I remember it like it was just a few days ago. It was third period of a typical freshman day back when I was in high school. I was sitting in Room 208, ready for English class. I was feeling particularly good because I had read the assigned short story the night before. I adored reading back then, just as I do today, but I despised being told what to read. For me, part of the joy of reading is discovering on my own as to what I want to read. Being told to read something with empty promises of literary escape just rubs me the wrong way. But I felt pretty good because I had read the short story that was assigned to us and I was ready for the quiz that I was sure Miss Whalen was about to pop.
Miss Whalen entered the room carrying all of her necessary teaching equipment, she was one of the few teachers that didn’t have her own room because the school wasn’t big enough for the temporary population explosion going on in our tiny village. This was her usual way of entering the room, book bags and gear in tow; what was unusual on this day was that she was pushing a cart with a TV and one of those newfangled VCRs. We were going to watch a movie.
So much for the pop quiz.
Now when I completed my assignment and read “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson the night before, I kind of envisioned it taking place in some sort of nebulous time that wasn’t the present. They were talking about lotteries and crops and stonings and the like, so I figured it must have taken place in some medieval time. People didn’t act that way anymore. Why would a community want to stone people to death in the 20th century? Stoning a person to death was something that happened in the Middle Ages.
Miss Whalen made a few remarks and then started up the VCR. I was immediately surprised by the setting as soon as I saw the pickup truck: it was taking place in a small farming community that could have been any community not far from the little town I went to school in. While the film felt ‘old’ (it was made in 1969 and the year was 1982), it still felt far more contemporary than the scenes I had played in my head the night before as I was doing my assignment. The clothes were familiar. The vehicles were familiar. The attitudes were familiar.
As the short film progressed, almost word for word with what I had read the night before, I realized that something was wrong with those people on the screen. Why didn’t they think about what they were doing? They were just blindly following a tradition that no one really understood anymore other than the saying “Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon”. These people paid no attention to the fact that they were about to stone a woman to death. And she was such a nice woman. She wasn’t some medieval woman who wore big dresses that I envisioned in my head thing night before. The woman they were about to stone could have been the mother of any of my classmates.
My young heart cried out as the first stone hit Tessie Hutchinson as she cried out “it’s not fair.” Terrified for Tessie and terrified that I would be teased for the remainder of the day, I hid the tears that were welling up in my eyes. I shoved the lump in my throat back down where it belonged. I wasn’t going to gasp out loud and I wasn’t going to cry for this fictional character. No one would see me do that. But something struck a chord within my soul that day in Room 208. Luckily, the film wasn’t horribly graphic but the audio was another matter. Her cries freaked me out and rattled me immensely. Watching that film was a life changer for me.
Heavy stuff for a naive high school freshman.
Last night as we left the movie theatre, having just thoroughly enjoyed “The Hunger Games”, my thoughts drifted back to “The Lottery” and Tessie Hutchinson. I did a quick search on the Internet when I got home and found it available on YouTube. I watched it again from beginning to end. No fast forward. No skipping. No rewinding. Beginning to end, just like the day in Room 208. I cringed and teared up and honestly, I’m not afraid to admit that I had to go upstairs and cuddle with my husband for a few moments. It’s been 30 years since I last saw that movie but it hit home just as hard, if not harder than it did back in high school. The folks in the story were doing what tradition told them to do, without even thinking about the ramifications. They did something just because “that’s the way it’s done”. The old man that keeps grumbling about new thought and the young people in neighboring towns ending the tradition of the Lottery even though we don’t really know why they’re doing the Lottery, other than the brief mention about “Lottery in June, corn heavy soon”, how different is that from the talk about “traditional marriage” today? How many people blindly follow tradition without providing any thought to what they’re doing? I have little against folks that follow the teachings of the Bible, as long as they’re using their brains when they’re studying the words that they’re following. Today, how many elders cast stones and then hand more stones to their youngsters so they’ll blindly cast stones as well? How many teenagers brutally attack their classmates that are different simply because they’ve seen their parents act the same way? How many people today follow tradition simply because they’re following tradition? How whacked out is that?
Olive Dunbar plays Tessie Hutchinson in the 1969 version of the movie and she does it well. The changes in her expression with each realization as the lottery progresses hits me hard. Like I said, she could easily be the mom of any of my contemporaries. She goes from a housewife who is late to the ritual because she didn’t want to leave dirty dishes in the sink to a woman who is forced to realize her own mortality in minutes, all in the name of tradition. The cinematography is subtle. Most would find it bland, boring and amateurish. I find it moving. It steps out of the way and makes the viewer think.
Just as the assigned reading did back in 1982.