If you could have one superpower what would you choose? The answers are as hackneyed as the question: I want to fly for the freedom; I’ll take strength for the invincibility; give me invisibility for the peeping. Fair enough, but I think I’d go for the power to understand people’s true motives.
Since getting kicked off the smart kids’ track in the seventh grade teachers treated me in one of several prescribed ways. There were the sympathizers — usually men, presumably shit stirrers in their day. These guys pulled me aside occasionally and gave me the “boys will be boys but keep your nose clean” pep talk. Then there were the Strother Martins who were hell-bent on having their authority respected. They seemed to approach teaching the mediocre as sort of maintaining a holding pattern until we were old enough to dig ditches. Of course there were a couple of superheroes, too — those truly committed souls who saw teaching as a calling and an underachieving smart kid as a holy mission.
Mostly, though, I was simply ignored, left alone to read, draw, and sleep. As long as I could pull a “C” on test day nobody cared, and when I flunked they cared even less. And so I drifted from classroom to classroom day after day, another face in the crowd, another piece of meat to push through the grinder.
Each afternoon between fourth and fifth periods I walked past Mr. Poteat’s classroom. There was nothing spectacular about Mr. Poteat or his classroom, nothing upon which I can anchor much of a visual memory. He was an average man of average height with a middle-aged average haircut, and he taught general science to average kids. In my mind’s eye he looks like a bit like a mid-seventies paper doll. Every day between classes I walked past his classroom, where he stood by his door and watched the livestock saunter past with their Pee Chee folders and their Trapper Keepers. He’d give me the grown-up smile and nod, throw in the occasional “go on now, let’s get to class” gesture. I in turn acknowledged him somehow, maybe with a smirk, maybe by completely ignoring him.
And then he started calling me by name: “Hey, Jim, let’s get to class. Hey, Jim, how we doing today? All right now, Jim….” What made the whole scene even more awkward was that he wasn’t one of my teachers. I was simply walking between points A and B at a predetermined time each day. Why couldn’t the dude just let me be?
I don’t know, but he wouldn’t. Every day I was assaulted by his smile and his pleasantries until eventually I caved and replied, “Hey, Mr. Poteat.” This must be what it’s like to domesticate a wild dog. Back and forth day after day with the meaningless salutations, throwing the scraps closer and closer to the campfire, until finally one afternoon he motioned me over. I battled my way through the pack of mullets and mall bangs. “Hey, Mr. Poteat,” I said.
He leaned forward. “You can call me Cal, just not in front of the other kids.”
“Oh, okay. Thanks.”
“Hey, Jim, you like music don’t you? You work out at the record store, right?”
“Yeah, I like music.”
“I used to rock out, you know.”
“Hell yeah. I wasn’t always a teacher. I’m younger than you think, son.”
Cal’s eyes darted left and right like he was palming a bag of weed. “Here, check this out,” he said, and handed me an unmarked, yellow 8-track tape. “Bring it back when you’re done with it. Don’t tell the other kids I lent this to you.”
“Cool, thanks, Cal.”
The first thing I did that afternoon was head down to the make-out basement and shove the 8-track into my parents’ dusty stereo. There was no mistaking that opening riff. Heavy, scary. “War Pigs.” Cal slipped me his copy of Black Sabbath’s Paranoid.
Popular music always has existed on a sort of spectrum with what is socially acceptable bunching up in the middle. Back in 1984 Journey represented the median, or maybe Def Leppard. Both bands had hooks and poster boys, but they also had shit-hot guitarists — a perfect line right down the middle. Move to the right of that line and the music gets sunnier and sunnier until one is burning in the rays of Amy Grant, or maybe that stinging is just the holy water. Move to the left of that line and the music grows darker and darker. The last stop before falling off the end of that spectrum and into the fiery abyss was Black Sabbath. What the hell was Cal trying to tell me?
I can’t posture here and claim that I was always a Sabbath fan. I knew the big songs, obviously, and I owned Never Say Die!, their most reviled album. In my Guys In Black Tee Shirts Who Jam days I often spun my sister’s boyfriend’s copies of Technical Ecstasy, Sabotage, and Sabbath Bloody Sabbath. But honestly Black Sabbath scared the shit out of me.
It wasn’t so much their music as it was the guys who embraced them, and the zeal with which they embraced them. Liking Sabbath was an all-encompassing lifestyle that involved doing as little with one’s life as possible. The Sabbath dudes made my study habits look Ivy League. They weren’t above telling a teacher to fuck off because they knew the teachers were too scared of them to react beyond a quickly muttered “quietin’ down now.”
When I was in the seventh grade I broke my wrist in a skateboard accident. One afternoon a Sabbath dude, an eighth-grader and obviously drunk, grabbed my plaster cast, pointed to the back of my hand and said, “next time you go to the doctor have him put a row of nails along here. That’ll fuck somebody up.” And then he stumbled off. Many years later he killed himself, but that’s another story.
Sabbath dudes were scary, and apparently they had horrible cases of glaucoma and back pain. The green cloud was always heaviest around the Sabbath dudes. They were the guys who were always trying to conjure Satan, which of course sounds silly but in the middle of the Bible Belt that was a pretty antisocial statement. They weren’t even into girls — just getting high and conjuring Satan.
And so I sat and listened and tried to figure out why the hell Cal passed me his copy of Paranoid. I approached the problem much in the same way that I approached a mix tape: She must be trying to tell me something. Does she think I’m a karma chameleon? What does that mean? There was some hidden message here, some reason that Average Man plucked me out of the crowd and shared with me his teenaged obsession.
Maybe he was some sort of weird, dark priest in his off hours, running around in the woods naked but for his cloak and his salad bowl helmet with deer horns bolted to it. Was he feeling me out for a place in his coven, where he would sodomize me and make me sacrifice babies?
Maybe he didn’t know what he slipped me. The tape had no label, after all. Maybe he thought he gave me his Best Of Bread to show me that he can get down like the kids. Yes, I’d hear David Gates singing “Baby I’m A Want You” and — shoot, another road leading to buggery.
Okay, obviously I was overreacting. Surely he just wanted me to groove on the tunes. “Paranoid,” “Hand Of Doom,” “Fairies Wear Boots.”
I listened to Paranoid obsessively for a couple of weeks, trying to reveal its hidden meaning. In retrospect, he was probably just another adult subtly telling me that the world needs ditch diggers, too. Or maybe he was a young teacher who missed being a Guy In Black Tee Shirt Who Jams. I really don’t know, but I wish I did. Provided statutory rape wasn’t on the menu it was really a very kind gesture.
Other than that one suicide, I don’t know what happened to the Black Sabbath dudes. My guess is that when they throw on Paranoid now they relive all of that dope smoking and paint huffing and Satan worshiping, and for the thirty minutes or so that it takes to rock all eight tracks they’re not middle-aged fathers with minivans and mortgages.
But not me. I might be the only person on the planet who hears “Rat Salad” and flashes on a kind face, a bit nondescript but earnest, trying to connect with a kid who was having a hard time. And for the eighty-fourth time, my friends, that is why it matters.