The Truth, Mainly - 01/16/1995

Don't let it out, but even even English teachers go Big Red
by Leon Satterfield

It's been two weeks now and I'm still trying to come to grips with my New Year's metamorphosis. I'll tell you about it if you promise not to say anything to the National Association of Teachers of English (NATE).

It begins after dinner when I pour glasses of sherry.

"Tonight, m'love," I tell my wife, "rather than watching Masterpiece Theatre as is our wont, I'm going to tune in the telly to a football game. I thought it might be amusing to watch the fanatics."

"Football?" she says. "But what about your English teacher vows?"

She means the vows of poverty and abstinence we have to take before we can join NATE. They're secret vows, so if you're not already a NATE member, you must skip over the next two paragraphs.

"We hereby vow," we all say in unison at the annual meetings, "never to make enough money to live beyond shabby gentility, and always to abstain from an interest in football except for purposes of cheap sarcasm."

We also swear to read Paradise Lost while we wait for haircuts. When the barber says "So how about them Huskers?" we're to look over our reading glasses and say "Pardon?"

So I know how I'm supposed to respond to the Orange Bowl. I'm supposed to ridicule the commentators, guffaw at the maudlin tears of the losers, snort at the animal joy of the winners, and make gagging noises during post-game interviews.

Throughout the first half, I do my duty as cynic-in-residence. But I've done it too many times against teams from Florida, and I take little pleasure in it. At halftime I brood darkly on the predictability of the outcome.

Then in the third quarter, something odd happens: An alien spirit possesses my body.

"Sack that sumbitch!" I hear someone say in a stage whisper. The voice is clearly male, and at first I suspect Ned, the one-eyed beagle with the headstrong personality and the mismatched jaws, but he never uses "sumbitch" except as a compliment. He and I are the only males in the room.

"Did you say 'Sack that sumbitch'?" my wife asks.

"Why I believe I did," I say, "but I must have meant it in the non-pejorative sense."

She rolls her eyes, and a play later it comes out of my mouth again. Louder. My scrawny shoulders hunch involuntarily and my skinny right leg snaps ten inches above its resting place on the recliner.

The sackee of the request is a Mr. Costa, the Miami quarterback who throws ridiculously long and accurate passes. For all I know, Mr. Costa is a student of delicate sensibility, a lover of Chaucer, a devotee of the Metaphysical Poets, an imbiber of New England Transcendentalism. Yet I have just cast aspersions on his parentage. I wonder if I'm running a fever.

And a few plays later, it happens again.

"Block that big bastard!" I yell, the alliteration coming trippingly off my tongue. Again my shoulders hunch, my right leg rises. This time, I refer to a Mr. Sapp who plays Left Defensive Tornado for the Hurricanes.

"Are you still in the non-pejorative mode?" my wife asks.

"Quite so," I say.

"Oh, good," she says. "'Bastard' is such an ugly word when it's used pejoratively. But how can you call someone a bastard without pejoration?"

"Normally you can't," I say, feeling rationality slipping away. "But this is a special case. It's for the national championship. Another sherry?"

I know no more about Mr. Sapp's parentage or intellectual life than I know about Mr. Costa's. He may well be intimate with Shakespeare's sonnets and devoted to post- modern critical theory. He acts as though he might be into Deconstruction, but at this point in the game, I don't care about his parentage or intellectual life. I begin to suspect that something is happening inside my head that NATE would not approve of.

By the fourth quarter, it's no longer a suspicion. It's a certainty. I go out of control. I go crazy. I go Big Red.

When Mr. Schlesinger runs for his first touchdown, I give a primal scream and thrust my fist high, thereby spilling sherry on my head. When he runs for his second, my mouth opens and from somewhere south of my appendix comes a Great Orgasmic Shriek that frightens horses as far north as Ceresco. My wife yips, Ned bays, and outside in the streets, cars honk.

And ever the English teacher, I find a lesson in the cacophony: I know now the exultant and celebratory sound of Walt Whitman's "barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world." And along with the rest of the state, I yawp.

Now, two weeks later, I think my fever has about dissipated—and just in time for me to regain my cheap sarcasm before the Super Bowl. If it's cheap enough and sarcastic enough, maybe it will dissuade the NATE loyalists who've been drawing up my dishonorable discharge papers.

But Ned's got to stop insisting we watch those re-runs.


Satterfield is a college professor and writes as a means of discovery.

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