Phineas Swann, PhD, associate professor of English, portly of build, thin of CV, was a burdened man. But burdens often come with gifts, and Phineas’s gift was a humdinger. He had a fairy godmother named Peggy Perdue. She appeared for the first time after he’d met with his department head to discuss his unfavourable performance review. The Head believed fervently in positive reinforcement, but Phineas’s review offered slim pickings, and as he left her office, Phineas’s bloodhound features sagged. Encumbered by the knowledge that he was incompetent in four separate categories, he lumbered down the hall, the Head’s voice following him. “Start a blog,” she trilled. “An effective blog not only links the academic with the student; it bridges the distance between the academy and the community at large.”
“I’d rather be flogged than blog,” Phineas muttered under his breath. The witticism lifted his spirits, and he repeated it as he entered his office. “Better flogged than blogged,” he thundered, then he heard a peal of female laughter.
It took Phineas a moment to find her. She was small, small enough to perch comfortably atop Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon. Her body was gently rounded; her shoulder-length auburn hair fell in soft waves around the milky skin of her heart-shaped face, and her liquid brown eyes managed to be both innocent and knowing. She was a beauty.
Phineas had never been a lucky man, but he had the sense not to question good fortune when it came his way. He nodded at the comely woman resting on Harold Bloom, and said, “I’m having a helluva day.”
“That’s why I’m here,” said Peggy Perdue. She listened attentively as Phineas, waving his performance review for emphasis, detailed his most recent humiliation. Finally, exhausted, he sank into his ergonomically correct chair and slapped the record of his shame facedown on his desk.
In a blink, Peggy Perdue landed atop the odious document, removed a square of paper from her backpack and said, “Watch carefully, Phineas. Take a page of that cruel condemnation, and do as I do.”
Peggy’s small clever hands began to fold her square of paper; Phineas’s large clumsy hands followed suit. In a surprisingly short time, fairy and professor had produced a pair of handsome origami amphibians. It was the first success Phineas had in months, and he was delighted. “I’ve made a frog,” he said.
“Correction,” said Peggy, dimpling. “You’ve made a FOAD TOAD.”
Phineas peered at his creation with new respect. “What is a FOAD TOAD?”
“FOAD is an acronym your students use as a term of dismissal,” said Peggy. “You can Google it.” She put her tiny toad to her perfect lips and blew. The FOAD TOAD inflated nicely. Phineas followed suit. As his toad filled with air, it assumed a bellicose stance.
“Now what?” asked Phineas eagerly.
“Now we vanquish the enemy.” Peggy Perdue said, lifting a tiny foot and bringing it down smartly on her creation. As it expelled air, the FOAD TOAD made a tiny, whiney sound. Finally, it lay deflated, an object of no importance. Phineas raised his Birkenstock and brought it down on the amphibian that he had created from the final ugly page of his performance review. His FOAD TOAD wheezed, hissed and, finally, expired. Emptied of air, it was a paltry thing. Phineas smiled.
Peggy Perdue cocked her head. “Feeling better?”
“Infinitely,” Phineas said.
Peggy Perdue chuckled. “Origami always works for academics,” she said. And then she vanished, leaving behind the faint scent of patchouli.
As the term limped to an end, students began firing off e-mails blaming Phineas for grades they anticipated would be less than stellar. He printed out their notes, folded them into FOAD TOADs and squashed them beneath his heel. His office was carpeted with crushed complaints. In the quiet hours, Phineas believed he could hear faint whimpers of protest rising feebly from the floor. He was as happy as a man heedlessly wrecking his academic career could be, but he missed Peggy Perdue.
That year Phineas’s birthday fell on the last day of classes. Given the term he’d had, Phineas knew that he might well spend the rest of his academic career teaching prisoners or engineers. Oddly, he wasn’t depressed. As a birthday treat, he had saved printouts of three choice student e-mails. The first with the subject heading “The Wasteland is a waist of my time” chided Phineas for teaching a work “filled with illusions no eighteen year old Canadian could be expected to have.” The second saw a political subtext in Hemingway’s The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber. “I don’t appreciate being lectured about gun control especially when you’re on a safari.” The third was personal. “I find the black suit and black tie you wear EVERY DAY very AGGRESSIVE + white socks with Birkenstocks ????????”
Phineas picked up The Wasteland complaint and began to fold. He was now so skilful that the FOAD TOADs seemed to create themselves. He inflated them, positioned them strategically on his office floor and did a kind of Phineas Flamenco, crushing them one by one with his heel. When the third FOAD TOAD gasped its last, Phineas’s eyes wandered hopefully to his copy of The Western Canon.
Peggy Perdue was sitting cross-legged on Harold Bloom. Phineas’s heart leapt within his chest.
“You came,” he said.
Peggy shrugged. “With three toads, you get a wish.”
“You can grant wishes?” said Phineas.
Peggy nodded. “I used to be curator of the rare magic books collection at the reference library. I learned secrets.” She sighed. “I also learned to be careful what I wished for. One day I was feeling chunky, and I wished I were smaller. My wish came true, but being the size of an avocado was not what I had in mind.”
“My wish is just to go back,” Phineas said.
“Go back where?” asked Peggy.
“Back to the time before Rate Your Prof and iPods and believing that all knowledge can be Googled.”
“Well, let’s go,” said Peggy.
“Just like that?”
Peggy raised a perfect eyebrow. “Did you think you’d have to put on ruby slippers and click your heels three times? Follow me.”
The fairy and the professor took the elevator to the main floor and stepped out into the sunlight. Phineas had crossed the campus of his university a thousand times, yet on this fresh spring day, everything was different. The trees were smaller. There were fewer buildings. The glass and steel behemoths with names like Innovation Place and Research Plaza had disappeared. Students walked the paths and lounged on the sweet new grass, but they were different too. The girls in their spring dresses and coordinated flats had shining hair and careful makeup. The boys were clean-shaven with brush cuts and pressed shirts. They walked purposefully; nodded respectfully at Phineas and murmured “sir” as they passed. Phineas did not see a single student talking on a cell, texting, or swaddled in the private ecstasy of an iPod.
When Peggy stopped in front of the building that contained the Centre for Teaching Excellence, Phineas balked. His department head had repeatedly urged Phineas to “drop in and chat about pedagogy” with the centre’s director. He had ignored her suggestions.
“I’ve taught for twenty-five years. I don’t need to chat about pedagogy,” Phineas snapped.
“You can chat about whatever you like,” Peggy said. “I’m taking you to the Faculty Club for a drink.”
“There hasn’t been a faculty club here for fifteen years,” Phineas said. “Unless you’re a student, drinking on campus is frowned upon now.”
“But you’ve elected to live in a different ‘now’,” said Peggy.
Phineas beamed. “I could use a rye and ginger.”
Except for one woman reading The Lives of Girls and Women, the dining room of the Faculty Club was empty; but despite the early hour, the bar was packed. The air was heavy with the scent of cigarette smoke, booze and testosterone. Phineas breathed deeply. Suddenly, he was filled with old memories and new hope. “I’m home,” he said.
“Swell,” said Peggy Perdue as she raised a dainty hanky to her nose. “I’ll wait for you in the dining room. You have an hour.”
“I’m in your debt,” said Phineas. By luck he happened to join a conversational group headed by the Dean of Arts. The men spoke of many things: of students, of course, but also of books they planned to write or at least “firm up in their minds” on their next sabbatical and of sex (although most of them were married and none of them was getting much). By the time the woman who had been reading Alice Munro entered the bar, Phineas had downed two large ryes and ordered a third. As she tapped the Dean of Arts on the arm, her voice was firm. “We’d agreed to discuss the fiction course I’m proposing on works by contemporary Canadian women.”
All the men except Phineas laughed, and cheeks blazing, the woman strode from the bar. The Dean was jocular. “In good time,” he said. “When the ladies have proven themselves.”
“Wait,” Phineas cried. “I can teach you how to make a FOAD TOAD.” It was too late. The woman had already slammed the door.
When Peggy appeared, Phineas was anxious to share. “I’m not the only one who doesn’t fit in,” he said.
Peggy shrugged. “Universities are filled with people who are a little off. Everyone knows that.”
“Being ‘a little off’ does not justify injustice,” slurred Phineas. “Regardless of gender, race, age, sexual orientation or religion, all members of the a-cad-e-my are of value.” He narrowed his eyes to bring Peggy into focus. “That goes for fairies too. A university is a community in which no one should be made to feel like a FOAD TOAD.”
“Here, here,” cried Peggy Perdue clapping her pretty hands.
The world that the fairy and the professor rejoined was the world that had rejected Phineas an hour earlier. The gargantuan edifices housing researchers who attracted massive grants were back, dwarfing the modest buildings where humanities and arts struggled to be relevant. The students were texting, tweeting, Googling and peppering their utterances with expletives. Everything was the same.
But Phineas Swann was not the same. Like Paul on the road to Damascus, the scales had fallen from Phineas’s eyes. “It appears that I, myself, am a FOAD TOAD, rejected by all,” Phineas said. “However, I am not alone. The world is filled with FOAD TOADs.” Phineas extended his arms in a gesture of embrace. “FOAD TOADS OF THE WORLD UNITE. YOU HAVE NOTHING TO LOSE BUT YOUR WARTS. Amor Fati. We’ll get T-shirts.”
“You could start a blog,” said Peggy Perdue.
“I could and I shall,” said Phineas. His brow furrowed. “Will you teach me to blog?”
“Nothing simpler,” said Peggy Perdue.
The blog was just the beginning. It seemed that there were FOAD TOADs everywhere – in universities, in corporations, in government, in politics, in the arts. They all wanted T-shirts and they all wanted to learn how origami could transform daily defeats into satisfying acts of defiance. Phineas became both famous and rich. When he appeared on Oprah, Oprah, herself, wore a FOAD TOAD T-shirt. Phineas not only bridged the distance between the academy and the community at large, he painted the bridge gold and spangled it with stars. As a reward, the President of Phineas’s university gave him a lifetime dispensation from performance reviews.
Phineas and Peggy Perdue lived happily after – but separately.
Gail Bowen is the author of the popular Joanne Kilbourn mystery series, whose heroine is a professor at a Regina university who reluctantly helps the police solve local murders (sometimes committed on campus). McClelland and Stewart will publish The Nesting Dolls, the 12th book in the series, in August. Ms. Bowen retired in 2008 from First Nations University of Canada, where she was a professor of English for more than 20 years.