I am writing this on Thanksgiving. When I was growing up, it was the day that NBC annually broadcast The Wizard of Oz, helping to make it the most frequently watched movie in history. Who among us hasn’t watched The Wizard of Oz countless times? What parents haven’t eagerly provided this classic movie for their children’s viewing? Yet the message is lost on us. While it doesn’t say so outright, the subject it deals with is bullying, and we have abandoned its lessons, insisting on doing precisely what it teaches us not to do.
The Wizard of Oz is certainly one of the greatest movies of all time. On the movie rating site, Rottentomatoes.com, it achieves a remarkably rare 100 percent critic approval rating.
Released in 1939, it represents the pinnacle of movie-making of its time. Its true greatness, though, lies not in its film technology, endearing story, addictive songs, magnificent sets and terrific singing and acting, but in its simple and profound message. And like many great messages, it is right under our noses, but few of us see it. Being eternal, the message of The Wizard of Oz can inform us about what’s ailing society right now. If we have the wisdom and courage to heed that message, we can be spared a great deal of time, effort and money, as well as the heartache of broken dreams. Most importantly, it can help us create a better life for us and our children.
The Wizard of Oz is about the search for a bully-free environment. Dorothy runs away from home with her dog, Toto, because the bully Miss Gulch wants to have him destroyed for biting her. (Miss Gulch, of course, feels she is the true victim because the dog attacked her; everyone thinks the bully is the other person, which is why everyone is so eager to go on an anti-bully crusade.) Dorothy falls and is knocked unconscious. Then she dreams of finding a place where no one need experience fear, a bully-free environment where everyone is always nice and life is always pleasant. In the movie’s iconic song, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”, Dorothy makes it clear that such a place can only exist in myth.
With three companions she meets along the way, Dorothy embarks on a journey to Emerald City whose wonderful Wizard of Oz they believe will provide them with what they lack: a brain for the scarecrow, a heart for the tin man, courage for the lion, and a way home for Dorothy.
Not wanting to jeopardize his public image as being all-knowing and all-powerful, the Wizard sends Dorothy and her crew on a mission from which he believes they will never return. He instructs them that before he can grant their wishes, they must venture into the dark forest and bring him the broom belonging to the evil Witch of the West, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Dorothy’s real-life bully, Miss Gulch. Ironically, her dream of finding a place safer than her native Kansas leads her instead to a land of nightmare.
To the Wizard’s great surprise, Dorothy’s motley crew returns alive and well with the witch’s broom, the mission apparently not having been impossible. Pulling a curtain aside, Toto reveals the awesome Wizard to be a mere mortal, bearing a striking resemblance to a traveling fortune teller Dorothy encountered previously in real-life Kansas. Fearing that their ordeal had been for nothing, Dorothy and company discover they got what they sought after all. The Wizard points out the reality that they already possessed a heart, brain and courage–they just had to be accessed through facing danger. It also turns out that Dorothy didn’t need the Wizard’s help returning home; she simply needed to wake up from her dream. She realizes that despite mean people like Miss Gulch, “There is no place like home.”
Though almost all of us have seen The Wizard of Oz numerous times, we insist on ignoring its message. In your childhood you may have missed its significance, but the Emerald City is a metaphor for our nation’s modern, shiny government capital and the Wizard for its almighty leader. Like Dorothy, we believe that government can legislate for us a completely safe environment. Earlier this month, a leading anti-bullying organization disseminated a petition to President Obama urging him to demand that the government carry out its mandate to eliminate bullying from schools. Yes, we believe that our president, like the Wizard of Oz, possesses the power to get rid of bullying––but he’s been holding out on us!
The reality is that we will inevitably encounter abusive people throughout life, and the most abusive are likely to be among those closest to us. The government cannot get rid of our Miss Gulches for us, nor can it provide us with the social and emotional intelligences needed to deal with them. Sure, politicians are eager to indulge our infantile illusions by passing oxymoronic anti-bullying laws so we won’t kick them out of office, but they cannot deliver.
We need to learn from The Wizard of Oz that the character traits necessary for overcoming bullying lie not in government but within each and every one of us, and that the only way to access and develop them is through the experience of adversity. Our bullies may seem like invincible demons and monsters, but it’s only an illusion created by our own fear. Once we figure out how to deal with them, their terrifying power melts away. Then we can see them for the ordinary, imperfect mortals they are, just like the rest of us.
Izzy Kalman is a school psychologist and director of Bullies2Buddies, a program that reduces bullying by teaching kids how to handle it on their own.