Creative NF

Grading Papers

The acorn and the tree

Red pen editing

A phone call brought it all back

My oldest boy phoned yesterday. He’s in the military now, protecting the world from nefarious elements scattered across the globe while ensconced inside his cozy Las Vegas office. He also just finished a couple of lit degrees. I would never have never guessed.

I spent most of his high school days between either him and his mom, or between him and his school principal. One time I was called to the school because he raised his hand in Mr. McCracken’s class. “I was just wondering,” he asked the teacher, “if your last name is really McCracken. Like in, ‘butt crack’?”

Neither the school nor Mr. McCracken thought this was funny. Apparently, the class did, and they fell out of their chairs laughing, giving my son exactly what he was looking or.  So, I met with the principal and the teacher and to talk about the improprieties of my progeny. I remember nothing of the meeting except that Mr. McCracken was so red-faced that he couldn’t speak. And really? What do you expect? You’re a high school teacher named McCracken.

There was another teacher who kids loved to get riled up, and my boy stood in line for the opportunity. Everyone knew that If you got this teacher mad enough, early enough, the class was over. He would rant and steam for forty minutes about kids these days and how when he was young, there were rules, and kids did what they were told. I don’t know when he grew up, but I remember being at the same school back when American Was Great and getting caught handing out commie pamphlets between bouts of throwing up Southern Comfort after chemistry. These were good days, to be sure, but we didn’t follow rules nor did we do what we were told. Well, I didn’t


A new author in the family

So, the young pup phoned yesterday.

“Dad. You’ll never guess what happened.”

“Your wife is pregnant?”

We both laughed, but, truth be told, Mittons are proven breeders.

“You know my final paper that we talked about? For my lit degree?”

“Yeah,” I said. “But, last we talked, I you hadn’t decided on a topic”

“Oh. I ended up writing about kids and literature, but hey, the prof who graded it? He wants to publish it in a lit journal. Can you believe it?”

“Wow. Very nice.”

“Yeah. He wants to team up, and he’ll help me with formatting and how to present the material, but I’ll be the main author.”

“That’s very sweet. Way to go.”

“When I first got it back, it was covered with red marks, and I thought, oh man, I botched this one, but they were all about how great the paper was.”

“Awesome, man. I’m super proud. Did I ever tell you about my first college paper? All covered in red marks?”

“What? No. What was that one?”

My first college writing experience

And so ensues the tale.

I was a freshman at Western Washington University, that bastion of higher education in Bellingham, WA. I assumed – for no discernible reason – that academics were a given. Write the paper, take the test, get an A, and party on. We did a lot of that in high school.

So, I sat in English 101, and on the first day of class the prof sent ‘round a drawing that looked like he tore it out of his kid’s coloring book. It was of some farm animals, cows, pigs, and horses, and they were smiling and happy, like there was nowhere else they would rather be than here on the farm getting fattened up for Thanksgiving dinner.

“Our next class is on Monday,” the prof said. “Let’s do this: take this picture and write a story about it, or an essay, or anything you want. Make it about two pages long. I just want to get an idea of where we are with writing. Okay?”

Sometime over the weekend, between girls and parties and football and who knows what, I spit out an essay I was happy with. It was about how animals accept death as a fact of their life cycle and humans should, too. There’s nothing to fear and nothing to plan for. When you’re done, you’re done. I slapped the final carriage return and patted myself on the back. It was smart, philosophical, a little theological, and I probably threw in a few impressive words.

I turned it in Monday, and he handed it back on Wednesday, a day that lives in Mitton Infamy.

He was visibly pained when he handed me my paper. I wasn’t surprised. It wasn’t often, I guessed, that he got such erudite work from a freshman. Big and bold red words emblazoned the first page, as if from the finger of the Almighty on granite tablets. I read the words though, and a foggy confusion draped over me like Washington rain. I remember the words exactly: “The oddest and most poorly written paper I’ve ever read by a college student.”

My head spun, and I checked the name. Yup. It was me. Did he read it? Could he have read it? How did he miss the insight? How could he overlook my unassailable argument? Was he really this much of a dolt? I was stupefied.

Thinking about it, and telling my boy, we both laughed about high school and how we thought we were pulling one over on our teacher when, in fact, we were missing things we would need later. I don’t blame the teachers – they’re just trying to make a living doing something good.

Bad high school essays

Also from my boy’s high school days is this story that kind of follows the thread.

“Really?” I said to him. “You got a D on this? In science? C’mon. Your Dad is a WRITER and a SCIENTIST. Surely, I could have helped you?”

“Dad!” he got more excited the deeper I drilled. “This is like the first time he’s ever read our papers. Really. I just usually write the first and last line and fill in the rest with words. I always get a B.”

“Am I really that dopey to you? You expect me to believe that?”

“I can prove it,” he said, rummaging through a mess of papers. He found what he was looking for and pointed to a line. “See? Read this.”

“I slept with your wife last Saturday when we were both drunk at your house.”

It was right there, penned in blue, smack in the middle of the paper, bookcased by a couple of nonsense sentences about real science. With a bright red ‘B’ circled on the front.

“I do it all this time,” he said. He never reads them, so we all put stupid stuff in the middle. He’s never said anything to anyone.”

I wanted to be mad and tell him but, like on a 1970s sitcom, my vision went wavy and my memory of Mrs. Rose wafted before my eyes.


I was back in high school now, my high school, with longer hair and platform shoes. I had just got a C on a paper from Mrs. Rose. She was my favorite and let me slide on almost any stunt. I don’t know why – substances now legal in Washington but illegal then may have come into play – but I wrote all my papers in her class backward. I could write backward or forward and chuckled when I thought of her putting my paper up to a mirror to read it. I always got a B, and that was good enough for me.

Except for this time. It was the same thing that happened to my boy in high school: the teacher decided to actually read this one.

I marched up to her with my C paper in hand and asked her to explain. It was her fault, you know.

“Uh-huh,” she exhaled as I made my case. “But, it really is a C paper. It’s not that good. Probably should have been and C- or a D+.”

“But, I mean, I always get a B. I’m a B student.” I was reaching.

“Oh, I’m getting it now,” she said, laughing. “Do you think I read those backward things you turn in? Honey. I have better things to do than read that stuff, so I just give you the grade I think you should get.”

“Well, then why don’t I get a B on this one?”

“Because I read it.” She leaned toward me, reading my face to see if I got it. “It’s not that good. Is all your work like this? I think I’ll give you Cs from now on.”

I might have been dopey, but I wasn’t stupid. I didn’t want her to redo all my grades, so I started writing in semi-readable frontward English, and my boy quit writing about his teacher’s wife.

Back to my first college essay

Because you are wondering about that first college paper I wrote, I didn’t finish the class. I could have, I should have buckled down and worked long hours to improve my writing, but that sounded like work, so I just dropped the class.

Later, having to take this class to graduate, I wrote a paper called The Theme of Angst in the Writing of TS Eliot. Whereas the other essay was the first paper of the term, this was the last, but the prof still had things to say. He wanted to see me after class in his office.

We sat down and he opened with the exact opposite of the first year prof’s assessment.

“Dennis,” he said, “this is the best lit analysis I’ve tread by an undergrad.”

He looked at me hard, and I nodded, expecting a ‘but’. “What are you doing next year? I’m pretty sure I could get you into any of a dozen MFA programs.”

I was confused again.

Shaking my head and waving my hands, I told him that I already had a college lines up. And that I was going to study molecular biology.

“Huh?” he said. “Molecular biology? You write like this and do science too?”

I was unsure of what to say. “Well, I do science…”

And that was it. I did science for most of my adult career, and wrote, too. Mostly long and angst filled governmental reports about our work. TS Eliot might not have approved.


So, I have written academic papers, and maybe my boy will, too. And, to this day, I am obsessed with getting words on paper. Maybe he will be, too. As the cliche says, the acorn doesn’t fall far from the tree.

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The second time I fell in love

I skipped into Fife Elementary halfway through the kindergarten year with new boots – loggers – squeaking on the waxed linoleum. Mom was horrified: on my first day there, the principal, Mr. Norby, yanked me and Jody Satiacum into his office for throwing blocks out the window. Mom met dad at the same school, and my grandparents met there, too, so I had a reputation to keep. I remember nothing of kindergarten except that I loved my teacher, Mrs. Scoggins. The next year, first grade, was more memorable: I met Rocky, to be one of my best friends, and met my second girlfriend, with whom I enjoyed my first kiss. Well, my first kiss not planted by a relative. I had my first school paddling, too. Kisses at school, I learned, are rare. Paddlings were more common.

What can I say? Patti was a wisp of a thing with a purple aura glowing around her ebony hair. Her legs blurred when she ran, like a cartoon. She was street smart, too, with sisters in third and fourth grades who showed her the ropes of school life. Mrs. Grove was our teacher: Patti sat in the first seat of the row, and I sat behind her. Rocky, always laughing, took up the caboose.

Love has given me many woes, and today might be the first. Recess was finished, and we funneled into our classroom like cattle through a chute. Settling into our seats, we watched art or science or who-knows-what on TV and did our best to stay awake. When the show was over, Mrs. Grove, always in a pink sweater, turned the TV off and pulled the plug.

She looked at us over the top of her glasses. “Kids,” she said, giving us that I-mean-business-this-time look, “I’m pushing the TV back to the media room. I’ll just be a minute. Stay in your seats and draw or color. “

She gave the TV stand a shove, and by the time one foot was halfway out the door, Patti, all three feet of her, jumped out of her seat like a cheerleader. “Okay!” she said, clapping. “Let’s go!”

I didn’t know who ‘let’s’ was, but in an instant, and without effort, she jumped onto my desk like a deer and ran down the tops of the other desks in the row. At Rocky’s desk, she jumped off like a ballerina, turning to the class to graciously accept her rightful accolade. Kids clapped and shouted. A few sunk further into their seats, sure they had seen something they shouldn’t have. I sat confused.

Amid the clapping, Patti ran up to my desk. Doesn’t she know we don’t run in class? Recess is for running. Well, Patti ran up to me and started slapping my desk like a war drum. “C’mon. Your turn!” she said.

I looked around, wondering who she was talking to.

“C’mon. Go before Mrs. Grove gets back.”

This was serious.

“Get on the desk. C’mon! It’s your turn,” she said,telling everyone else what a chicken I was.

Kids started chanting. “Come on, Dennis. It’s your turn. DO IT!”

Patti got away with it, right? How long can it take? I looked at Rocky, who waved me on, laughing. Resolved and glowing with courage, I looked at Patti and stood, expecting angels to sing. But unlike Patti, who jumped onto my desk like a mountain goat, I took a more careful approach, scanning every surface and hand-hold before making any move, like an ice climber on Mt. Everest. I climbed onto my chair first and then onto my desk. Flush with the pride of accomplishment, I turned to look at the class, to bathe in clapping and shouts. I saw Rocky, proud of me for taking my turn, and I swiveled to look at Patti again before making a mad sprint over the desktops to Rocky and back.

I stopped, though, instantly, when Mrs. Grove walked into the room. Her eyes met mine with me still standing on my desk. Patti jumped into her chair in time, sitting with her hands clasped, quiet, as if pondering her catechism. If I thought Patti was fast, Mrs. Grove appeared at my desk without moving. The class faded from view, and all I could see was Mrs. Grove.

“Is this what you call sitting quietly at your desk?” she said?

Her cat-eye glasses belied her true nature, and she was ready to pounce. “Look at Patti!” she said, pointing at her cherubic face. “She’s sitting at her desk with her arms folded and quiet. And what in the Sam Hill are you doing standing on your desk?” I knew from home the Sam Hill lived next door to You little bastard, and I had visions of our principal and his nail-studded spanking machine. Mrs. Grove wrapped her arm around my waist just like she would when she hugged me and set me on the floor. Steady now, on my feet, she grabbed me by the ear and hauled me out of the room in one motion. No one clapped. She didn’t say a thing to the other kids, sure my impending doom would keep their rear ends attached firmly to their chairs.

We hardly made it out of the room before she started looking for another teacher. Across the hall, the door to the other first-grade class cracked. “Mrs. Grove? Everything okay? Do you need help?” Miss Mullen. Hm.

“Can you watch him for a second?” She turned to me and said with an ominous tone. “I need to get my paddle.” Even at this age I sensed a heavy emphasis on paddle.

“Let me talk to my class,” Miss Mullen said and went back behind her door. “She popped out again, waving a paddle. “Look what I found. I keep it handy right by the door.”

“Perfect,” Mrs. Grove said, more to me than to the other teacher. “Can you watch?”

“Sure thing,” she said, liking this way too much.

Mrs. Grove stared at me again, drilling into my eyes with hers. “So,” she said, “can you explain to us why we are in the hall?”

“Because I stood on the desk,” I said, fessing up and realizing for the first time that no one had specifically told me not to stand on a desk. It was a fine point I didn’t dare broach.

“Right. You stood on the desk. Are you going to do that again?”

“No.” Not unless my girlfriend taunts me, I thought.

She took up position on my left side. “Okay, you know what to do. Bend over.”

I really didn’t know what to do. This was so…clinical. At home, infractions were dealt with by yelling, swearing, and lots of arms and hands waving. It was an emergency. Here, in the first grade, it was an annoyance. I bent over, showcasing my rear like a prize to be painted.

She whacked me, and it was like water from a tepid faucet.

“What do you think? Will that teach you to follow the rules?”

I was stunned. That? That was a paddling? I lied. “Yes, ma’am,” I said, trying to pout and look sad.

“Do you need another?” She stared at me again, hard, driving home her point.

“No ma’am,” I said, not sure if it was over.

“Good. Let’s go back into the room now.” She handed the paddle back, and both teachers looked like they had done their duty, saving another child from prison and poverty. Making the world safer from bad boys who stood on desks.

Back in the room, tugged by my ear, I was a hero now, having survived a thrashing by my teacher with no evidence of tears. I walked back to my desk and fell in love, Patti throwing me a quiet smile, waving to me with the rise of a finger. Several weeks later, we kissed outside of Mrs. Grove’s class under the windows and behind the scrubby bushes.

It was to be my only elementary school kiss. Alas, this was not true for my paddling.