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Judging from the level of chatter from my fellow students as we waited for the prof to show up, few noticed the caped, black-clad figure that strode into the room and now stood at ease behind the desk in front of the blackboard. After a few moments, the newcomer smiled slightly, raised his fists to the sides of his head, then threw his hands upward and outward, in our direction. Twin balls of fire hissed menacingly into the air above our heads and vanished.

That got everyone's attention. The room fell silent.

"Good evening," said the man, spreading his arms in a gesture of hospitality. "Welcome to the Open University course on magic." He motioned for us to sit, and we did.

"If you've come to learn something about stage magic," he said, "you've come to the right place. If, on the other hand, you've come to learn about the supernatural - spells and whatnot - I have two things to say to you."

He paused to glance down at his gloved left hand and began to tug at the fingertips. "First - and it pains me to say this, but someone has to - LEARN TO READ! The course catalog description clearly states this class covers only show-business-style stage magic." The left hand was now ungloved and he began tugging at the fingertips of his gloved right hand.

"Second, if you did, mistakenly, sign up for this class with the expectation we'd be studying the supernatural," the other glove was coming off now, "I want you to get up, gather your things, and run - not walk - to the office for a refund before I turn you into a rabbit, or into some other kind of livestock suitable for a magic performance."

With his last words, a white bird fluttered from the gloves he had been mashing together in his hands.

A handful of students rose and quietly bolted from the room. Once things settled down, our teacher smiled and looked around at us, a twinkle in his eye. "Now, that's what I call an entrance!" he said. We who remained in the classroom broke out in applause.

Our teacher introduced himself. His name was Zack, and he had been doing magic ever since he could remember. In "real life," he was a student at the "regular" university - our course was part of a community project that lay far outside the usual academic curriculum - and he sang in a rock band that performed stage illusions along with its music.

In that first session, he started us off with something modest, a sleight called "the French drop," where the performer takes a coin and makes it vanish. "The move itself is no big deal," said Zack, repeatedly demonstrating how to perform the sleight from several angles. "The tough part is to make it look absolutely natural and absolutely logical."

"What do you mean, 'logical'?" asked a student.

"Excellent question!" said Zack. Whereupon he led us in a fascinating (and thorough) discussion of the hows and whys of always doing things for a reason when performing magic. In the weeks to come, he would incessantly ask "Why are you doing that?" as we went about mastering basic effects.

Contrary to what one might expect, the course demanded a fair amount of discipline. There were handouts that included articles on psychology. There was homework, mostly involving hours of practice to develop new physical skills and perform moves until they were utterly natural. There was even a field trip.

The trip was arranged to attend a performance by "The Amazing Kreskin" at a local community college. Zack said it would be an excellent introduction to a branch of magic called mentalism, in which the performer reads minds, makes predictions, and performs feats of memorization and hypnotism. "You'll love it," said Zack, as he passed around his handout on mental effects, "it'll be a gas!" And so it was, at least judging from the steady stream of "Oohhs" and "Aahhs" from Kreskin's audience.

When Kreskin called for volunteers to be hypnotized, I managed to be among about a dozen individuals selected to join him on stage. He moved among us, implanting suggestions as he went. He used no pendulum or other gimmick, nor did he propose that any of us was "getting sleepy." He merely spoke briefly to each volunteer in a normal tone of voice. His suggestion to me was that, when he snapped his fingers, I would forget my name.

"Ridiculous!" I thought to myself, "It'll never happen."

Having made his suggestions, Kreskin returned to the spotlight and said a few words to the audience. Then he motioned for me to join him at center stage and we chatted briefly about nothing at all. I stood there, smiling, looking out at the audience. Finally, he turned to me and asked, "What's your name?"

"Alex," I replied, without hesitation. Oh, man, I was primed!

Kreskin snapped his fingers. "What's your name?" he repeated.

My mouth opened, but nothing came out. I knew I had a name, but didn't know what it was!

The audience tittered. My mouth opened and closed, in a good impersonation of a beached fish. The more my mouth worked, the louder the audience laughed. The louder they laughed, the harder I tried to remember my name, without success.

All of this took maybe 5 to 7 seconds, but the bottom line was: Truly, I could not remember my name.

Then I focused my attention on an armrest of an empty seat in the front row and cleared my mind.

"Alex," I announced a moment later, looking back up.

Snap. "What is it?"

My mind went blank again, but only until I cleared it by not focusing on trying to remember. This time, however, I held off "recovering" for a few seconds (I must confess that now, I was working the crowd, a little). When I finally did "remember" my name again, Kreskin thanked me for helping me, called for a round of applause, and called the other volunteers to center stage, one by one. Overall, it was quite a performance, let me tell you.

In the car headed back to campus, Zack asked me, "How did you feel standing there on stage, nervous?"

"No, I felt great!" I said.

He punched me lightly in the arm. "I thought so!" he said. "You're a natural, so you're going to emcee our magic show!" Zack was serious about his craft and, as it turned out, the class "final exam" would be to organize and perform a magic show at the Student Union, which we did, with two performances on one fine spring Saturday. The show even made a little money.

In ensuing years, I embraced and then let go of performing magic, but over those years, I've found the lessons Zack taught to be of use - of greater utility, in fact, than the knowledge gleaned in a number of the academic courses I took.

That said, I might add that - from time to time - it's handy to know how to perform the French drop, too.

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