Teaching ‘The Twilight Zone’ | Part 2
The hairs on my arms stand up and I get a chill down my spine. It happened almost exactly an hour before, in my first section of English 101 for the day. Reading the words Rod Serling uses to close “Deaths-Head Revisited” rings with power and truth.
“All the Dachaus must remain standing. The Dachaus, the Belsens, the Buchenwalds, the Auschitzes, all of them. They must remain standing because they are a monument to a moment in time when some men decided to turn Earth into a graveyard. Into it, they shoveled all of their reason, their logic, their knowledge, but, worst of all, their conscience. And the moment we forget this, the moment we cease to be haunted by its remembrance, then we become the gravediggers. Something to dwell on and remember, not only in the Twilight Zone but wherever men walk God’s Earth.”
Writing that quote out gives me the chills again, and as Serling says, the day when I stop being haunted by the remembrance is the day I bury the past in the worst way possible. It would be the day that I stop teaching and trying to reach students who walk into my classrooms expecting to only be taught grammar and to be bored for an hour. Yes, we talk about grammar, and with my set of skills, I can sniff out plagiarism or if a student widened their margins from an inch to one-and-a-quarter inches. But we all, every teacher in every classroom, bring something different to every class.
The door that opens into this fifth dimension is one of critical thinking, that trait which we hope to instill in all our students. On the first day of class I tell my students to question everything, and that includes me. I am a fallible, imperfect human and I believe Serling would want it that way. In this age of rampant technological control and social media influence, the humanity on display in The Twilight Zone is its true lasting importance. Serling reminds us — so often it's almost pedantic — that we are all human. The dark side is the reminder that those gravediggers of reason and logic were also human.
Being human means being imperfect and even the best people make mistakes. In class, we talked about the season five episode titled “The Encounter.” Set in Hawaii fifteen years after the end of World War II, the episode stars George Takei as a gardener getting work from an American veteran played by Neville Brand. The two men soon become locked in an attic Brand’s character has filled with a lifetime of junk, including a Japanese sword he stole from an officer he killed. The two men sling network-television-approved racial slurs at each other, each accusing the other of the worst of war crimes: murdering someone who had surrendered, in the case of Brand, and being the son of a traitor in Takei’s. It doesn’t end well for either of the men.
One moment, however, highlights the show’s awareness of the value of critical thinking that I try to impart to my students. Brand’s character, monologuing about how the Japanese were described to him and his fellow soldiers, uses the argument that ends all logic: “We were just following orders. You can’t blame a guy for following orders, can you?” Serling, the constant critic of the Nazi regime, would have known exactly what was happening here. And even though the episode was written by Martin M. Goldsmith, the presentation is 100 percent Serling. Even “good Americans” can commit atrocities. No one is perfect. We all have ghosts and if we run from them, they will consume us.
Admittedly, I sometimes have to make these correlations clearer to the students. My job is to dump the puzzle pieces on the floor, find all the edge pieces, and hope they can connect the ragged jigsaw bits together. I don’t mind putting a few pieces together for them once in a while. But when they get it, when they can connect an episode to their own lives almost 60 years after the end of the series, all the time is worth it. I like to think, again, that Serling would approve.
The other great lesson of the show and of higher education is that life isn’t always fair. Most often, the people in The Twilight Zone get what they deserve. In his book Everything I Need to Know I Learned in the Twilight Zone, author Mark Dawidziak discusses the episode “Time Enough at Last.” He calls the infamous closing moments, “a violation of the basic laws governing The Twilight Zone.” The fate meted out to Henry Bemis seems unfair. He is, for the most part, a complete innocent. He isn’t redeemed in his minor faults, but rather egregiously punished for them. Bemis himself declares after his glasses have broken, “That’s not fair. That’s not fair at all.” It’s not and sometimes life won’t be fair. Sometimes people need to fail to learn. The world will more often try to kick your ass than recognize any good you do.
Besides offering puzzles, the other part of my job is to offer an ear. I talk a lot in class, but I have to listen, too. These students might not remember what we learned in class — that I taught them MLA style and how to verify the validity of sources — but I hope they remember the most important lesson there is here and in The Twilight Zone.
Serling’s daughter, Anne, wrote the introduction to Dawidziak’s book which ends like this:
“[I]n answer to Mark’s question, ‘Why did your father write what he did?’ I think the answer is quite simply he truly and deeply cared about all of us.”
That’s why I teach The Twilight Zone. I care about my students, and I want them to be able to face a world that doesn’t care about them. A world that wants them to forget and give in. I hope they remember that I care. It’s a lesson not just from The Twilight Zone but from my heart. 🩸
T.J. Tranchell was born on Halloween and grew up in Utah. He has published the novella Cry Down Dark and the collections Asleep in the Nightmare Room and The Private Lives of Nightmares with Blysster Press and Tell No Man, a novella with Last Days Books. In October 2020, The New York Times called Cry Down Dark the scariest book set in Utah. He holds a Master’s degree in Literature from Central Washington University and attended the Borderlands Press Writers Boot Camp in 2017. He currently lives in Washington State with his wife and son. Follow him at www.tjtranchell.net or on Twitter @TJ_Tranchell.
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