To Stifle
or
 Take Your Breath Away

by Kathy Coogan


 

“Stifle, Edith,” Archie Bunker was known to say to his brow-beaten, loving wife when she attempted to convert his monologue into a dialogue.  “This weather is stifling,” we say in the Midwest when the temperature reaches ninety and the humidity creeps toward a damp eighty percent. 

Given a multiple choice test, I was certain I would know the definition of the verb, "to stifle."  I assumed that stifling someone or something meant to stop it.  To shut it down.  Archie stops Edith in mid-sentence and hot weather stops us in our tracks.

That is intuitively correct.  But the real definitions are worse, more suggestive of anguish than the mere act of shutting down.  “To kill by preventing respiration; to smother or suffocate.  To repress or suppress.”  Instead of a quick shot, verbal or otherwise, I imagine a slow, painful silencing.  Taking the breath away.  And importantly, if you cannot breathe, you cannot speak.

A memory slips out of my sub-conscious when I least expect or want it.  I am not an Edith Bunker but the discomfort of deep understanding of the verb “to stifle” makes me cringe. I feel akin to Edith in this memory and I want to bury it. With stifling, in my experience, comes humiliation, a good thing perhaps, yielding awareness. 

She was a teacher in college. She had the power to approve or deny a student’s acceptance into a higher level course.  If she didn’t give the okay, you stayed in her class.  If she did, you moved on.  Her single evaluation was based on an essay or original story to be written in class using a picture that she handed each student – a fast-write in effect.  I can still see my picture: the perspective of a  nameless person standing on a cliff looking out to sea at a ship in full sail moving away into the darkness.  We had one hour, now reduced by the ten minutes it took to distribute the assorted pictures with no peeking or choosing.

I remember only one word of that essay.  That word doomed me.  I had heard the word used by another teacher, this one a favorite who tantalized her students with fresh vocabulary and high expectations.  Chiaroscuro.  I admit a pretentious word but I was trying to impress and it perfectly described the contrast of the darkened sea and sky to the white sails illuminated by a sliver of brightness through the clouds: chiaroscuro.  We turned our papers in to wait until next class.  I thought I had knocked the assignment out of the park. 

Two days later, she announced that she would select three papers to read aloud: the best, the worst, and one more.  She read the best.  It was very good and the student who wrote it was obvious to us by her smile though she was never named.  She read the worst.  It was truly terrible but the author merely snickered and tossed his pencil into the air and caught it.  No big deal to him. 

Then she read mine.  Or performed it.  She used cartoon voices, melodramatic gestures, created a caricature of the words on the page. She mispronounced chiaroscuro, not having been interested enough to see if it was a real word, which she bungled as if it were not.  Then she wadded it up and threw it away.

Not one student laughed at her antics, recognizing ridicule, like pornography, when they saw it.  But someone gasped when she tossed it.  I sat “stifled,” unable to breath with the humiliation.  I’m sure my face revealed me as the writer but no one said a word except the writer of the worst piece.  He mumbled, “That poor son of a bitch.”  That was it.  I never spoke to her.  It was a different time.  I was a different person.

I did move on to the higher level class, a surprise to me when my name appeared on the list. Perhaps she recognized her meanness and regretted it and couldn’t face me again.  Perhaps she saw the hostility in the faces of my fellow students directed at her, not at my high-flying language. Perhaps she looked up chiaroscuro:

nounplural chiaroscuros.

1.

the distribution of light and shade in a picture. 

Since then I have faced editors on whose thumbs-up or down, my work has or has not been published.  I have not been stifled by them.  I have learned that stifling can be aborted if you take a step away, take a deep breath, let it out and speak up.  Just like Edith Bunker used to do when she turned to her husband, straightened her shoulders and said in a pitying voice, “Oh Archie.” Ultimately, Edith always won.


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