The Reactionary Utopian
                     December 8, 2005

by Joe Sobran

     Mrs. Hockstad, my seventh-grade English teacher at 
Ypsilanti High School, taught me a lot of rules. If 
you're already picturing a stern, prune-faced old gal 
with greying hair in a bun, it's because the term 
"English teacher" still conjures negative stereotypes. 
She was in fact a very pretty young woman with 
raven-black hair and music in her voice, a recent 
graduate of the University of Michigan in nearby Ann 

     I adored her. She was sweet and cheerful, her 
laughter tinkling as merrily as reindeer bells, with the 
notable exception of the day when the whole class flunked 
a quiz on prepositions. None of us had done our homework, 
and we felt the full blast of her wrath. Have you ever 
seen an angel in fury? Once is enough for a lifetime.

     From then on I was determined never to let her down, 
and I never did. To this day I follow the rules of 
propriety in English usage she taught me, plus any other 
rules that seem to me in her spirit. Her teaching is part 
of my nervous system. I can still see her diagramming 
sentences on the blackboard.

     When I was in college Dr. Potter taught me that the 
old rules weren't really binding; they had more to do 
with etiquette than with grammar, the study of which had 
been revolutionized by Noam Chomsky. To me it all came as 
a shock, like Vatican II telling us we could eat meat on 

     But I loved Dr. Potter too. Since college I have 
rubbed some pretty important elbows -- those of popes, 
presidents, movie stars, grammarians, and other 
celebrities -- but I have never met a man more dignified 
than he was. His poise was equally striking in his looks, 
dress, manners, and speech. But his perfect 
self-possession never made him stuffy; he was also kind 
and witty. To this day I regret not taking his legendary 
Chaucer course.

     The funny thing is that Dr. Potter himself 
meticulously abided by the old rules Mrs. Hockstad had 
promulgated. You could have hired a private detective to 
follow him for months without catching him so much as 
splitting an infinitive.

     One of Mrs. Hockstad's rules was that the verb "to 
be" required a pronoun in the nominative case -- "It is 
I," for example, rather than "It is me." Not that I don't 
slip up at times. After a couple of beers with the guys 
I've been known to say, "It's only me" instead of "It's 
only I," but even then I feel a pang of conscience. I try 
to avoid preciosity; don't get me wrongly. But once 
you've given your heart to Mrs. Hockstad, you're never 
quite the same man again. And thereby hangs a tale.

     The other night I was brooding, as usual, on the 
Shakespeare authorship question, and I remembered the 
famous inscription on the tombstone of the supposed 
author in Stratford upon Avon:

      Good friend, for Jesus' sake forbear
      To dig the dust enclosed here.
      Blest be the man that spares these stones,
      And curst be he that moves my bones.

     Somehow these couplets don't sound much like the 
verse of the man who had recently written Prospero's 
renunciation of magic, I always say, but this time I 
noticed something else: the phrase "curst be he." That's 
the way Mrs. Hockstad taught us. Apparently they'd taught 
the same rule in the Stratford grammar school. "Be" goes 
with "he."

     Then I remembered another famous curse: Macbeth's 
last words:

                                       Lay on, Macduff,
      And damn'd be him that first cries, Hold, enough!

     A thrill ran through me! Why had I never seen it 
before? "Damn'd be =him="! Mrs. Hockstad would have 
insisted on "damn'd be he."

     Macbeth's words had always jarred me a bit, but I'd 
never stopped to reflect on why. I'd more or less assumed 
that a man who would murder Macduff's children wouldn't 
be too scrupulous about using his pronouns in the 
nominative case when appropriate.

     Now, at last, I saw: the Stratford man couldn't have 
written these plays, simply because his grammar was too 
good. Mrs. Hockstad's rule, old-fashioned though it 
might be, had furnished a solution to the mystery of 
Shakespeare's authorship.

     And Mrs. Hockstad, if you're out there, and if these 
words somehow reach you, I want you to know I've never 
stopped loving you.


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