I had the privilege recently of screening the original “Wizard of Oz” with an audience of nostalgic adults and their soon-to-be-traumatized offspring. (Remember the flying monkeys? ‘Nuff said). I myself was child-free for the afternoon, which allowed me to sink completely into the Technicolor extravaganza that is the film, heightened to an almost painful intensity by Judy Garland and her wide-eyed golly gee willikers schtick.
It was almost the end of the movie, when Dorothy and her homies are enjoying their second audience with Oz, that everything became clear: The Wizard of Oz is a story about the perils of grad school.
Sure, it’s also about how There’s No Place Like Home and Home Is Where Your Heart Is blah blah blah. But think about it. There are so many parallels between The Wizard of Oz and graduate school education! Case in point:
1. Misunderstood and unappreciated by those who should know her best, Dorothy runs away.
You, too, after having served cheerfully but unacknowledged for three years as a lowly secretary at a Bay Area university, “run away” by applying to three schools outside of California for a place in their MFA programs.
2. A huge weather event occurs, dramatic enough to lift the whole house and deposit it in a parallel universe, bursting with plastic flowers and a phalanx of Little People dressed in outfits vaguely reminiscent of lederhosen.
You, too, find yourself in a parallel universe – hell, probably another planet – manifesting as a mid-Atlantic university campus with something like 32,000 students. The students aren’t necessarily midgets, but they do have quirky rituals, like attempting to knock back 21 shots on their twenty-first birthdays, plagiarizing Rhetoric papers, and wearing shorts in below-freezing temperatures.
3. A big pink fairy lady sails down in a bubble and offers Dorothy the Bad Witch’s red shoes (“How do you know whether a witch is good or bad?” Dorothy asks. “The bad ones are ugly,” Glinda the Good Witch replies). Dorothy wants to go home but Glinda’s powers are limited, so Dorothy is encouraged instead to apply for help from the Wizard of the land. JUST FOLLOW THE YELLOW BRICK ROAD AND YOU’LL BE FINE.
You, too, encounter a relatively good witch in the program coordinator; she helps you realize that you’re the only one who has accepted a place at the school without a teaching-for-tuition deal. “You must go to the great Wizard and procure this,” she advises. “Here are the program requirements. Step A was due yesterday.”
4. Dorothy meets many fascinating friends along the way: a talking scarecrow, a talking tin-man (?!), and a talking lion. With loving affection they support each other in their common goal – to petition the Wizard for various body parts. And courage. And a one-way ticket back to Kansas.
You, too, meet many “friends” in your THREE YEARS of graduate school who help you get “home,” that is, FINISH THE EFFING DEGREE. These include “charming” famous professors who hold classes in their condominium complex, wearing shorts and slippers. (NOTE BENE: “Classes” here are loosely defined as those hellish sessions during which students toady up to Mr. Important by insulting each others’ work).
5. Dorothy encounters green-skinned witches, poppies, and the aforementioned flying monkeys.
You, too, encounter versions of these things which it would be better not to discuss.
6. Dorothy accidentally kills the bad witch by throwing water on her and discovers that the Wizard of Oz is a guy from Nebraska. “PAY NO ATTENTION TO THAT MAN BEHIND THE CURTAIN,” he says, which sparks a deep epiphany for Dorothy about how she had what she needed to get home all along, blah blah blah.
You “throw water” on your thesis by flogging away at it during the freezing cold winter of ’97. Who cares about quality? IT’S THE AMOUNT OF PAGES THAT COUNTS, and you’re getting close (just a few more font and margin manipulations, and you’ll be all set). At the end, as you’re walking around in the forsythia-drenched springtime feeling distinctly like you’re getting out of prison – HOLD ON, TOTO — you realize it’s not Dorothy, it’s YOU who have had the big epiphany. Your graduate education has been sort of like a holographic image of a big green bald head projected on a screen! Holy crap. All those hours of grading undergraduate papers, just to find out that you already had what you needed to be a writer — THE WHOLE TIME!