I am what you might call a “Scrooge” during the holiday season. I abhor Christmas, and cringe in late October when the local business and commerce plays their non-stop rotation of “Jingle Bell Rock” and “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.” There is, however, something I look forward to with child-like enchantment, and that is…the 24 hour A Christmas Story marathon on TNT. Truly, this classic is one of the best Christmas movies of all time, and I delight in watching it every year. It never gets old to me, as it reminds me of a simpler time in our history with its veritable tableau of childhood innocence and traditional American values. As I sat down to partake in my little tradition this Christmas 2014, I noticed something I had never paid attention to before in this film…the classroom.
Set in pre-World War II Indiana, young Ralphie struggles to convince both his teacher and parents that Santa should bring him a Red Ryder Range BB gun. Amidst the hilarity and fuzzy memories that ensue, we are introduced to the 1939 American classroom, where students sit obediently at their desks with hands folded while they listen to the teacher recite multiplication tables. Although historically inaccurate, there are 2 African Americans in Ralphie’s classroom. Racially integrated classrooms did not occur in Indiana until 1949, but I overlook the inaccuracy, and regard it as one of the many charming anachronisms in this film, including the kid in the classroom wearing a Dukes of Hazzard wrist watch. Nevertheless, the students are all sitting in their seats and listening to the teacher, which is something I never experienced in my tenure as a public school teacher.
There are other subtle reminders of America’s elementary education past in the classroom scenes of ACS, including the 4 rows of seats, each having 4 desks in them. If you studied your multiplication tables just like Ralphie’s teacher, Miss Shields says to, you will determine that there are 16 students in this classroom. When was the last time a public school teacher in America had only 16 kids in their class? Today’s typical public school classroom has anywhere from 25 to 30 students, according to the National Education Association website. That’s almost double the amount of students!
There have been more changes to note despite the student to teacher ratio. A teacher’s fears in 1939 might be an essay from a child desiring a BB gun, whereas today, a teacher has to fear the conceivable threat of a real gun, along with its deadly consequences. Classroom violence is at an all-time high in the United States. In the past decade, 10% of urban school teachers reported threats of violence against them by their own students. The news is filled with stories of school shootings. Today’s teacher has much more to fear than a child’s tongue being frozen to a flagpole.
Aside from violence, many teachers fear losing their jobs as tenure in many states has been eliminated, and teacher performance and job security is based largely on student assessment scores. Maybe this wouldn’t be such a daunting task if we all had classrooms like Ralphie’s. Miss Shields also knows she has the support of her students’ parents. Their defiance both in and out of school is not overlooked, as Ralphie learns when his mouth is literally cleaned out with soap by his mother after uttering a bad word. Sadly, today’s high cost of living has parents, both single and in the traditional marriage unit, working multiple jobs to make ends meet. They count on their kids’ teachers to keep them fed, warm, and safe during school hours. Hopefully, the kids learn a thing or 2 in the process.
Today’s teacher is not only heroic for all of the aforementioned reasons, but also incredibly underpaid, unappreciated and misunderstood. The role of a teacher has come to include manager, entrepreneur, artist, babysitter, disciplinarian, school nurse, social worker, psychologist, police officer, janitor, and so many more. I fear for this country at times, as we do not value the sacrifice teachers make for the love of their jobs. Looking back at the classroom of yesteryears, I only hope we can become that way again. I strongly feel our country’s prosperity depends on it. Perhaps it isn’t too naïve to think this could be possible, but, alas, in the words of Neal Young, “I’m a dreaming man, yes, that’s my problem”. However, who knows? If Ralphie’s glasses can come back into fashion, then maybe we can resurrect the old classroom to come back as well.