May 13, 2009 / Creative Writing
I watched Rebel Without a Cause on TV late one college night when I learned …
August 26, 2008
I glance at the clock again—I hoped to finish tonight’s stack by nine o’clock. What slows me the most are the head-scratchers: “Wuthering Heights is a very romantic story that shows readers how true love can conquer all obstacles.” Or “The Hobbit is a good book, but reading is not what I prefer to do.”
I do some neck stretches and rub the pencil-smeared edge of my hand on the sweater I wear for marking, a loose-fitting fleece with moose and teepees on it. During marking binge weeks, I alternate this sweater with an oversized blue fleece festooned with grazing sheep. I like the company of these animals while I work—patient species, both.
When I finish each log, I fill out a rubric, an elaborate evaluation chart created for the assignment. The rubric supplies the students with feedback on content and style, but I can’t shake the article I read many years ago about the need to be warm and personal in one’s response to student work. So I write my reactions underneath the rubric chart: “Great improvement, Amber. I liked your comments on the fantasy books you chose.” I wonder how many hours that article has cost me.
Rubrics are relatively new to me—marking methods, like footwear fashions, seem to shift with each season. It doesn’t matter. Holistic marks, writing scales, assessments, evaluations, benchmarks, cumulative marks, summative marks, I can do them all. I can mark with the best of them.
But who are the best of them? Is anyone renowned for his or her marking skills? Retirement speeches for teachers acknowledge thoughtful lessons, rapport with students, energy for extracurricular activities, even diligent attendance. But no one mentions marking.
As a student, if I thought about my teachers’ marking, I saw their skills in broad categories only—hard or easy, fast or slow. I never pictured the teachers doing the marking.
And now I am the one behind that invisible, slow and thankless work. Page by page, I pencil in corrections and print suggestions in the margins. On the sloppier assignments, I suspect that I put in more time than the student.
Is this my calling? I wonder. I like teaching: planning lessons, interacting with students. But the marking—is it part of the vocation too?
At home, after supper last night, my husband read the story of Moses and the Amalekites, where God tells Moses to hold his arms up during the battle, and as long as his hands are raised, the Israelite soldiers prevail.
“Well. That’s a tough gig,” I said at the end. “Moses just holds up his arms—with two men to prop them up when he’s tired—and everything gets done, and everything goes well.”
I hoisted my arms to try it while my daughters watched me warily from across the dinner table—they know my post-marking mood. “I want that job.”
“Yes, but it’s only good if you’re Moses,” said my husband. “If you’re an Israelite soldier in hand-to-hand combat with one of the Amalekites, and Moses’s arm starts falling down, that’s not so easy, is it?”
I shut up. I had never thought about that, the plight of the ordinary foot soldiers in the story, toiling on, hoping desperately that the arms would remain in the air.
The problem is that I balk at the idea of being a foot soldier. I like fulfillment and ease, meaningful labor and contented leisure. And if I can’t have that, I’d prefer heroic experiences, events with epic danger and epic outcomes, drama where I play the central character. Not the struggles of the ordinary, not the questionable worth and the tedium of marking, improving the world one apostrophe at a time.
I remind myself that I get paid for this. Other work is tedious and thankless, or worse. Every day I walk past the building project next to my school. In Canadian winter weather, the men haul equipment, pound nails, use the unheated Johnny-on-the-spots. In the supermarket, the clerk swipes toilet paper and bananas across the code scanner, her
mind cluttered with produce codes and bulk food bin numbers.
I complain to my friend that I’m in marking hell. “Everybody has a part of their job that they don’t like,” she says. “His or her job,” I think. I picture myself writing “Pronoun-Antecedent error.”
This is what happens during binge marking. I edit everything. “You can hand your completed forms in to myself,” announces a teacher in morning assembly. “To me,” I silently correct. “Objective pronoun, not reflexive.” I despise my nit-picking, but I can’t turn off the editing function in my brain.
My colleagues are also tackling towers of marking. Stress level in our office is high; sometimes there are tears. The colleague in the desk beside me stayed up past three in the morning a few days ago to mark final projects on The Tempest. My department head has been throwing out her egg-salad sandwiches and eating chocolate instead for lunch—maybe it helps.
Whether we welcome or resent intrusions, we have begun to measure time by marking. A conversation with a colleague on my way for fresh coffee—half an essay I could have finished. A phone call to a parent—an entire essay. The student who keeps me waiting in the library where we agreed to meet for extra help—at least two essays.
If I mark late into the evening, I often have trouble sleeping. Then I watch the clock and vacillate between getting up and marking and staying in bed and trying for more sleep. Could have done three essays, I think. Eventually I drift off. I dream troubled dreams.
I know a teacher who placed her midterm exams on the top of her car so she could rummage for her keys in her tote bag. Then she drove home, the exams still on the roof. The January wind flung them across the roads and fields and parking lots. Another teacher confessed at a barbeque one August that she had stashed her class’s final exams in a box in her garage, unread, unmarked.
If only I didn’t care. If only I could skim a few paragraphs, write a breezy comment, casually assign a mark. If I didn’t spend so much time deliberating.
I blame my scruples on a fifteen-minute exercise that one of my professors conducted when I was in Teachers’ College. She asked us—all beginning teachers from a wide range of disciplines—to write down something we thought about our individual writing skills or writing style. Then she asked for volunteers to read their statements. Out poured a waterfall of self-criticism: I’m a horrible writer. My writing is really wordy. My writing is clear to me, but when other people read it, they get confused.
“How did you learn these things about your writing?” asked the professor. In most cases the answer was, “A teacher told me.”
I think I’ve always known about the power of a teacher’s pen.
In my first year of teaching, I itched to write a swear word in the margin of a student’s paper, not in reaction to any particular student or what he or she wrote, but as a sidebar, a quiet little fuck sitting inexplicably in the margin. Anxiety triggered the impulse, I think—the same kind of anxiety that triggers laughter at a funeral, a response to the enormity of the situation, the need for propriety and reverence. And as a beginning teacher, I felt the weight of the responsibility and wanted out.
But I’m still at it, and, on the days when the waiting stack of papers looks manageable, I can view the marking less as a burden and more as a service. Maybe even a calling, albeit a humble one.
Most of the written interaction between my students and me serves practical, concrete ends—the mastery of the mundane skills of communication. Yet, always, there is the fact that the students entrust me with their thoughts on paper. As I plod through, bits of themselves, unique and irreducible selves, make it into the assignments. When circumstances are right—when the students have enough skill and enough confidence, when they trust me, when the assignment allows it—they write from the heart and then their voices sing on paper. Whenever their personalities creep into the writing, even if just for a moment, something sparkles on the page. Even the student bloopers, so welcome for the diversion they provide, can shed light. A student, years ago, described Macon in The Accidental Tourist as having “low self of steam.” Ever since, I’ve pictured self-esteem as transparent and gaseous, prone to disappear, to dissipate into the infinite air mass surrounding it.
Sometimes, when an assignment allows for cracks in the artificial landscape of the classroom, the students use the writing skills they’ve learned to tell me things that really matter—through a poem, for example, whose images seep with loneliness and despair. Or in a persuasive essay on an issue that spurs them to passion.
About ten years ago, a clean-cut and conscientious student in my grade twelve English class, a boy who had blended quietly into the classroom walls all semester, handed in a personal essay as his final assignment. Then, out of character, he hounded me in class: “Have you read it yet?” After the third request, I thumbed through my stack of unmarked work at lunch time to find his.
There, in quiet, double-spaced type was the story of his addiction to heroin. Something about the way he wrote suggested aching pauses between thoughts. The final sentence read, “Always, in the back of my mind, I think of having just one more shot of heroin.”
Nine fifteen in the evening. I missed my quota, and I’ll have to catch up tomorrow. I rearrange the stacks, clutching for some sense of accomplishment as I put aside the essays I have completed. It eludes me, and instead I stand and shake my arms and legs, an attempt to shake away the lingering doubts, the tension and the weariness.
I’m living in the shadow of Adam. “Cursed is the ground because of you,” God told him. “Through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life.”
I sink myself into the soil of my students’ work. A hired hand, a drudge to perfection, I labor to improve their thinking skills, their word choice, their sentence structure, their punctuation. I strive to respond sensitively and helpfully. The task is arduous. It has no clear end.
So I grumble and fret my way through the stacks. I try to celebrate improvements. I look for successes. Each year I add a few students to my prayer list.
Always, during marking binge weeks, I reconsider my career.
By ten, I’m at a pub. The lead singer is crooning, “Crimson and clover, over and over”—lyrics nonsensical enough to escape my judgment. My husband is playing keyboards, and I sit side-stage in a daze on a stool. A young woman keeps bumping into me as she dances with her elbows out. She wears a purple poncho and a striped toque with a pompom. Her dance is joyful, uninhibited, free.
I have to go pee but the pub is Irish, and the bathrooms are labeled Mna and Fir. I’m pretty sure that Mna means women, but I’m not positive, and it seems like the kind of mistake an English teacher shouldn’t make.
A stranger with dreadlocks asks me to dance. I am surprised. Though I showered and changed between marking and going out, I still feel like the me with unwashed hair, dressed in the baggy moose-teepee fleece.
“Have you been here before?” he asks. I interpret it figuratively. I have been in this limbo between teacher identity and whole-person identity. This place where my head is fogged, where the role limits my being.
“Many times. But I haven’t even figured out the bathrooms.”
Patricia Westerhof has taught English and Creative Writing for twenty-two years in both public and private schools. Her previous publications include a textbook (The Writer's Craft, Harcourt, 2003) and three short stories in a collection entitled Trees Running Backwards. She lives and works in Toronto, Canada.