Skip the grades, just play the tape

May 23, 2001|By Stephanie Desmon | Stephanie Desmon,SUN STAFF

The students could barely sit in their seats. This was it, what they'd been waiting for since they arrived at Annapolis High School and the rumor picked up steam, the rumor about their teacher, the one who teaches Dickens and poetry and makes them sing when they are late for class.

"This is something we've all been looking forward to since freshman year," senior Katie Gorum said as she waited for the show to start yesterday afternoon. "Graduation is just a list of names. This is important."

"It's the only reason I took [advanced placement] English," said Mollie Devlin.

So English teacher Diana Peckham gave a quick introduction and pressed "play" on the VCR at the front of her classroom. Soon, the students were transported back to Dec. 22, 1979, the night the late oddball comedian Andy Kaufman followed through on his challenge to wrestle, on "Saturday Night Live," any willing woman in America.

The woman who took the challenge - one of many fed up with Kaufman's disparaging remarks about women in what was the heyday of the feminist movement - was a 26-year-old physical education teacher from Boston. The woman who is now their teacher, a married mother of three, a bespectacled, slightly graying, seemingly straight-laced Diana Peckham.

"This is your long-awaited moment," she told the students, who first met her when they took her ninth-grade English course or when they took journalism or maybe just this year. "This happened many years ago, when I was younger, a few pounds lighter."

A viewing of the worn tape has long been held out as a reward for those of her students who make it to graduation (which is Friday).

Peckham doesn't really know how the tradition started, but she figures yesterday was probably the 10th time she has shown the tape to a group of her students. She didn't even have a copy of it until "1989 or 1990," she said, when her brother ran into an old college friend who worked at NBC and tracked down the episode for her.

"Nobody owned VCRs back then," Peckham told the teens, none of whom was born before the night of her big match. "They didn't exist for most people."

On Saturday, Nov. 17, that year, Kaufman - with some choice words of provocation - issued his challenge, with the bonus of $1,000 should he be pinned by his female opponent.

Known for his offbeat characters, including Latka on the sitcom "Taxi," Kaufman had started this wrestling schtick a few months earlier.

He declared himself the Inter-Gender Wrestling Champion - and would compete only against members of what he considered the weaker sex. He didn't want to lose, after all.

This is what he considered funny. This is the same man who stood onstage years earlier accompanied by a record player, lip-syncing the refrain from the "Mighty Mouse" cartoon theme song; who took the audience at a Carnegie Hall performance out for milk and cookies afterward; who got into a profanity-laden shouting match with a real wrestler of the era, Jerry Lawler, on "Late Night with David Letterman"; who some still believe is alive 17 years after his death - the ultimate joke.

Diana Peckham was watching that November night with friends in Massachusetts. She knew wrestling. Her grandfather - Alex "Iron Legs" Peckham - had wrestled for a world championship in the 1920s at Madison Square Garden (and later, at the age of 73, rode his bicycle solo from Los Angeles to Boston).

Her father, James, wrestled in the 1956 Olympics and coached the Olympic team in 1972 and 1976. Her brother was a high school All-American wrestler.

"They said, `Oh, you can beat him,'" she recalled.

So she wrote a letter - as did 1,500 others - and soon got a phone call from Kaufman, who wasn't playing the crazed wrestler character that day and instead seemed rather sweet and meek. He said he would pay her way to New York.

If she beat three other women in a preliminary round, she could be on the show. She conquered a construction worker from Iowa, a police officer from Milwaukee and a woman who worked the cosmetics counter in a Texas department store, she said.

She figured the whole match was on the up-and-up - she was even told there would be a referee (who turned out to be Kaufman's manager). All she had to do was pin Kaufman in three minutes and she would get the money. The lithe six-footer took it quite seriously, even if it was meant as a joke played out on national television.

"I didn't win," she said. "I got my 15 minutes of fame, though."

She had no idea of the attention she would receive, and wasn't sure anyone would even be watching: "I got two marriage proposals out of it. I got a job offer from the FBI. It was pretty bizarre. Everyone in New England was watching this."

The emcee, a longtime wrestler, tried to convince her she could have a career in the business. "He wanted me to give up teaching and go into wrestling," she said. "I don't think so."

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