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Log Cabin Chronicles

The Lemming Effect
(a work in progress)



Michael was twenty-five when he started. His first (accurate) impression was that this was a jock school. Sure, academics were touted as first priority, but sports were compulsory every afternoon. Classes were forsaken for games; homework was forsaken for practice; it was never the other way around. Everybody had to try to make a team, and games started in the first week of each term. By contrast, the one school play was cast in September and staged in March.

Michael didn't like what he saw, but he decided to bide his time, to absorb the lay of the land, and then -- and only then -- to get out the bulldozer.

He was assigned to coach the youngest boys soccer team -- a bunch of 13-year-olds who, by and large, chose soccer because they were afraid of full contact football. Michael had little success at this first venture, and after a season that boasted no wins, eight losses and a single, miraculous tie, he was told that his coaching had not been a success. This he realised was true, but damnit, he thought, he might have got a little credit for having kept the morale of the boys something above suicidal.

For the rest of the year, he taught his English classes averagely well and his drama classes very well; he helped with the six-month uninspired production of some hackneyed Broadway musical and tried to develop a strategy to get some real theatre happening. This was all "good stuff" he thought, because theatre should grow out of the barest of things. By the end of the year, he had heard over and over again in Morning Assembly that this team or that team had won again, that this player or that player had been named MVP, whatever that was; he never heard of a loss or even a tie -- only the winners got bragging rights.

At the beginning of the second year, with a tight little comedy planned for production in mid-November, he was approached by the second most powerful man in the school after the Headmaster -- the Director of Athletics. Very nicely, with no reference to his last year's coaching record, he was told that, as he was directing this play, he would not have time to coach a competitive team -- that he would be helping out with...


"But directing the play will take me a minimum of two extra hours seven days a week..."


"But I won't have time for that..."


It was a long word for a bunch of losers. It was semi-athletic baby-sitting; Michael's coaching record had not been forgotten.

Now the intramural field was the smallest field. Measuring about 75% of a regulation soccer field, it was placed immediately in front of the main school, and overlooked the manicured green of the impressively named Varsity Field below. From their ironically superior point of view, the overweight, the unfit, the overindulged and the inept could watch the real athletes -- the real men -- as they practiced their Football. Worse, each day before practice these real men would gather near the locker room and then run down to the Varsity Field -- right past the intramural field -- and they would clap their hands as each left foot touched down. Sometimes they would sing a marching song stolen from some GI film. It was very impressive, this bonding, and as they passed the top field, they would not even glance at the overweight, the unfit, the overindulged and the inept. They wouldn't look, but they would run a bit taller and grunt a bit louder, so the watchers knew that the Footballers knew that they were being watched.

If this preening had been confined to the playing field -- where arguably it was merited -- it would have been survivable. But no, this was a jock school. The Varsity players strutted in the hallways, they butted in on the lunch lines, they demanded extensions for late homework and they got them. They called the top student in the senior class "Brains" and the best musician "Fruity Flutie"and the lead actor in the play "Pseudo Psam" (it was Brains who said that Psam should be spelled with a silent "P"), and they called themselves "Boulder" and "Wall" and "Truck" and "Deke". And the teachers did too because this was a jock school.

The first week of intramural babysitting was less than inspiring. Michael would call the players together, divide them randomly and drop a ball. Thereafter, the overweight, the unfit, the overindulged and the inept would stand around idly and wave a foot at the ball if ever it came near. Oh yes, there were some who actually moved around from time to time and even appeared to make an effort, but this was rare. To Michael, the daily hour allotted to this was interminable.

He did not entirely blame the students. They knew that the school held dear something that they found superfluous, tedious and too much like hard work. But they had known this before they enrolled. In that first week, he urged them -- since many were also his best drama students -- to act as if they were real soccer players -- to think of Stanislovski and to practice The Method, and this had worked for a while -- for about half an hour, until they were tired out. He needed a new way to develop enthusiasm -- a new way to make the time go faster. He needed a strategy.

At the first meeting of the second week, he addressed his troops on the top field. "Let's get one thing straight from the start: you are all losers." There was a stunned silence as the reluctant athletes shifted and cringed under this bald truth. "You knew that sports were important when you came to this school; you tried to make a team and you were cut. You're all losers!" He repeated.

Just then, clapping and grunting, in impressive single file, chests puffed, shoulders huge, thighs padded, helmets high, the Football Team thundered by. Michael's deflated losers -- now more deflated because he had told them what they were -- slouched lower as they watched the "winners" power past.

"Well, I'm a loser too," they all turned to look at Michael. "I was cut just as you have been cut. I've been sent to intramurals, just as you've been sent to intramurals. So the first thing to do is to admit it. The second thing to do is to be proud of it."

On the Varsity Field below, the Footballers had formed into straight lines -- six deep and six across, a square of precision. They all faced the same way where the three captains stood facing them. At a shout they were on their bellies counting out their push-ups: "...twenty-three, twenty-four, twenty-five..." then on their feet and applauding themselves before the next calisthenic exercise -- Jumping Jacks, lots of them, more counting, "...seventy-three, seventy-four, seventy-five..." more clapping. And on it went.

Michael snapped his gaze from this display and sprang into action. "Straight lines, I want straight lines, not there -- on the slope where they can see you. Yes them. Yes, where they can see you. Come on, hurry up. All right, now listen to me. Anyone can do a push-up -- all you're doing is pushing the world away from you. On your backs NOW!" Completely confused, the overweight, the unfit, the overindulged and the inept fell on their backs. "It's a lot harder," went on the now-inspired coach, "to push half the whole universe away. So, PUSH-DOWNS, ten of them and count." Forty-two arms pushed up as twenty-one voices shouted up to ten. Then they leapt to their feet clapping vigorously. "Now, Jumping Jack. One of them. Ready" And all together they shouted "ONE" as they jumped a Jack. And they applauded.

Michael split the group in two, sent half to one end and half to the other, held the ball for a moment to keep everyone's attention, and said, "Remember, you're all losers, So get out there and lose."

He dropped the ball and watched. For a moment, absolutely nothing happened. Then suddenly, as if by divine intervention, there was an explosion of activity and each side did everything it could to score on itself and to prevent its opposition from doing the same.

The hour flew by.

On the way off the field, Fruity Flutie sauntered up beside Michael and said, "That was fun, but the Football team didn't see us..."

"They will," said Brains. "By tomorrow, they will."

And they did.

They were not happy about what they saw. In the dinner line, Wall and Truck decided that they would put an end to this behaviour. They towered over several of the overweight, the unfit, the overindulged and the inept and said, "What do you losers think you're doing up there?"

It was Greblog who spoke for the group. "Nothing. We know we're losers, we admit we're losers, we're just trying to emulate you -- I guess we're not much good at it yet... but, hey! we're losers..."

"And damn proud of it!" added Gangle -- the one person in the school over whom no one towered.

"Proud of it?" blustered Wall. "God, you guys are such..." he searched for a word, "...losers!"

"That's us!" smiled the group of the overweight, the unfit, the overindulged and the not quite so inept.

By the end of the week, Michael had decided that the "team" needed a name. As the school was in the metropolis of Leamington, he thought that the "Leamington Lemmings" had a good ring. After all, naming a bunch of losers after little furry creatures with a penchant for self-destruction seemed nothing if not appropriate.

So it was that the Leamington losers became the Leamington Lemmings. They liked it. They demanded a cheer -- every team has a cheer, 'You know, sir, to psych up the players and out the opposition."

Almost immediately, the chant was created:

    Up the river, down the stream,
    Cruise, cruise, cruise...
    Leamington Lemmings,
    Lose, lose, lose...
This was practiced and practiced and used at every opportunity.

By the middle of the third week, the novelty was wearing thin. Pseudo Psam decided that the Lemmings had to play a real team -- nothing too strenuous -- maybe the youngest girls team. The challenge went out and the Lemmings did their worst, but failed to lose.

"Do we get to make an announcement in Assembly?" asked Greblog.

"You don't get it, do you?" snapped Brains. "Losers never make announcements..."

"But we won..."

"Exactly, and there's the rub," said Pseudo Psam.

"Not to worry," proclaimed Brains. "We just have to play someone better..."

But the youngest boys team also proved to be better at losing, as did the middle girls and middle boys. After four games, the Lemmings were wondering just what they had to do to end this streak and put together a loss.

They challenged the Senior Girls and, although it looked for a while as if their day had come, once again, the Lemmings went down to victory. Things were desperate. The Senior Boys Soccer team was too busy to waste an afternoon doing these "would-be losers" a favour, and it began to look as though, horror of all horrors, the Lemmings might be utter and absolute failures with an undefeated season.

It was about then that Time magazine published an article which argued that North American Football was a grandiose, public, homosexual ritual. It was a good article, with its tongue lodged firmly in its cheek. It described the uniform as one that accentuates the ideal male -- extra broad shoulders, bulked up thighs, tight little buttocks and a very hard head. The positions of the game were examined -- there was the Tight End, the Extra Tight End, the Slot Back and there was the Quarterback -- the team leader -- who was delivered the ball from between the legs of the subservient player at Centre. And then the language -- in what other sport does the victorious player "score in the opponent's end-zone?" And whenever something good happens, there's the butt-slapping congratulations...

This was all too much for the Lemmings. They knew that they were the overweight, the unfit, the overindulged and the inept, but it never had occurred to them that those "real men" on the field below might all be in denial! The Time article was xeroxed; copies were circulated and posted on notice boards -- everywhere there was the offer for free counselling to be administered from the sensitive ones, those who knew how to deal with adversity, with being the overweight, the unfit, the overindulged and the inept -- if they could deal with that, then they could deal with anything.

Yes, the Lemmings were there to help.

But Boulder and Wall and Truck and Deke did not want the help; they had no need for the help; in fact, they were not amused. They thought that if the Lemmings wanted so much to lose, they should come and play football -- on the Varsity Field -- in full equipment. Such a suggestion brought tight smiles to Lemming faces and sheer terror to their hearts. They considered a counter challenge of a competitive walk in the woods, but, if truth be known, they were not keen to risk being with these opponents unless they were in plain view of somebody in authority.

Now the second most powerful man in the school doubled as the Head Coach of the Football team, and in both capacities, he intervened. He had not spoken kindly to Michael since the notices offering counselling had gone up, and Michael had started to wonder if the article had cut closer to the bone than he would have thought. Could he be in denial too? Naw!

Still, the second-most-powerful-et-cetera explained that, to avoid the imminent slaughter of the overweight, the unfit, the overindulged and the inept, he had set up a REAL GAME with ANOTHER school. This would be a game with a real, paid referee, and there would be uniforms and possibly even spectators. Michael tried his best to dissuade the man, but his mind was made up -- the intramurals had never had so much spirit.

The day of the game arrived and it was a crackling fall day: crisp blue sky, fiery autumn colours, a fresh October bite in the air. It was a day that belied the shame of the contest that would follow. Michael looked out at his players on the field -- they were using the middle girls field -- and he wondered what would happen. On the one hand, he knew that the players would not be terribly upset if they lost; on the other hand, he was worried that they would embarrass the school and even themselves.

He needn't have worried about the latter.

He called them over for a pre-game speech. "Look, you guys..."

"Lemmings, sir, we're Lemmings..."

"Right. Look here, you Lemmings, you know all that stuff about getting out there and losing. Well... I don't mean it... I want you to win."

"Yeah, right, sir." " Sure you do!" "We wouldn't know how to win." "Nice joke, sir." "What about the cheer?"

    Up the river, down the stream,
    Cruise, cruise, cruise...
    Leamington Lemmings,
    Lose, lose, lose...
The whistle blew and the game began. Brains kicked off with a mighty swoop, grazed the ball which dribbled slowly toward Greblog. Very quickly, the opposing Inside Forward nipped in, took the ball, chipped it to his Left Wing who was speeding down the line; a cross to centre and a header into the net. Michael's knees softened and sweat clammed between his fingers, but before he could worry, Pseudo Psam rushed up to the goal-scorer, took his hand, shook it, and said, "Well done, beautiful header, thank you very much. I trust there are more where that came from."

There were.

In fact there were seven more, and after each one, the example set by Psam on the first was followed with increasing enthusiasm by the other Lemmings. Well, for six of them anyway: the seventh was actually scored by one of the Lemmings on his own goal and this was universally considered poor form.

Early in the second half, Michael, always shouting loud encouragement from the sideline, turned to see Gangle standing beside him -- Gangle, the 6'5", 10-pound, 16-year-old -- Gangle, whose growth had undermined his co-ordination so that he could not run without falling over -- Gangle, who was supposed to be in goal trying to keep the damn ball out!

"What the hell are you doing here?" barked Michael.

"I want to try a penalty shot..."

"You're the goalie, and they've got to foul. I can't arrange that!"

"No," Gangle said. "I want to try to stop one. Can you tell someone to pick up the ball in the penalty area?"

"Get back there... NOW!"

The referee kept looking over as if to say he was sorry that it was such a mismatch -- as if it were his fault -- and in the end, he blew the contest dead with eight minutes still to play.

The opposing team rushed into a huddle of exuberant self-congratulation, only to be surrounded and hugged by the equally exuberant Lemmings. They turned and lifted their coach -- their inspiration -- onto their shoulders. "We did it... we finally did it..." they shouted. "We were so afraid we'd blow it, that we'd mount a comeback... but we didn't! You gotta admit, we had discipline out there..."

Michael slipped to the gound as the opposing coach came over. "What's going on?"

For the first time since the start of the game, Michael looked him in the eye. "Long story," he said. "Can I buy you a beer?"

"Just one?" said the bewildered coach.

The next day in Morning Assembly, Brains made the following announcement:

"It is with great satisfaction that I stand before you to announce that there is one team here at school that has already achieved the goal it set for itself. Yesterday the Leamington Lemmings, who are proud to be the laughing stock of this institution, performed down to the standards to which they aspire, standards which had heretofore eluded them. I ask the players of this unusual team to slouch to their feet, and now to receive the derision we so richly deserve..."

And so the overweight, the unfit, the overindulged and the inept slouched up, and beamed white-toothed satisfaction in the face of confused applause.

On the way out of Assembly, the second most powerful man in the school sidled up to Michael, put his arm around his shoulder and said, "I know that intramurals have never had so much spirit. But I think you should stick to the plays -- when it comes to sports, you just don't get it..." and he slapped Michael on the butt.

Lewis Evans writes in Lennoxville, Quebec.

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Copyright © 1998 Lewis Evans/Log Cabin Chronicles/3.98