The Detroit State Poems: Marking

Tom Wayman

I begin each essay with a calm mind--
a fresh start.
But as I consider what they have written
I get angry: the most cursory of rereadings
would have caught this sentence fragment,
and here is a misused semicolon
after we spent more than an hour on that in class
and where I talked to this student individually
for another thirty minutes about this persistent mistake.
And instead of the simple structure of the expository paper
which we have also gone over and over
and which can be so helpful a model, a technique, a guide,
here again is a jumbled series of random observations:
trite, contradictory, obviously hurried
and spelled wrong.

My red pencil becomes enraged.
It stalks through the words,
precise, bitter, vindictive,
acting as if it is pleased to discover error
and pounce on it, hacking and destroying and rearranging,
furiously rooting out sloppiness and weakness
as though upholding some stern moral precept
against another, softer age.

But the hand gripping the pencil
begins to tremble with remorse.
It feels it has led the students on
to try to expresss themselves
and then betrayed them:
attacking what they have exposed
of their ideas and emotions.
What use is righteousness, the hand wishes to ask the pencil,
without charity?

I read the name at the top
and think of the young person whose effort this is.
Now all I see on the paper
is a face, crestfallen when I hand back what they attempted.
Eyes look up at me
apprehensively, as at a judge.
We both know my weighing of their skill
will be taken to be an assessment of themselves.

It is as though I have been asked to mark
not essays but their faces,
not sentences but who they are.
I raise my pencil, but my hand still shakes.
I want to show them what in normal English usage
is considered incorrect.
But I can not assign a grade to their eyes.

From: Did I Miss Anything? Selected Poems 1973-1993. Madeira Park, B.C. : Harbour Pub., c1993.