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The metaphor of melting: Dorothy's solution and a mother's education

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 12, 2013 - Over the years, I have found many wonderful lessons in the iconic Judy Garland film, The Wizard of Oz, directed by Victor Fleming, as well as its inspiration piece, the children’s novel, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, written by L. Frank Baum and illustrated by W.W. Denslow (published in 1900).

As a former secondary language arts teacher, I often referred to Fleming’s take on Mrs. Gulch, the acerbic neighbor who threatens to have Toto “destroyed.” With her character and its parallel Wicked Witch of the West, Fleming instructs us on how to handle contrary obstacles, like evil witches and seemingly inclined people. It is, of course, Dorothy’s solution:

Worry about what really matters and those evil forces will lose their power over you. They will simply melt away. Smarts, love and courage are really just a matter of perspective. Any sense of lacking grows from within and can be overcome.

Though I am 50, this is a lesson I only fully understood recently – thanks to the Wizard.

Earlier this year, I went to my alma mater middle school to see my daughter in The Wizard of Oz. Obviously, this would be a special experience for any parent whether your child plays Dorothy, a flying monkey or a munchkin.

What made the experience unique was, in fact, the circumstances. After more than 70 years of plays, concerts, assemblies, musicals and promotion ceremonies, Wydown Middle School was awaiting the final blow of the wrecking ball. This was this theater’s swan song.

The Saturday evening performance, the last of the last forever, was bittersweet. I was sitting in the dark auditorium of my own muddled youth, knowing that the building I had attended was already half gone — save this very theater. And on stage, there was my daughter, who has had the “theater bug” from a very young age. Through bright blue eyes and a wide grin, she conveyed to everyone in that audience how utterly delighted she was to share the stage in any capacity.

She played a jitterbug, as well as a tree, even though she had coveted the role of the wicked witch. For her, no matter the production, the witch is, was and will always be the tragic Elphaba.

(For those who had not seen Wicked nor read the book, those who live without Glee, the Wicked Witch in the book and the musical, Wicked, is named Elphaba.)

Wicked took all the Oz characters — Elphaba in particular — and gave them greater depth. Skeptics could say, it gave this wicked witch a backstory that could be used as an excuse for poor behavior and a misspent life.

Nonetheless, the recent musical does not satisfactorily complete the picture. Especially in the case of Mrs. Gulch, Wicked gives her alter-ego much more than a name. It humanizes the fantasy that is she and adds richness to her story. This sort of gossamer writing waves its own version of a magic wand and pumps passion as well as reason into Scarecrow, which in turn makes any character in any of these shows a coveted role.

And so my daughter with a bright and genuine smile, lit up as she stepped into the footlights among her equally delighted fellows for this final hurrah.

The result was a triumphant, boisterous rendition with performances worthy of any stage. Mark my words, the three who played Scarecrow, Tinman and Cowardly Lion may well become household names. And yes, I’ll be there to say I told you so.

I teared up when alumni were asked to stand, and I caught a glimpse of my brother, a former lead on that stage himself, sharing that fleeting honor with me on his 48th birthday. But something was lacking.

There I was a former literature teacher and a writer — by several definitions and degrees, a scholar. And yet, I had become a stage-door mom.

I was a green-eyed cross between Mrs. Gulch and Nicholas Sparks. How much sweeter this moment would be if my kid had been cast as the witch. Like any sentimentalist, I wanted my dramatic Sparks-esk happy ending with my triumph, my daughter, at the fore. And it took me a while to complete my own sojourn. Like, Dorothy I had to find my own gleaming truth.

I do concur that there is no place like home. That is why I returned to St. Louis after my messy divorce. That is why I enrolled my daughter in Clayton after experiencing schools across the eastern half of the country as an educator and a parent.

I wanted my daughter to know home as a safe place — to cherish it always.

What I learned, though, is that sometimes I am more the witch than Dorothy.

As Wicked suggests, backstories are so much more than excuses.

Truly, I have all the drama and joy I need with my child and her sense of self and place, her tenacity and temerity.

And we had that place and that time. It was something we shared, a family thing.

While it saddens me to think she can never take her own children back to that auditorium we shared, she can show them — maybe even enroll them in — the district. She will find her own place and her own family, just as I have now.

I do feel a bit like Dorothy. The real lessons here are mine:

The obstacles and dangers we face are largely of our own making. True happiness is recognizing the special moments for what they are. Large or small, they are opportunities for love and celebration. And that is the real definition of home.

It is not so much a state, like Kansas.

Rather it is a state of mind — one that comes from wisdom and from love and from perspective. Just as one cannot be brave without fear or wise without recognizing how much more there is still to discern, so, too, we cannot fully love without experiencing a bittersweet loss.

Elizabeth Harris Krasnoff is a freelance writer.