight Zone.” So do the words spoken to Professor Fowler by one of his supernatural visitors: “We wanted you to know that we were grateful, we were forever grateful. That each of us has in turn carried with him something that you gave him. We wanted to thank you, Professor.”
You can view the episode in its entirety at the CBS Website: “The Changing of the Guard.”