Question marks

11th July 2014 at 01:00

I'm marking end-of-year exams, I'm in the groove. We've all been there. Sometimes you just hit your stride when you're marking and it almost becomes effortless.

Flying through the 19th in a stack of 27 papers, I scarcely waver as I take in Samantha's work. Usually her phrasing is pleasing and her quotations are apt, but in this exam she seems to have overplayed her hand. She keeps making assertions that aren't borne out by the stories she discusses. Usually so meticulous, her concluding observations are wobbly; a quotation is even (unimportantly but annoyingly) miscopied.

But I am a forgiving person. We all make mistakes and dear Samantha, with whose writing I am smitten, happens to have made hers on the final test of the year.

I shrug and grant her a B+. Circling the grade, I close the booklet, which I am about to drop on to the pile beside me. But in that motion I glance at the cover of the next booklet on my lap - it's Samantha's too.

But how could she have written another? (Why do my revelations always seem to come into my brain flapping like heavy old birds and not lightning bolts?)

Most of us have experienced the disappointment of reading a favourite author's new poem in an anthology and wondering how it is that this one is so flat - then realising that we were confused by the page header and it wasn't by them at all.

I check the name on the previous booklet. Amber. I can't give her a B+. The essay is so typically scatter-brained (now that I know it's Amber's). Is my conscience going to trouble me about tipping that B+ back into a B-, although it really deserves a C+ or a C?

Can I be charged with reading and grading with prejudice? From the beginning of the semester, Samantha's writing so charmed me, and when I believed Amber's essay was hers, I tried to see its good points and graded it with gratitude for Samantha's fine work.

I conjure up the image of Samantha composing her essay the day before. During in-class writing assignments she always seems to have come to a jolting stop. That is, she has been writing, but she suddenly can't. In my mind's eye I can see her expression of great perturbation. She turns her head this way and that, as if catching irritating sounds. Her hand scarcely moves. Yet when I look down now at the very piece she was working on, there are several pages, flowingly penned.

Amber, on the other hand, always makes me believe she's finally on to something: she writes with selfcaptivation, amusement, nodding in agreement with herself. Yesterday she walked up to my desk and announced: "I know you'll like this."

Samantha followed, practically slouching, turned her booklet face down and shrugged, muttering with frustration, "I don't know."

Now, reading Samantha's actual work, she bears out all my prejudices: a gorgeous essay full of her usual brilliance: A. No, make that an A+.

I have to make it up to her for my Amber-coloured thoughts.

Bob Blaisdell teaches English at Kingsborough Community College, New York City

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