The Value of One Life
What motivates people to pick a certain profession? Money, power, fame?
Those exert a powerful pull, to be sure. But once your salary is spent, your influence has waned, and you’ve been dethroned, what remains?
Knowing that you’ve left the world a better place. Sometimes people express it simply as “making a difference.” But how can you know you have?
Some people are fortunate enough to know they have, no questions asked. A policeman, a fireman, a doctor: they can see the difference, here and now. They can measure it in lives saved. Other people (those of means, anyway) use philanthropy to ensure their bid for immortality. They endow schools, libraries and scientific laboratories.
But what about ordinary people? How can they know?
They often can’t. And even when they do, it’s not easy. Just ask Professor Ellis Fowler. It took a trip to the Twilight Zone for him to find the truth.
We see the results in a touching episode called “The Changing of the Guard”. Donald Pleasence (in his first role on American television) plays Fowler, a literature professor at a boys’ prep school in Vermont. He’s been on the job for half a century, teaching poetry to class after class, and he obviously enjoys his work.
We meet him, however, on what looks to be his final day. He learns, to his shock and dismay, that the school board is forcing retirement on him.
Fowler is crushed. He’d hoped to go on teaching for years more, and the news hits him hard.
One scene in particular always gets to me (which is male code for “it makes me tear up, but I don’t want to admit it”). Speaking to the woman who’s been his housekeeper for years, he becomes convinced that he’s made no difference in the lives of his students:
They all come and go like ghosts. Faces, names, smiles, the funny things they said or the sad things, or the poignant ones. I gave them nothing. I gave them nothing at all. Poetry that left their minds the minute they themselves left. Aged slogans that were out of date when I taught them. Quotations dear to me that were meaningless to them.
I was a failure, Mrs. Landers, an abject, miserable failure. I walked from class to class an old relic, teaching by rote to unhearing ears, unwilling heads. I was an abject dismal failure — I moved nobody. I motivated nobody. I left no imprint on anybody. Now, where do you suppose I ever got the idea that I was accomplishing anything?
It’s an achingly poignant passage (penned, of course, by Rod Serling) that has to be watched for the full effect. Your heart just breaks for this poor man.
And when this destructive line of thinking brings him to the brink of suicide, you want to reach out and grab him. Talk some sense into him. Tell him he has made a difference, he did accomplish something. That he moved and motivated many people, and that he should be proud.
But he wouldn’t listen to you or me. Serling knows who he needs to hear from: his former students. Being the Twilight Zone, however, they happen to be his dead former students … which makes the episode all the more memorable.
As an unabashed fan of “It’s a Wonderful Life”, I’ve always loved Serling’s take on this classic tale. If you’ve never seen it, try the link below.
And if you’ve seen it, but it’s been a while? I’d still recommend watching it. It’s a timeless message that all of us need to hear now and then.
Photos courtesy of Wendy Brydge. For a daily dose of Serling, you can follow me on Twitter, Facebook or Pinterest. You can also get email notifications of future posts by entering your address under “Follow S&S Via Email” on the upper left-hand side of this post. WordPress followers, just hit “follow” at the top of the page.
Hope to see you in some corner of the fifth dimension soon!