Category Archives: Pain

More Grading To Do

image08My new metaphor for grading is climbing an electric fence. I used to say grading papers was like sticking your finger in an electric socket a number of times equal to the number of papers you need to mark, but that comparison implies too much choice. Once you collect student work you have to keep climbing until you’re over the fence and standing on the other side. You really can’t pause to decide if you want more.

Both metaphors involve electricity because, as any teacher will tell you, being locked with another mind on paper is an intense experience. Teachers may do nothing more important than helping students write, and wanting to do a good job contributes to the agony. When you have to guess what the writer means, when you have to complete circuits, when you must make thoughtful suggestions for revisions (which you may then also have to assess), you begin to feel like a masochist who never quite reaches the pleasure part.

Sometimes—foolishly—I complain to students about all the grading I must do. Their response is predictable. “Then don’t assign so much writing,” they say. The trouble, of course, is how to teach writing without having them write. Computers make it easier to compose, correct, and revise, but they don’t (yet) create essays. The labor of getting ideas down is the same, and no technological substitute (yet) transforms thoughts into coherent sentences, paragraphs, and compositions.

The same is true of grading. I can lean on rubrics. I can “track changes” on Word. I can create a catalog of frequent comments on Each might improve the feedback I offer, but none save time. The synapse between their thinking and my response gapes regardless. Student writers still present patchy thinking, trip into what I’ve suggested they avoid, and abandon exploring ideas just when they reach the interesting part.

I know writing is challenging. You have a picture in your mind of a finished product and can’t quite get there or, perhaps worse, the picture changes as it stretches toward new interests, new connections, new insights, new organization and phrasing. To use another metaphor, writing is building a bridge from one bank, a process filled with reconsidering and shoring up, all while you watch currents churning beneath you. Rarely do essays turn out as you expect and even more rarely do they turn out as you hope.

Yet, sympathizing doesn’t help me grade any faster. I stand before that fence, dreading the climb. Once I begin, I want it over but, until I begin, I wait for dedication and courage. My policy is to allow three or four class days to return student work, but, if that span doesn’t include a weekend, uh oh. A full day teaching doesn’t prepare me to sit before a stack of essays, and any diversion will draw me off. I’m avoiding papers right now… though, when is that not true?

In education, we are always after a better way. Seduced by project based learning, collaborative learning, authentic learning, outcome-based learning, quantifiable learning, differentiated learning, deep learning, experiential learning, technology-enhanced learning, empathetic learning, focused learning, mixed modality learning, brain-based learning—or whatever new learning will be uncovered this week—we look for entry, another means to reach students. Yet, no matter which method we choose, we serve them—our clients, our charges, our object, our learners.

And maybe it’s that necessity, finally, that makes marking papers so arduous. After more than 30 years teaching, I know what will happen when I turn this Sunday’s papers back. Some students will read comments closely and some will turn to the last page, but few will appreciate my aching eyes, my buzzing mind, my gratitude standing on solid ground again.

All of us will groan—students outwardly, and me inwardly—when the next assignment arrives, but, at least for a few seconds, I’d love them to know I’ve done something important.

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Filed under Ambition, Anxiety, Doubt, Education, Essays, High School Teaching, Identity, Laments, Metaphor, Pain, Procrastination, Teaching, Thoughts, Work, Writing

On Pain

I’ve been reading about definition essays, and, as often happens, I felt the urge to write instead…

My first kidney stone was lightning, and I dropped to my knees in a grocery aisle and readied myself for God. The second I carried like a demon baby until my doctor drugged me, dropped me in a tub, and used sonic earthquakes to shatter it inside me. The third erased layers of hard-earned self-control as if they were written on tissue paper.

I’m no good at pain. No one is.

Discomfort becomes pain when it passes reason, when it becomes phenomena, when what’s in you is visiting from elsewhere. You aren’t allowed to know the elsewhere, and, thankfully, you aren’t allowed to remember. Some recollections might ruin you.

In the doctor’s office or hospital they ask you to rate your pain on a scale of one to five or, if you don’t speak English or Spanish, show you a series of circular semi-smiley faces with increasingly dire expressions. No one who rates a five could see well enough or hear well enough to answer, but the rest of the scale is fictitious. What does an answer mean? No one knows a two from a three, and the real question is “How soon will you lose it?” or “Have you already lost it?”

When I was very young, I remember a childhood earache in the middle of the night that sent me wheeling into the front lawn during a rainstorm. I grabbed my head. I cried and howled like Baby Lear. Then my mother came outside, gathered me up, and carried me to the living room. She gave me something. I sat in her lap until I calmed down. She didn’t comfort me so much as keep me there, with her instead of elsewhere.

Being entirely in you, pain isn’t transferrable. You can’t share it, nor can you get comfort from anyone willing to share it. Maybe that’s the trouble with giving birth. What might be a bond between parents can instead be separation, the same event felt in different dimensions.

Pain, a scientist might say, means to tell the body something is wrong, but it overachieves. And, if it is hard to think about pain, it’s doubly hard to think of it having any purpose. Marx said physical pain is “the only antidote to mental suffering,” a measure of perspective, an interruption in our regularly scheduled programming. Emily Dickinson wrote about “A formal feeling” afterward when “The Nerves sit ceremonious, like tombs.” Faulkner said, “Given the choice between the experience of pain and nothing, I would choose pain.” But who sees it as redemptive while it’s happening? What pain teaches us comes later, and, if it comes later, are we only trying to explain what’s outside belief?

I’m more inclined to believe St. Augustine who called physical pain, “The greatest evil” or the essayist Emile M. Cioran who said, “The limit of every pain is an even greater pain.”

All the pain I’ve known has been short-lived and forgotten. The term “chronic pain” seems the cruelest oxymoron. I wonder what happens when intrusion is the order of the day and every grip on comfort is unreliable. How is that different from madness?

Maybe pain is the body’s defiance, the one reluctance that surpasses description, negotiation, or remedy. Maybe it’s telling us, “You don’t know.”

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