I’m now in my typical weekend perch: a comfortable chair with my lap desk, a stack of papers and an array of colorful fountain pens. I read a story of obsessive love and murder, then another story of obsessive love and murder, then a story about zombies, and another story about zombies. Amid the many predictable plots that tell me more about the repressed feelings of the students than the actual feelings of their characters, I get to read a story about a girl doing something unthinkable in a school library, two Russians who go to a circus but cannot connect with each other because of the brutality that defines everyone in the story. I read about a dad's suffering vaguely inappropriate feelings for his daughter and aimless teens reaching out but not connecting. I read about a dissolving marriage and a parthenogenetically born child, a boy in awe of his religious grandfather, a trip to the beach that forever changes two friends, and two children’s stories with neat and tidy morals at the end. Stories about a gay boy singing and a straight boy dreaming. The stories are for the most part well-written, earnest, often moving. Extraneous description, flat characterization, and general aimlessness no longer fill the pages, so I can see the kids have learned something from their workshops. Though I like to complain to them about having to spend my weekends reading their work, this work is actually lovely to read. Yet somehow I still can’t push through all of it; I cannot keep my eyes open. It’s May, and I know I am tired, but there may be more to this grading wall.
I have yet to grade stacks of reader responses, where the students were asked respond to the comments I had written on a previous essay and to use their understanding of those comments to redo one of the messier sections of the original essay. I also have to grade reader responses, where the students were asked to select what they think is key text from a reading, analyze it (by identifying and explaining the workings of the figurative language), and discuss the text’s relevance to the entire reading. Then for variety’s sake, I have to grade first paragraphs and working theses for upcoming essays. In theory I should be eager to read this work, to see what these kids have learned this year. But my eyelids start to feel heavy. Just as I begin to scan a paper, a beam of sun cracks through the blinds. But I cannot keep my eyes open.
Finger yoga, ear squeezing, toe crunching fail, so I get up to sprinkle water on my face, look in the fridge for something to chew, and quickly settle back into the chair. I pick up another page and start to read. The prose soars across the page, the commas are in place, and I feel an A coming on. I read the next few papers with the same fluency, and I can proudly say I am rolling along. Check marks everywhere, high marks all around. Then I get to pages where the student loses himself in the struggle between immense ideas and insufficient skills, and my eyes get heavy, my forehead throbs, I cannot keep my eyes open.
I push myself through a couple more pages and write the usual “Why?” or "Vague!" or “How is the text working?” or "Can you rephrase this?" or “Clarify,” “Refine,” “Distill,” and soon I am not sure whether I am talking about a paper or butter or booze. Truth be told, I am not as bored with their writing as I am with the comments I write. I am tired of seeing the mistakes I have already gone over; and I am too tired to correct those mistakes yet again, though I know I will. I am lost in that murky feeling of failure. Then, all at once, as I realize the work isn’t the problem, that I am the problem, whad’ya know, I cannot keep my eyes open.