My father is a teacher—a professor—and I grew up watching him grade. He would sit for hours, writing comment after comment in the margins of student tests scrawled in impossible handwriting, emerging from his office for dinner with tired eyes. I didn’t understand him. This sort of reading and writing was labor; ever since I could remember it demanded much of his time and energy. When I was young, it made such a dismal impression that I swore I would never do anything like it.
Then, this summer, I had the opportunity to teach at WORDshop, Taylor’s inaugural writing camp. Happily, this involved no grading; even so, that long-apprehended specter of teaching grew increasingly substantial as I approached the week of camp. I knew that I loved literature, and even wanted to do graduate work in the discipline. At the same time, I knew that graduate work entailed teaching, that teaching entailed grading, and that grading made my dad’s eyes tired. I hoped, at the very least, to find out during camp whether teaching could be worth it.
And so WORDshop began.
Two other English majors and I had nine fourth-through-sixth-graders for the week. The first day, we sat with them in desks that moved in an absurd number of ways, and cleared the air of their own fear of grading—in their case, the recipient’s fear—for it’s not only teachers who dread grading. Then we drew ‘heart maps’ in the notebooks we had given them. We spread colored pencils, markers, and crayons across the floors and the desktops and drew our hearts, drew our knowledge of ourselves—our values, sometimes our fears—in bright primary and secondary colors.
We asked everyone to leave their notebooks open, then to walk around the room to see what others had created. They were so brave to do it; indeed, there was no silence. They laughed and called out to each other, wondering why Ireland was in someone’s heart and chocolate was in someone else’s, finding out that we all loved our families even if we drew them in different ways.
By the end of our time together that week, the students were writing for as long as we would let them, and would try their hands at anything we asked them to: nonfiction, fiction (their favorite), poetry, and even musical theatre lyrics. Not a single one forgot their notebook on any of the five mornings of camp. Parents were involved in that, surely, but perhaps not in all of it, for as our students created in those notebooks, they crafted the writing into something of their own, something expressive, and thus made the works into treasures.
As the children left on Friday, hugging us with ‘thank-you’ and ‘goodbye’, I realized that teaching was not just about grading—it was about students. This realization marked a personal zero point of sorts. Madeleine Thien describes this construct in her novel Do Not Say We Have Nothing, quoting Friedrich Engels’s definition: “‘Zero is a definite point from which measurements are taken along a line, in one direction positively, in the other negatively. Hence the zero point is the location on which all others are dependent…by which they are all determined’” (297, emphasis in original).
See, despite everything, I had conceived of teaching in the wrong terms. I had imagined standing in the front of a classroom, removed, battering students with information in which they found little or no value. Then the grading. WORDshop upended these notions, and in the upending, my zero-point was founded. The nine children in that second-floor classroom transformed my practical knowledge of teaching to mean allowing students to pursue what they love. They showed me that my job was, more than anything, to fuel their pursuit, to refine it out of a love for the same pursued thing and, moreover, for them.
Upon reflection, then, the vocation of a teacher does involve grading, and perhaps, if I go that way, that means my eyes, too, will be tired sometimes. But how profoundly worthwhile a thing it is that I would be pursuing! With such students and all the world’s words, how could it be otherwise?
Grace Seeman is a senior English literature major at Taylor University. She has studied abroad in England and Ireland, and hopes to attend graduate school in one of these places as she works to become a professor of literature.