I never really associated myself with George Bailey. “It’s a Wonderful Life” is a classic movie, but I’ve always viewed it as a movie, not something that seemed to speak into my own life. A couple days ago I re-watched it. Apparently, the wanderlust desire to see the world and do incredible things is more an aspect of the human condition rather than my generation. So I watched the classic film, shed some tears, and realized that the longing George Bailey had was fiercely beating within my own heart.
I’m shakin’ the dust of this crummy little town off my feet and I’m gonna see the world. Italy, Greece, the Parthenon, the Colosseum. Then, I’m comin’ back here to go to college and see what they know. And then I’m gonna build things. I’m gonna build airfields, I’m gonna build skyscrapers a hundred stories high, I’m gonna build bridges a mile long…
As high school neared its end, I was never one of the students who couldn’t wait to get out of the small town. It just happened to be that I chose a school hundreds of miles away from home and was only able to come back for Christmas and summer breaks. When college was finished, I moved back home because moving far away for a job seemed strange to me. Now I’m in my fourth year of teaching high school and I live about thirty minutes from where I spent my childhood.
Young adult life is filled with many different experiences, but I keep coming back to a desire to pursue greatness, a desire that filled George Bailey his entire life. He wanted to see the world, to travel, to build structures that will last years, and to pursue adventure. Yet he ends up spending his life in Bedford Falls, a seemingly idyllic town that feels like a prison if one doesn’t want to spend the entirety of one’s life there.
Any place can feel like a prison, though, if one is constantly desiring to be elsewhere. The greatness found in the little and the simple can be overlooked so quickly. St. John Vianney would spend hour after hour in the confessional. Looking at his life from my vantage point, I can see how much fruit his life of simple faithfulness bore. Yet in that moment of waking up early to say Mass and then spend the whole day in the confessional, he might not have felt this aura of greatness surrounding himself. St. John Bosco rallied together the poor street children from Turin and taught them how to be men. In the daily grind of loving them in the midst of their flaws, he might not have recognized the monumental work he was doing.
And I teach. It isn’t much. My younger sister was watching “Freedom Writers” with me and she said each time she watched the movie, she thought of me as the teacher. I am laughably not like Mrs. Gruwell. I’m not taking on extra jobs to buy supplies for my students or going to bat for them against a racist administration or devoting all my time to helping them graduate from high school. There are many teachers who spend hours with their students after school as they guide them through problems (academic or otherwise) and leave this deep impression on their very beings as an adult who cared and sacrificed for them. I am not that teacher.
During finals, one of my students walked into my classroom with a card. She told me she was giving me this card because she was thankful that I would go over the study guides with her before tests. All I did was spend fifteen to twenty minutes after school with her the day before the test to review her answers and go over any questions she had. But the gesture she made was worth ten cards. Hidden within that quiet exchange, one done without any fanfare or balloons, was the greatness I am seeking.
Greatness is found in the simple, in the little. I’ve written about this before. I write about it again not to convince you, but to convince myself. As a teacher, affirmations are few and far between. Even if administration affirms your work, you want to hear it from those you spend day after day with. Students are unaware how powerful their words are about their teachers. I don’t need their support or affirmation, but I love it when I receive it. It means something is sinking in, something is being passed from my soul to theirs. I don’t have state standardized tests to rely on as a Theology teacher. I want to know if they know the Lord, rather than if they can ace my tests. That is when I know that I am successful.
George Bailey wanted a blazing kind of greatness, one that tears through towns and astounds people. What he finds instead is the greatness of enduring friendships, believing in the dreams of others, helping others pursue human dignity, and building a family that bands together. A greatness that his father pursued in that very town.
There is greatness in simplicity. There is simple greatness. There is unassuming greatness. Perhaps greatness is found not in doing wild things or going to exotic places but in doing what you do to the best of your ability. Maybe greatness is simply living your own life well, even if you remain unaware of the impact it makes on the lives of others.
Pa Bailey: I know it’s soon to talk about it.
George Bailey: Oh, now Pop, I couldn’t. I couldn’t face being cooped up for the rest of my life in a shabby little office… Oh, I’m sorry Pop, I didn’t mean that, but this business of nickels and dimes and spending all your life trying to figure out how to save three cents on a length of pipe… I’d go crazy. I want to do something big and something important.
Pa Bailey: You know, George, I feel that in a small way we are doing something important. Satisfying a fundamental urge. It’s deep in the race for a man to want his own roof and walls and fireplace, and we’re helping him get those things in our shabby little office.
George Bailey: I know, Dad. I wish I felt… But I’ve been hoarding pennies like a miser in order to… Most of my friends have already finished college. I just feel like if I don’t get away, I’d bust.
Pa Bailey: Yes… yes… You’re right son.
George Bailey: You see what I mean, don’t you, Pop?
Pa Bailey: This town is no place for any man unless he’s willing to crawl to Potter. You’ve got talent, son. I’ve seen it. You get yourself an education. Then get out of here.
George Bailey: Pop, you want a shock? I think you’re a great guy.