Day 13: Orphan Son of an English Teacher

I often tell people that I was orphaned by my mother’s grading. My mom taught English for more than 33 years at the Winsor School, an all-girls’ school in Boston that is widely considered to be one of the best private schools in the country. I have no doubt that my mom was a huge part of its success, but this did come at a cost.

While I likely inherited my sardonic wit and love of racket sports from my dad, my mom gifted me the need to be frenetically busy at all times. Even now that she has “retired,” most of my phone calls with her consist of breathless exasperations as she explains in excruciating detail how, “I’m on my way to the vestry meeting with the bishop, but my colloquy ran long on zoom, and I have no ideas how I’m going to get home to bring the cheese and crackers to my dinner party with the head of the board.” She is a living, breathing run-on sentence, and I love her for that.

The English department at Winsor was a remarkable place when I was growing up. It was a murderer’s row of superstar teachers, many of whom remain on-call as my muses, who drove themselves to daily exhaustion to teach the Winsor girls to appreciate literature, to parse grammar, and, most of all, to write. This might get me in trouble, but my mom used to look upon her history colleagues with supercilious disdain because it would take them “two weeks, maybe more” to get their papers back to their students.

For my mom, turning around a set of papers in one night was a sacrosanct covenant. But she didn’t just slap down a brief comment on the bottom of the essay. Instead, her papers were wrinkled by the amount of red ink she spilled by the time she was done grading. Not only did she point out every single grammatical gaffe, but she also left a multi-sentence comment after nearly every paragraph and a mini essay of her own summing up her commentary–all in her distinctive, semi-legible scrawl. Other than providing an inordinate quantity of high-quality feedback, the other key to the Winsor system was writing conferences. Each girl would meet with her teacher when working on a paper and receive hands-on, targeted instruction. Is it any wonder that a generation of Winsor girls credit my mom and her colleagues for transforming their lives by teaching them how to write?

Of course, my childhood was the collateral damage in all of this. My stepfather and I knew to steer clear of the living room on a paper night. If we happened to pass through the room, we would be caught in the crossfire as she would read aloud a particularly insightful paragraph or an unusually specious argument. I knew better than to expect a nice home-cooked meal on paper night. This is when I learned to make a mean bowl of Kraft macaroni and cheese or Top Ramen.

My mother’s remarkable devotion to her students had a curious effect on me. For one it no doubt birthed the subconscious voice that propelled me to switch to education after a brief flirtation with the corporate world of Islamic finance. But it also meant that, no matter how hard I tried, I knew I could never live up to the sublime standard she set as an English teacher.

In particular, residual PTSD from her grading means that I am filled with visceral dread every time I get a set of papers of my own. This is an unfortunate quality in an English teacher. The gap between students turning in their papers and my turning them back that would make the Winsor history department proud. I have developed coping mechanisms, of course. I once attended a professional development about “Focus Correction Areas” that suggested we not overwhelm students and instead give feedback on only one particular area, a practice I readily adopted. I bought a “revolutionary” grading system on TeachersPayTeachers that promised to allow you to “reclaim your weekends.” It didn’t. One innovation that I made that really has worked is reading student essays when out on a walk and then recording one-to-two minute voice notes with my feedback. My favorite solution, however, is to farm out my essays to my wife, a talented English teacher in her own right who somehow loves grading. I guess opposites really do attract!

But over time, I have made peace with my grading allergy. So much of the pressure we live under is self-imposed. Living up to the standards of our parents is a weight that nearly all of us buckle under at some point. My students have assured me that I’m a pretty good teacher, and many have gone on to find considerable success at high-powered colleges. All this is to say that we should go a little easier on ourselves and not let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Alas, I have to stop now; a set of A Separate Peace essays has just arrived, and I have to get them back by the end of Thanksgiving Break.

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