The red pen is mightier than the sword

28th October 2005 at 01:00
DEVELOPMENTAL SKILLS: How you can become more powerful by holding a pen

A few months ago, I started reading newspapers with a red pen in my hand. I know, it's tragic. But, as it is with most things that people call sad, it totally rocks. It started, as so many of life's great adventures do, with the Jobs pages in The TES. I was circling schools I liked and drawing a line through those I didn't. Heh, heh. What a rush of power. Then I noticed I was writing things, too. "Yum!" "Kool!" or "Yeah!" gave me a brief mental electric shock of hope. You are already mine, I smiled. "Yawn" worked for cliches and "Run!" if they banged on about interactive whiteboards. Who cares? Chalk is fine.

That got me thinking. What you write with makes a difference. Scribbling on the Jobs pages wouldn't have been half as much fun in any other colour. Red ink is the blood of a mind at the zenith of its powers, cackle, cackle. The red pen has a secret magic that non-teachers will never know. Pity the fools. The uninitiated masses, whose meek and mumbling shopping lists plod on in blue and black. They're pawns, not players. Come closer, my pretty, and let me lead you along the rocky path to the ways of the red pen...Step this way.

Learn first how it must not be used. In this dungeon we have forbidden ways. I have seen a red pen used as a bookmark, a woefully approximate ear-scratcher and a stress ball substitute. Click-click, click-click, annoying pause, click-click, effectively shredding the daydreams of all who hear it.

At the weekend, the red pen becomes a teaspoon, or a seed drill. Do not insult your red pen like this. It is a mute servant, but it will have its revenge. You will know this if you have ever used it to circle films you want to record in TV listings magazines. You will never see them. It's the kiss of death.

The red pen is the teacher's badge of honour, the sign of our superior knowledge and the last bastion of our unchallenged authority. If you mark in pencil you have a rush of power in store for you. Just make sure you are sitting down, and if you feel light-headed, rest awhile. Red is a heady force: the colour of life, sex, rage and knowing that you are right and everyone else is wrong. In a world of fawning relativism and foggy fear of litigation, the red pen is a beacon of truth. May it serve you well.

Now we are at the halls of annotation. Use the signs to make these Jobs pages your own. "Yuk" or "Bleah" works well if there are too many words such as "enviable", "boasts" and "extremely" in one sentence. You're not the boss of me yet, you chuckle to yourself.

And the red pen has other uses when you read the papers. It is your mental guard. An occupational hazard of being a teacher is that you are likely to read something annoying about yourself each time you open a newspaper.

"Teachers fail to teach in 75 per cent of schools"; "Teachers' pay frozen until 3009"; "Teachers blamed for global warming". Your mute red guard awaits orders. Write "Eh?" above the stupid claim. At once that page is your slave. If you read something worryingly insane, and you want the speaker to be put in a small room for a while, write "Guards!" Your red pen holds a strong and flexible shield between your wonderful mind and any infuriating words that come before it.

Ah, here is one of my favourites: "Pf!" This is a non-verbal expression of contempt that I have been trying to introduce into standard English for years. It is wondrously flexible and looks gorgeous in red. Circle anything claimed by a politician who may be throwing words in your eyes to confuse you. Put "Pf!" next to the annoying words. It feels great, a sugar rush of superiority. You can add as many f's as you like: "Pfffff!" You may prefer a full stop, to hell with dignity: "Pf".

In the next alcove is a fierce beast: "WHY?!" So easy, yet it makes you feel like a truth crusader, crashing through the forest of unknowing with your red sword of righteousness, and yet again, the great thing is that you don't have to know anything to use it. Like all these empowering annotations, it only works in red. Try it in green or blue and you'll see what I mean. Green is too friendly, propitiating, slightly spaced-out. Blue is petty-minded, municipal, dull. Purple? Hm. Pf. See under "green", but more so.

Now at the chamber of absolute rejection, searing heat must only be used when you read something that you know will annoy you for days. Use it freely and with abandon: "NO! NO! NO! NO!!!!!"

As we admire its brilliant light, let us remind ourselves of the noble ways of the red pen. It is a powerful servant, aiding you in your search through a forest of newsprint, whether you seek a job, a car, a house or a lover.

It is a fearsome guard, defending your mind from the poisonous claims of ignorance and injustice.

Go with strength. Make your own ways if you wish. Take up thy pen, and read.

Catherine Paver is a supply teacher and a part-time writer

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