The phrase “o possum” in Latin means “Oh, can I!” Yet this has nothing to do with the animal opossum, whose name among the scientific community is the far less catchy and harder to say didelphimorphia. The common name opossum is actually derived from a Native American dialect (Algonquian) meaning “white dog.”
Opossums, as you probably know, are marsupial omnivores. They walk with flat feet and are oddly resistant to snake bites. Even rattlesnakes cannot rattle them—they simply answer with an “Oh, I can resist you!” Even cottonmouths, said by some to be the most deadly of North American snakes, cannot kill them. Their chorus is always the same, “Oh, I can take it!”
I am thinking of these fine marsupials because I saw a family of them pass through my yard this week. They are cute as can be. I have heard that some types are actually domesticated, though I have never met anyone with a pet opossum. And, by the way, they do not sleep hanging by their tails. That is just a rumor presumably started by those who fear bats. But, they do “play possum.” While their first reaction to danger is to hiss like a cat, when deeply frightened, they can actually fall asleep for up to four hours and their body instinctively takes over, pretending that it is that of a dead animal. Their instincts make them secrete a terrible smelling liquid from their anal glands, and their lips curl back like those of a lifeless animal, leaving their teeth bared and showing some foaming saliva. Yet do not worry, for opossums are also quite resistant to rabies and rarely contract the disease.
Now why, you might wonder, am I taking so much time to delineate the particular features of an animal whose name has as much to do with the Latin “Oh I can!” as the Titanic’s has to do with Santa Claus, men’s formal dress and sunbathing. I am doing so because, of course, I find these animals fascinating. Their innate and unconscious capacity to play dead is intriguing to me: If only more nations would exercise such restraint when provoked by an aggressor. And the fact that they do not sleep by hanging from their tails—well that’s interesting, too, simply because of the misinformation that I received in fourth grade. Where did my teacher, Mrs. Hendrickson, get that inaccurate description of these creatures? How did it go viral back in the days when nothing could do so because there was no Internet? Further, opossums are migratory. They don’t tend to stay in one place, unless they happen to have a good supply of food and water there. It stands to reason, but who knew?
But the title of this blog mentions the notion of safe spaces, as well. Though these have been in the news quite a bit lately, few of my readers are likely to be deeply concerned with the concept or practice, so removed as it may seem from our everyday life. On the light side, there are some obvious problems with the term, right off the bat: one need only rent the movie Gravity to ascertain immediately that space is certainly not a safe place. Yet, of course, this is not what is meant by this term. Its deeper meaning has been a topic very much in the news and is no laughing matter.
Recently the Washington Post reported that students at Emory felt unsafe because someone had written pro-Trump slogans in chalk on some of the pavements of the university. These were merely slogans that, as far as I could tell from the photograph, said, “TRUMP, TRUMP, TRUMP” or ” TRUMP 2016.” Also recently, students at Oberlin demanded increased and more diverse—though someone might cogently argue less so—safe-space havens on campus. Last fall a number of students at Yale surrounded and berated a faculty master, whose very title has been deemed racist, to tell him what a poor job he was doing because he had suggested in an email that they not be too put out by the possibility that some Halloween costumes can be deemed offensive, should they happen to see one.
Indeed, Halloween costumes are often offensive, and are meant to be so. This possibility, of course, offended some at Yale. But more offensive to them, apparently, was the suggestion that someone should ignore or write off as “in poor taste” Halloween costumes that were, in fact, in poor taste. The idea that merely ignoring, rolling one’s eyes at, or even snarkily retorting in passing to those wearing such costumes might in and of itself be an adequate way to deal with such offense set off a firestorm. To suggest as much was, it seemed, a violation of the notion of the safe space, the “home,” as one student called it, that Yale is expected by those students (or at least one student) to create for its constituents. Students are, it seemed to be argued, entitled to feel safe and secure at college. The very notion that something or someone could challenge that was not deemed tolerable to a number of the students.
According to the New York Times, the faculty master/lecturer has since left Yale, an outcome no doubt seen as a great victory for those students. Yet, I wonder, had any of them ever considered the opossum? The opossum resists the bites even of venomous snakes. The opossum hisses when mildly threatened, but when greatly threatened simply plays dead and is left alone. The opossum moves on, if necessary, the opossum is not known for being an attack animal. No one has ever heard of a “ferocious opossum.” An opossum would not cost a young lecturer and his wife a job at Yale. An opossum would not demand a safe space; he would simply persist; he would hiss if necessary; under duress, he would simply play dead. And, whether hanging from his tail or not, he would be able to go to sleep at night with a good conscience, because he did all that he needed to do to keep himself safe, and he had done so decorously by animal standards, instead of acting out on feelings of entitlement and a false sense of temporary power. Opossums rarely have such feelings, I imagine. That’s why we like them.
I truly feel sorry for those young folks who feel so empowered now, especially after gaining their victory over their faculty —if the term still exists at Yale—master. There’s just a chance that when they leave the safe confines of the safe spaces of their safe university they won’t feel so empowered or so enabled, or even so safe. Will they be able, like the opossum to say, “Oh, can I!” when they try to tackle their first big assignment on their first job? And even if they do say something like that, will they in fact be so able as to get the job done without accusing their boss or co-workers of upsetting their safe space, puncturing the fragile casing of their feelings? However it may go for them, I hope for their sake, they eventually realize that they were not so smart as they thought. That ruining someone’s career over a Halloween costume is, well, not opossum-like, but asinine. Perhaps it’s something worse. Perhaps it’s downright bestial.