“We already read Frankenstein Mrs. Mayse” shouted several of my AP Literature classmates.
“In Mrs. Good’s class” explained Jessica “we read it sophomore year.”
“You weren’t supposed to read Frankenstein in pre-AP English!” shouted Mrs. Mayse “Why would she do that? That’s clearly a part of the senior curriculum and…” Mrs. Mayse trailed off as we waited patiently for our next reading assignment. “I’m going to have to think about this one guys… sorry”. The class disbursed immediately to avoid post-dismissal bell traffic.
As usual I was the last one out of the class thanks to my disorganized way of keeping both my back pack and my class binders. I stopped by my visibly frustrated teacher’s desk on my way out “Are you alright Mrs. Mayse?”
“Well, to be honest, no” replied Mrs. Mayse. She went on to explain how she had begun developing a very detailed curriculum based on the question of what makes people evil, if it is through learned behavior or they’re born that way. She had also planned to have us examine the pursuit of knowledge and whether that can ultimately lead to a character’s happiness or destruction. Mrs. Mayse was one of those rare teachers who always took the time to really know her students, and was one of the few people in my educational career who took me aside and told me that I could do anything I set my mind to.
While wonderful, Mrs. Mayse was also one of those insanely challenging instructors whose opinion of your latest essay seemed to matter more than peer approval… and for a closeted seventeen year old in a small town in the middle of New Mexico, I can tell you that sometimes, that was all I ever wanted. Knowing my love for Broadway Musicals, Mrs. Mayse supplied me with the soundtracks to several of my favorite shows, including Wicked and Rent. Like Mrs. Good had done for me two years prior with Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, I was prompted to go and buy Gregory Maguire‘s novel Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West.
Upon one of my regular lunchtime visits to her classroom, Mrs. Mayse stated that she had found a solution to her Frankenstein problem “We can read Wicked!”
“That would be… awesome!” I said excitedly. I had already started the novel and loved it, and while I love your classic Romantic era novel, I was looking forward to a break from the noetic syntax.
“I was looking through it last night and realized, I can totally use my lesson plan for Frankenstein on Wicked!” She explained convincingly how Dr. Frankenstein’s quest for knowledge and initial goal to create good, along with the themes of dangerous knowledge, sublime nature, secrecy and monstrosity could all be found bleeding through the pages of Maguire’s novel.
The class initially loved the idea and everyone seemed to race up to Barnes and Noble to buy the revisionist portrait of one of the most beloved villains in popular culture. After enough of the class got through enough of the book however, problems began to arise.
“This is filth!” yelled one parent while I was working on another assignment with her daughter. “It makes me sick that my child is being forced to read this, this abomination!”
I should probably tell you now that my class was overflowing with some very religious students. We had, in one class the children of the pastors at the First Baptist Church, the Missionary Baptist Church and the Methodist Church in town. Also in my class were very devoted members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, The Roman Catholic Church and a new non-demonational church that occupied an old Wal-Mart and boasted a very popular coffee shop. I personally have been to said coffee shop and find it quite wonderful.
Gregory Maguire’s novel famously describes Elphaba (The Wicked Witch of the West) as well other characters in graphic sexual situations and even includes one scene where zoophilia (beastiality) occurs between a human and an Animal (Maguire capitalizes the first letters of Animals such as Tigers to depict which ones had speaking capabilities).
Failing to look into, or understand the true meaning of the sexual education and maturation of the characters of the novel (there were some obvious consequences to many of their actions), parents stormed in a frenzy to have my beloved English teacher reprimanded. At the time all this was going on, I was also dealing with the Mr. M incident and was in and out of the principal’s office regularly being forced to discuss the bullying I had been subjected to prior the overnight trip that destroyed my fortified trust in my former role model.
Scared of the consequences of outing Mr. M as a pedophile (both his and mine), I regularly turned the conversation to the Wicked controversy. Since all my classes and extra-curricular activities were interwoven with the same students, this was easy to do and somehow allowed me to compartmentalize the situation. Wicked became my escape from my reality, and Oz was a world that, although littered with suppression as well as human and Animal rights violations, it wasn’t my world and allowed me to focus on something else that wasn’t my problem.
Mrs. Pargas, ( the principal at Belen High School) told me “I just think it’s ridiculous and unwarranted” referring to Mrs. Mayse’s choice of literature. Mrs. Pargas once held Mrs. Mayse’s position before her promotion. “I mean, I hold another degree in psychology and I can tell you that I just don’t agree with this choice.” She also went on to complain that her promotion put her in a new tax bracket and in reality now made less than what she had as an AP English teacher. I should remind you that this was the person who refused to let me speak a couple years later about Mr. M’s private confession to sleeping with young, male students, among other things that I really wished to open up about.
Immediately following another pointless meeting with my school administrator, and after all our final Wicked assignments were turned in, I stopped in to find Mrs. Mayse in her class as bubbly as ever. During the whole debacle, I always made sure she knew she had my support, not just as a student, but as a truly curious mind who was on his own little quest for knowledge.
“Guess what!?” Mrs. Mayse nearly flew out of her seat when I walked in.
“What?” I welcomed the burst of enthusiasm like a Lexaprotein smoothie.
“Well, it turns out that Gregory Maguire heard about the difficulty I had in this… community with his book and wrote me a letter of encouragement and support for teaching his material.” She was truly beaming at the unexpected consequence of her action, and I, for the first time felt like that little piece of paper she was sent somehow validated my entire education until that point. I realized, thanks to Mrs. Mayse, that although the road isn’t easy and sometimes totals your vehicle completely, you sometimes get something better in the end. For Mrs. Mayse it was the approval of one of her favorite authors, for me, it was another role model who couldn’t have known just how much she actually helped me through my final year of high school.
For the record, I was only one of 3 people to pass the AP Literature exam at the end of the year from Belen High School. I took both Mrs. Good’s and Mrs. Mayse’s literary suggestions, challenged myself, and thought outside the box. One of the writing prompts suggested Kate Chopin’s The Awakening a novel which Mrs. Pargas brought up in one of our sessions as a heavy piece of literature that she dared not add to her curriculum for fear of parental backlash.