The 1942 Frank Capra holiday classic It’s a Wonderful Life, starring Jimmy Stuart and Donna Reed, presents a vision of what the world would be like without the main character, George Baily (Stuart) in it. This is one of my favorite films and has inspired me this holiday season to imagine what the world would be like without education. I sometimes feel as overwhelmed as George when I think about education budgets being slashed to the breaking point and people occupying our streets, parks, and colleges in protest. Our current state of unrest has led me to wonder whether it might be better to give up the fight and let education be pushed off the bridge into the icy waters below. I firmly believe, however, that the death of education would have tremendous repercussions for our entire society so I have endeavored to capture that. I have done this as a piece of fiction, so I hope you will bear with the radical departure from my normal milieu. Tomorrow I will deconstruct this narrative and present a more upbeat post which examines all of the things that education contributes to our world. But in the meantime, as they say in the movies, “On with the show.”
(It’s a Wonderful Life, 1942)
Awakened from a happy dream by the music streaming from his iPod dock, little George Bailey rolls out of his warm and comfortable bed and slides into his made-in-China slippers. He glides into the bathroom and uses the city water supply to freshen up, then rambles into the kitchen to prepare a frozen, mass-produced gluten-free waffle. He drizzles on some organic maple syrup, and pours some calcium-enriched orange juice into a BPA free plastic cup. Finally settling into a comfortable recliner, he grabs the TV remote intending to watch the latest episode of Scooby Doo Mystery Inc. on demand. Just as the family’s 50” flat screen LED clicks on and he is about to press the dedicated “OnDemand” button on the remote, George’s father wanders in from his home office and reminds the would-be mystery solver that “Today is a school day. No TV.”
George punches off the TV and throws the remote down in disgust, nearly braining the sleeping dog, while muttering under his breath, "I hate stupid school. Why do I have to go?"
As these words leave George’s lips, the room around him slowly melts away revealing the squalid reality that lies just beneath the fragile surface of his everyday comforts. The sunlight streaming through the window next to him fades and is replaced by an Orwellian gloom. George turns to ask his father what’s going on. Only George’s father is gone and so are most of the luxury items in the house. The plush chair is now a rickety stool, there is no TV. Even the house itself is gone, replaced by a poorly constructed shack.
No School Today
Mrs. Bailey slouches into the room not looking at all like the well-put-together 40-something that George kissed good night the previous evening. This woman, dressed in dirty work clothes and obviously missing several teeth, is barely recognizable. She grunts at him and moves into the kitchen where she begins making something that smells vaguely of coffee while she crams two chunks of bread into her mouth and begins to chew laboriously.
George approaches this stranger and asks, “Where’s Dad?” She turns on him, connecting with a vicious backhand across the face. The blow knocks young George to the ground and produces a small trickle of blood from the corner of his mouth. “He’s dead in the damned civil war. Same as you’ll be as soon as you’re old enough to hold a gun properly.”
"What war?" asks George, completely perplexed.
"Same one’s been going for the last 150 years, you idiot." She sneers at him. "Now get your fool self outside and earn some money."
George begins to ask another question but stops abruptly as his mother raises her hand for another blow. "What about school?" he mutters under his breath as he slouches away.
Overhearing this question Mrs. Bailey wails, "Ain’t no school, never has been. Get yourself to the factory. I’ve had enough of this foolishness."
George moves cautiously through the house and enters the only door that looks like it could be another room. He’s obviously in a bedroom, though the bed is a far cry from the comfortable one with the Transformer sheets and comforter that he woke up in such a short time ago. Grey flakes of paint like scabs hang from the walls and the dust of years sits in clumps along the bases of the walls. There is a dirty-looking pile of clothing in one corner that looks approximately his size. As he approaches it, the clothes writhe as an enormous rat extracts itself. The creature looks up at him, its obsidian eyes showing no hint of fear as it slowly waddles away leaving a very un-Hansel and Gretel-like trail behind it.
Disgusted, he reaches for the clothes and selects a dingy shirt and a pair of equally foul pants. He gives them a mighty shake to remove anything the rat might have left behind, only then does he realize that he has no underwear – and there is none in the pile. Demonstrating the mental flexibility of youth, George decides that he will just have to wear the pants over his pajamas. He searches the room until he finds a pair of clumsily made shoes that fit him. The socks are not worth putting on as they are more than 50 percent holes.
Finally dressed, he wanders out of the room and back towards the kitchen dreading another confrontation with his mother. George realizes that he never ate his waffle and looks longingly toward the place that it used to be, near the chair that is no longer there. He resignedly moves into the kitchen and pulls a hunk of bread off of the damp looking loaf on the table. The bread is chewy, and unpleasantly moist, but thankfully, largely tasteless.
The Harsh Reality Sets In
Unsatisfied but unwilling to look further for something to eat, George leaves the small shack and enters a town that more resembles a post-apocalyptic hell than the comfortable suburban town where he has spent his first 12 years of life. As he steps off the front step he is punched viciously in the left arm by a boy who seems to be about his age. He recognizes this newcomer as his best friend Jimmy Stuart.
"Jimmy, what’s going on?"
"Nothin’ Georgie. Headin’ to work at the sweat shop as usual. Walk with me. We’ve got to talk about how we’re going to avoid fighting in the war. I turn 13 next week and I don’t want to die yet."
"What are you talking about Jimmy?" asks George more confused than ever. "Nobody makes a 13 year old fight a war. That’s just stupid."
"What’s wrong with you Georgie?" Jimmy smiles at him, "Every grown man has to fight in the war against those ignorant Southies. Always have and always will. Are you sure you’re ok? Your lips’ bleedin’ and you’re talkin’ crazy."
"What is the war about Jimmy? And why aren’t we going to school?"
Jimmy stares blankly at him. No one in this world even remembers why the war started and no one cares. Jimmy finally responds "That’s just crazy. No time for such nonsense. We work to support the war – Until we go to fight in it."
"How do you learn things without school?" asks George. "What about history, math, science, health, reading, writing, all of it. What about learning."
"Don’t need none of that Georgie. All we need to know is how to build guns, bullets, and bombs and how to die. That’s our lot in life. Ain’t no sense in educatin’ cannon fodder is there? Just hold that gun, son. Point it, and blow ‘em away. That’s school for you and me."
Raising his face to the toxic clouds, George screams, "I’ve had enough of this! I want my life back, I want to go to school. I want my Mommy. I don’t want my dad to be dead. Take me back to my life."
Young George Bailey stirs in the comfortable chair in his living room. He slowly wakes and realizes that he’s fallen asleep watching his dad’s favorite movie: It’s a Wonderful Life. It is a wonderful life George thinks as he drags his tired self back to his Transformers bed. He climbs in and his final thought as he drifts off to sleep is "wow, the world would really be a different place without education…"