Dorothy: Oh, you’re a very bad man!
The Wizard: Oh, no, my dear, I… I’m a very good man—I’m just a very bad Wizard.
A former student of mine, Allison Quirk, yes, a rather odd young woman, dubbed me “Professor Marvel” a few years ago, and I’ve remained conflicted about it ever since.
Granted, people have always said ambiguous things to me, sent me mixed messages. A high school teacher who clearly despised me on account of my cluelessness and arrogance (the worst of combinations!) finally snapped at me during graduation. His way of saying good riddance: “You’ll probably be somebody someday!”
Silly me: for years I took it as a compliment, a prediction of my impending success, fame even, so for a long while I allowed his declaration to serve as a kind of marker or guide. Then, years later, surely fameless, no measure of success whatsoever, I remembered him, and then, lightbulb!—I realized that I missed his sarcasm.
At the risk of perpetuating stereotype, “Mr. Green,” a gay black dude, did regularly “throw shade” on his students, so why would I be an exception?
“You’ll probably be somebody someday”…but you ain’t shit now, even though you think you are!
I deserved it. Once when another clueless and arrogant boy (but worse than me, meaner) yelled “faggot” while Mr. Green faced the board, I busted up laughing and couldn’t for the life of me stop as the boy had said it in such a ridiculous way: “fah-got!”
And so Mr. Green physically yanked me from my chair (me trapped in the throes of giggling) and pushed me out into the hallway and didn’t let me return to his class for a whole two weeks.
Every time I tried to return to class, he casually pointed at the door, and I marched out with my head lowered.
Allison totally freaked during our class viewing of The Wizard of Oz: “Utterly insufferable!” “Absolutely terrifying!” “It’s just too creepy!” Her further disgust eventually turning into incredulity. “Munchkins?” “Flying monkeys?” “A big-head wizard?” “Are you freaking kidding me?”
I decided to show the film to my students to make a point: that so many Hollywood movies copied its template.
“Think about it. Dorothy begins in an ordinary place, Kansas, a world of black and white; then something catastrophic happens, a tornado, and she’s blown over the rainbow and lands in the magical world of Technicolor, where she has to survive all kinds of weird stuff, right? Witches, along with Munchkins, flying monkeys… And so what does she need to survive?”
Inevitably a student blurts out, “Ruby slippers!”
“She needs her intelligence, the Scarecrow; heart, the Tin Man; and courage, the Cowardly Lion. And what does she find out at the end of her journey?”
“That she had those things all along, back in Kansas too. She just needed a circumstance, the adventure, to remind her.”
“And what about Star Wars? Luke starts out in an ordinary place, he’s a ‘Kansas’ farm boy shooting at ‘swamp rats’; then something catastrophic happens and he’s thrust into a colorful, magical world with all kinds of odd characters, including witches and warlocks with magic, right? But in the end how does he beat the Empire, knock out the Death Star? ‘Just like shooting swamp rats back home’!”
I usually wowed my students with all that, but none of it meant anything to Allison. During the movie she cringed, covered her eyes, and even ducked under the table.
I couldn’t chalk it up to performance, her being overly dramatic or anything like that, because her reaction seemed natural, spontaneous. And that’s when it occurred to me, lightbulb!, that The Wizard of Oz creeps you out and that her experience of it later as a college student, a bona fide young adult, reflected what I’d felt, what perhaps many of us feel when we experience the film as youngsters, and that maybe she just couldn’t be as “over it!” as us, not as “whatever!” and I came to admire her for that, for not pretending.
(She would have been mortified to know that munchkin men molested Dorothy on set.)
When Allison eventually emerged from underneath the table to watch the end of the movie, she took a particular interest in the man behind the curtain, Professor Marvel, and as he reaches into his bag of tricks, she pointed directly at me and declared: “That’s you!”
That’s you. Me? Me, an old Kansas con man, a rather ridiculous charlatan, pretending to be a big-head wizard.
She got me right then, and I felt a shiver, warm all over, and so naturally I fell in love with her, such a brilliant young woman.
Ironically, I felt she had honored me, really seen me, and I wanted so desperately to be seen in those days.
I’ve always admired Professor Marvel, whom, as far as con men go, I consider first rate all the way, sharp and wise. He gives hope to Dorothy and her motley crew, and more importantly, he sees through all the BS.
It’s only now that I understand that Allison Mr. Greened me: You’re full of it! A BS artist!
Of course I remembered her genuine distress about the movie and her sincere annoyance that I had forced her and the class to watch it. For the life of her, she couldn’t connect the academic writing endeavor of the class to our viewing of the film, so she flatly asked, “Why are we watching The Wizard of Oz in a writing class?” Having no logical defense, I offered her a sheepish smile and hunched shoulder, and so she added, “…seems pointless.” Then she shrugged.
That’s when I remembered that she had always been a little hostile to me, openly questioning me in class in relation to my (granted) illogical forays, pointing out and even drawing out my occasional faux pas regarding word choice, calling me on my frequent variety of embellishments and repetitions. She never failed to inform me that I had “…told that story before!” and that something I said “…didn’t make any sense!” Despite my charms, including my propensity for storytelling (which Allison and her classmates enthusiastically encouraged when they wanted to avoid actual class work), she routinely let me know that she considered me a big phony.
And yet once again, as with Mr. Green, I bore the brunt of the responsibility. I started it. Too many lingering looks at her pretty and plump baby-doll face, her absurd beach-ball breasts; too much dubious praise of her average work, her general insights.
Even though Professor Marvel turns out okay in the end, he does fail to get Dorothy home. Indeed, he botches the whole thing and finds himself spinning into oblivion.
I felt inspired, called even, to teach my signature class, How Deep Is Your Love?, after reviewing the Valentine’s Day issue of the student newspaper. I didn’t anticipate anything special when I picked up the paper. A clichéd, big red heart appeared on the cover, so presuming it represented the annual “love issue” made sense. But in effect the majority of the selections, including poems and visual artwork to go with the articles, reflected upon prostitution and pornography, both soft and hard, respectively. The general tone of the pieces suggested women’s empowerment in these areas, and that notion seemed ridiculous to me, and even more so as this idea found its support among a select few at a generally progressive college predominated by often brilliant young women.
I suppose it’s complicated but somewhere along the line it seemed to me that some would-be progressive, though wholly immature, thinkers started believing that the choice belonged to the women in these industries, the same choice that one might make as to whether, indeed, to go to college or not.
I previously argued this point with a former student of mine, an exceptional student, mind you, at that time seriously contemplating moonlighting as a “sex worker.” I countered that the “overwhelming majority of so-called ‘sex workers’ were more likely prostituted before they became prostitutes.” She disagreed, offering herself as an example. She further considered how it “might be fun…to toy with stupid, horny old men.” And then she pulled the variable “card” (race, gender, sexual orientation); that is, she based her authority on her authenticity, on her specific right or claim to address the issues in a way that I as, granted, a stupid, horny old man obviously couldn’t.
“How dare you, as a man, tell me what to do with my body?”
I did not know how to argue against her position, especially since controlling her or any other woman’s body in that regard marked neither my intention nor my point. Moreover, quite frankly I considered her accusation a stupid and cheap ploy, typical of too many Americans, always taking mental shortcuts rather than plumbing the depths of their intellect.
Did she really think, as a privileged white woman attending a private elite college in New York City, her decision to prostitute herself would be the same as so many unfortunate young women more likely forced to do so?
Perhaps the advent of my “love class” revealed my attempt to get even, to even the score. I would teach my students about love, real love, the rapturous variety depicted by the character Viola De Lesseps in the astonishingly brilliant Shakespeare in Love. In the film’s “Juliet” role, Viola declares, “Not the artful postures of love, but love that overthrows life. Unbiddable, ungovernable, like a riot in the heart, and nothing to be done, come ruin or rapture. Love as there has never been in a play.”
And so, yes, we would read Romeo and Juliet, despite my students’ likely protests, because still, in my humble opinion, Shakespeare’s play provides the most comprehensive view of love in Western literature or, more specifically, the obstacles that stand in love’s way. (I won’t belabor that latter point, as we will probably get into that later: how Juliet has to distinguish for Romeo the difference between “love” and “booty call,” and moreover how Shakespeare gives the youngest the most genuine view. Whew, and how my students howl when I say stuff like “booty call,” my mixing of so-called high and low culture!) So when I further insist that we need the play’s critical framework to appreciate the Shakespeare-inspired “love” works, like the aforementioned Shakespeare in Love and damn near every other Western work about love (yup, you got me, I am a HaroldBloomOphile), they are so cool wit’ it.
“I cannot see beyond it. / I cannot see beyond it.”
I literally step into the classroom every spring semester reading Sharon Olds’s challenging reflection on love and relationship, aptly titled “True Love.” I read the last two lines with hypnotizing intonation as I settle in before my students, some eager, some absolutely dumbstruck.
“I cannot see beyond it. / I cannot see beyond it.”
Olds’s poetic meditation on relationship, likely marital love as it relates to romantic love, gets it just right: the ambiguity, joy, banality, hope, sadness, closeness, mystery, anticipation, regret. (If I may misappropriate the words of James Baldwin misappropriating Henry James to describe Olds’s take on love and marriage, it’s a “complex fate.”)
Olds’s lovers feel “bound by the tie of the delivery room.” I love that, just love it. I ask the students what that may mean or suggest to “close read,” and they generally agree that the delivery room’s a good way to be “bound,” a special way, and that the word “bound” suggests the word “bond,” though they acknowledge the word itself may carry negative connotation, like being “gagged and bound.”
“So then how might that moment be considered a negative?”
Generally the students can’t fathom that. It’s “true love” because they had a child together, a deep tie, the deepest.
“Okay, so what’s it like in the delivery room?”
“It depends. For the man or the woman?”
A pretty, pale young woman with a cool buzz cut asks this, trying to sound detached from her clear incredulity.
“The woman,” I continue.
We laugh as a class after that before considering how it might be heaven as well.
Gosh, but let me not jump around. We usually don’t begin there. First (with permission from Olds, of course), let me present to you the poem in its entirety:
True Love—Poem by Sharon Olds
In the middle of the night, when we get up
after making love, we look at each other in
complete friendship, we know so fully
what the other has been doing. Bound to each other
like mountaineers coming down from a mountain,
bound with the tie of the delivery-room,
we wander down the hall to the bathroom, I can
hardly walk, I hobble through the granular
shadowless air, I know where you are
with my eyes closed, we are bound to each other
with huge invisible threads, our sexes
muted, exhausted, crushed, the whole
body a sex—surely this
is the most blessed time of my life,
our children asleep in their beds, each fate
like a vein of abiding mineral
not discovered yet. I sit
on the toilet in the night, you are somewhere in the room,
I open the window and snow has fallen in a
steep drift, against the pane, I
look up, into it,
a wall of cold crystals, silent
and glistening, I quietly call to you
and you come and hold my hand and I say
I cannot see beyond it. I cannot see beyond it.
“So what kind of ‘love poem’ sticks its lovers on the toilet?”
We share another laugh, the surprise about that as that’s part of Olds’s genius. None of that objectifying, flowery shit too often perpetrated by pathetic old white dudes but the real shit!
My students appear reluctant to respond to my teasing question. They’re young. Some appear not to get it at all.
“I mean, they start by making love and end up in the crapper, sup wit dat?”
Smiles, still no answers.
“Well, who can come into the bathroom when you are on the toilet?”
“Not your mom or dad, sister or brother, not a family member…close friend?”
I pause for effect.
“How long you’ve been together.”
“Not a first date?”
Giggles. How stupid of me.
“Well, why not?”
“Because you just met!”
“Okay, so then, who? Why?”
“Someone you’re close to,” snaps Buzz Cut.
“So then, Olds’s point is…?”
Another student becomes emboldened via Buzz Cut.
“Olds is showing the intimacy that exists between the two lovers!”
Because she says it with attitude, I decide to mess with her.
“Wuh? On the toilet? WutchutalkinboutWillis?”
She amplifies her voice. “Only people who are really close to you can come into the bathroom when you are in there, geez!”
“Number two too?”
The other members of the class and I burst out laughing while she appeals to Buzz Cut.
I’m a total dumbass!
We spend even more time on the poem’s final stanza. I make another crass joke about doing “number two” in the bathroom. “That’s why she opens the window.”
I insist that they “close read” the words “crystals,” “silent,” and “glistening” but they remain hesitant. I’ve joked too much. Remember we’ve just met. I’m too unpredictable.
“…well, crystals are beautiful, right? And they may suggest something magical even. But they’re ‘cold,’ and it’s a ‘wall of cold crystals.’ What about the word ‘silent’?”
“Yeah, maybe. Any other possibilities?”
“How about mystery?”
“And if something’s ‘glistening’?”
“Yup, and so what is the effect of something shining on the viewer?”
“It makes them look at it.”
Buzz Cut resents my enthusiastic response for the other student, one of two males in the class at that.
“The outside world is calling her, glistening!, but it’s cold and mysterious, and so she turns to her husband for support: ‘I quietly call to you and you come and hold my hand and I say I cannot see beyond it. I cannot see beyond it.’
“Okay, so what’s happening in that moment?”
“The speaker is making a choice!”
Love it. I would have loved it even more if Buzz Cut had said, “The speaker is making a choice, you tool!”
Anyway, Buzz Cut and I agree on Olds’s ultimate trope, that “true love,” the stuff that the men usually depict as a preordained, irresistible force that “overthrows life,” involves choice.
True love involves choice.