Over the years that I have been a school principal, I have observed many different supervisory – management styles. The majority of my colleagues are sensitive souls; they are fair-minded, thoughtful, and not quick to rebuke a teacher. Uppermost in their minds is doing what is in the best interest of the students, not in acquiring more power or prestige for themselves. I regrettably recall one exception.
Very uncomfortably, I watched a principal observe a class and then submit his written report to the teacher later in the day. The teacher was given no opportunity to respond. The report was overwhelming negative, severely affecting the teacher’s self-perception, so much so that the teacher shortly thereafter left the field to begin a career in computers. Postcript: the principal a few years later was fired and did not last more than a year or two in subsequent positions. He who gave rebuke to others was now the victim of negative reviews himself. What goes around comes around.
The Green Mile provides an example of a person who aims to hurt others both emotionally and physically: Percy Wetmore. His comeuppance, after a number of shocking cruelties to prisoners waiting on Death Row, is greeted with cathartic satisfaction when it finally arrives.
The Green Mile is not Percy’s story, however. It is the story of Paul Edgecomb, a Louisiana prison guard in the 1930’s and inmate John Coffey, a huge black man incarcerated for the murder of two little girls. Paul is surprised when he discovers that, in spite of his enormous size, John belies an innate meekness, communicating with the simplicity of a child afraid of the dark. The story is told in flashback, as Paul recounts his experiences to another resident of the retirement home in which he lives.
What emerges from the narrative is the stark difference between how Percy treats the prisoners and how Paul treats them. Knowing that they are all scheduled for execution by electric chair, Paul treats them humanely knowing that it is better for the prison system and for the prisoner if the condemned man can retain his equanimity in the face of certain death. In spite of their alleged crime, Paul recognizes their essential humanity.
Examples abound of his sensitivity to the men who have to walk the “green mile,” a green patch of linoleum leading to the execution site. He allows a prisoner to keep a pet mouse, he gives one man a gift of his wife’s corn bread, and arranges to show the Fred Astaire film Top Hat to a condemned man who has never before seen a movie.
In contrast to this humane behavior is the cruelty committed by Percy, who in one of his many sadistic moments, deliberately does not wet the sponge that is to be placed on the head of the condemned man as the electric plate is tightened before the release of electric current to his body. It is a grisly scene, which accentuates the stark contrast between Paul and Percy.
Proverbs tell us that when our enemy falls, we should not rejoice, lest God be displeased and He turn His wrath to us. Moreover, our Sages advise us not to see someone at the time of his degradation. The point of these instructions is to be sensitive to people in distress. We do not in any way excuse criminal behavior, but we do not gloat over their punishment. It may be necessary, but it is not joyful.
The Green Mile is a movie that has a lot to say about life, about how we treat others, and how we need to recognize and appreciate the humanity of all men.