Monday, December 10, 2018

Things to do while proctoring exams

The right thing to do, of course, would be to grade the papers and exams that have already come in, but first you would have to decide whether to grade the tiny class first or save it for later as a reward, and that's too much thinking to do during the stupidest time of the day. (Seriously, who decided 3 p.m. was a good time to schedule a two-and-a-half-hour exam?) But what else can you do while proctoring a final exam?

Shop online for matching family holiday pajamas. Flip back and forth between the reindeer pattern and the holiday Minions. Wonder how they got everyone in the family to look so bright and cheery while wearing pajamas--including the family dog. Are they on drugs or what? If so, what kind? Plug in the sizes of everyone in the family--but try not to gasp too loudly at the total! You don't want to disturb your students. Contemplate how many starving people that amount of money could feed, and notice that there's no guarantee that the pajamas would make anyone in your family as happy and photogenic as the family in the picture. Close the window without completing the order.

Try to figure out who sings that one holiday song you heard on the radio the other day, except first you'll have to remember the title or some of the lyrics. Distinctly recall making a mental note to remember the chorus and then trying vainly to hold on to the lyrics throughout "Jingle Bell Rock," the all-consuming holiday earworm. It had the word "Christmas" in it, but what else? Google holiday music for a while before realizing that you're not going to find anything with the sound off. Whatever you do, don't hum.

Glance around the room. Notice how diligently your students are scribbling answers on the exam. Note that three-sevenths of them are wearing wool hats inside the classroom and wonder when someone is finally going to figure out how to regulate the temperature in this part of the building. Wonder if any of your students would look more alert if they were wearing matching holiday pajamas. Bite your tongue--hard--before the question slips out. Mmm, tastes like chicken.

Pull out your pile of holiday cards and address list and start writing cheery, personal, individualized notes to people you haven't seen in years but still feel the need to connect with at Christmas. Try not to repeat the same message on every card. Wonder whether the recipients wear matching holiday pajamas and, if they do, what style: flannel, fleece, or cotton?  Don't ask. When you get to the name of a distant relative and can't remember whether the person is alive or dead or suffering from dementia (or maybe you're the one suffering from dementia),  it's time to put the cards away.

Look at your students, still writing and writing. Send out brain-waves urging them to write more quickly. How can they expect you to sit in a cold room for two and a half hours watching them write? Don't they know you have stuff to do--like, for instance, grading that big pile of papers you're trying not to think about?

Remember that you brought your blanket with you. Clearly, one part of your brain was functioning properly when you set out for the exam. Bundle up and get ready for the next big event, which is: procrastination! Check your e-mail, read McSweeney's, check on enrollments for next semester's classes--anything but tackling that pile of papers. Wonder if the pile of papers would look any more compelling in festive pajamas, and, if so, what size they would wear, and would they prefer the reindeer print or the Minions? Realize that nothing will remove the burden of grading all those papers except for grading all those papers. 

Click open the file. Get to work. Wish for a Minion.

Friday, December 07, 2018

Plenty craziness to go around

Because it's the last week of classes and I'm still struggling to get over the nasty cold I picked up at Thanksgiving and people around me are going crazy in predictable but unbloggable ways (but seriously, dude, if you really want to know how to improve your essay, you could start by reading the comments I wrote on your draft), yesterday I took a mental-health day and stayed away from campus. I didn't even take any grading home with me, which I'll regret as soon as the next wave comes in, but I needed to take a breath and get some perspective, which I did by sitting at home writing notes on Christmas cards (by hand! with a pen!) while drinking spiced tea and listening to Christmas music. But then I decided to run some errands and encountered a whole different level of craziness.

I don't know if you've ever tried to park at the main post office in Marietta, Ohio, but one of these days some clever game designer will create a thrill game involving hundreds of cars competing for about six spaces so small that you can't open your car door without scratching the paint. This is true: once I parked there intending to mail some big packages and found that I could not open the car door wide enough to allow me to get the packages out of the car. And then postal workers are always popping up out of nowhere, wheeling big carts full of mail toward the waiting delivery trucks, and if you are fortunate enough to find a space, get out of the car, mail your packages, and get back in your car, you will then have to make a 17-point turn, slowly pulling back and forward and back again until you finally dislodge your car from the postage-stamp-sized space and make your way down the narrow drive, where more cars are lined up eagerly eyeing your horrible parking space.

And then I decided to do some gift shopping, assuming that the mall across the river would be quiet on a weekday. Ha! The place was crawling with little kids waiting in line to see Santa (who looked like he was nursing a migraine), riding around on the holiday train (which kept creeping up as if stalking me), and running around shrieking like banshees while "Frosty the Snowman" blared in the background. Lines were long and I had to stand in several; one cashier told me that she'd had to deal with some very rude and demanding customers quibbling over sale prices, but by that point I was so exhausted that she could have charged me double and I wouldn't have even noticed. That's the Christmas spirit!

Now I'm back in my office teaching my final day of classes and watching the final papers flow in. I know I'll have to buckle down this weekend and get to work on grading them, but after my crazy day off, I'll bring a change of perspective. They say a change of work is the best vacation, but sometimes all it takes is a change of craziness.

Wednesday, December 05, 2018

When life is too complicated for an ordinary holiday card

O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree--
I'm sad it fell on your kitty.
May holiday cheer fill your Santa hat
(when you're done mourning for your cat). 

Poinsettias are red;
varicose veins are blue.
I hope your CT-scan prep drink
doesn't taste like glue.

Jingle bells, something smells,
mousetraps caught some prey!
Toss them, dear, in the chimney here
and burn them all away!

The mistletoe is waiting!
I hope to meet you there.
(But first, sign this consent form--
initial here and here.) 

(And here.)

(And don't forget the back.)

(In triplicate.)

The stockings are hung by the chimney with care;
piles of gifts reach up to the rafters--whew!
Better make your escape before it's too late--
So sorry the IRS is after you!

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
but you have promises to keep,
so pour the egg nog down the drain
before it goes straight to your hips!

(That didn't rhyme--I know it's true.
I've done my best. Now how about you?)  

Sunday, December 02, 2018

Suddenly, sunshine

The first Sunday in December began with thunder in the wee hours accompanied by rain and more rain, pretty much what we’ve been experiencing all week, but then, wonder of wonders, the rain stopped and the sky cleared and we saw the sun—the sun!—for the first time after days and days of endless gloom, and the temperature rose into the 60s with just enough breeze to make me glad I was wearing a jacket when I went out for a walk, camera in hand, surrounded by the sound of water rushing down the creek and wind rustling through the cedars and the occasional pickup truck rumbling past full of men wearing camouflage and hunter orange—deer season! A good time to stay out of the woods—but who could stay indoors in such beautiful weather? I took the camera and went hunting for interesting shapes and textures, horizontal shadows on the forest floor intersecting with vertical tree trunks or round fluffy clouds juxtaposed with long skinny wisps, or bright rust and yellow hues exposed by recent rock falls on a cliff weathered gray and slimy green. I saw some mockingbirds, a kingfisher, a host of woolly worms crossing the road, the neighbor’s donkeys and another neighbor’s cows. Nothing too earthshaking, in other words, but sometimes walking outside in the sun after days of rain is enough to make me want to fall on my face and shout Hallelujah.   

Saturday, December 01, 2018

Finding the helpers--right in my classroom

Apparently not everyone in my building was aware that we had a medical emergency outside my classroom yesterday. One of my colleagues told me later, "From where I was standing, it sounded like a bunch of giddy girls giggling in the stairwell." They may have sounded like giddy girls, but from where I was standing they looked like heroes.

I've bragged about these four students before. They're the only women in my early-morning first-year writing class, and though they didn't know each other before the semester started, they quickly formed the best kind of supportive community. They sit together and help each other, not in a cheaty way but in a let's-try-to-understand-this way. I often come into the classroom and find them discussing the day's reading or writing assignment, and during in-class activities they consistently push each other to think harder, do better.

Early in the semester they developed the habit of going to breakfast together after my class, which may have played a part in what happened, because they hadn't had breakfast yet and we watched a bit of film in class that made one of the students queasy. She stayed in the room feeling dizzy after class but urged the others to go on without her, but they didn't listen, which is a good thing because if she'd collapsed in an empty classroom, the results could have been tragic.

They all walked together down the stairs and I stayed close behind; they all encouraged their queasy classmate to sit down when she felt dizzy, and when she collapsed and stopped breathing, they all stepped in and did what needed to be done. 

Things happened very quickly: I called out "Who knows CPR?" and one of my heroic students said she's certified, so I set her to work doing chest compressions while I went down the steps to the nearest office to get the administrative assistant to call 911. Colleagues stepped in to block off access to the stairs, and a prof who knows the student's parents gave them a call. Meanwhile, up on the stairwell, I watched my student's lips turning blue while her classmate thumped on her chest and her other classmates cocooned her and kept her from falling further down the steps. I've never felt more helpless, but I've also never felt more surrounded by helpers.

The sick student soon revived and the EMS techs arrived and took over, but even then my heroic students kept helping: they held her up, helped her out of her coat, gathered her phone and shoes and backpack, and then one of them went to the hospital in the ambulance so her sick classmate wouldn't be alone. Soon the stairwell was empty and everything went back to normal, except what could possibly be normal after a student stops breathing? 

She's fine now, back on campus and a little embarrassed by all the fuss, and I'm looking forward to seeing her back in the classroom early Monday morning, upright and breathing and not turning blue. She'll be surrounded by her supportive classmates, talking and laughing and maybe sounding a little giddy, but from this point on I'll never see them as anything other than heroes.   

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Well, they couldn't possibly build a WORSE mousetrap, right?

I did not give up trying the first time a mousetrap snapped shut on my fingers, or the fourth or the fifth or the sixth. Getting into double digits discouraged me but I kept trying until I started throwing things, and then I had to clean up the peanut-butter smears on my hands and shirt and on the floor. (What are the odds that a falling mousetrap will land peanut-butter-side up?)

When my husband and I first began this adventure with living (mostly) in separate houses, I knew I would face challenges, but I did not believed dealing with the mouse problem would be the most serious one. We've worked out a way to make it easier for me to load the wood-burner, and we're contracting out snow removal for the winter. I've learned to avoid buying large amounts of produce because I can't eat it all by myself and I hate the smell of rotting vegetables, and I even managed to bury my own dog when she died. But somehow the mouse problem has me flummoxed.

I've caught mice! (In traps my husband set the last time he was here.) I experimented with glue traps, which work admirably except for one thing: the mice do not die immediately, which means I have to either live with an expiring mouse squirming around trying to free itself or else I have to toss the whole thing into the wood-burner while the mouse is still alive, which seems inhumane. I can hear its squeaky little voice screaming No! Not the fire! Anyplace but the fire!

So I decided it was time to bite the bullet and learn to set the old-fashioned wooden mousetraps that work so well. I read the directions and even watched a YouTube video that made it look really easy. That guy never got his fingers snapped in the trap! And besides, people have been using those mousetraps for centuries without a hitch. How difficult could it be?

I used exactly the same brand of trap the guy used in the YouTube video, and I followed his method exactly--and I snapped my fingers in the trap EVERY. STINKING. TIME. 

Maybe the traps are defective--or maybe it's my fingers. Either way, no mousetraps got set in my house last night, which will no doubt make the pesky critters bolder. I hear them scrabbling in the walls, laughing, no doubt, at my incompetence: 

How many PhDs does it take to set a mousetrap? None because they can't do it!

She can split an infinitive at 50 paces but can't set a mousetrap!

Hey, let's have a square dance on her eyeballs while she's sleeping! 

In the war between my klutzy fingers and the vermin, the mice seem to be winning. However, I have a secret weapon, and no, it's not a flamethrower, tempting as that may be. My husband is coming home later this week, and he takes no prisoners. So look out, mice! There's a trap in your future and it will be fully loaded. (With bits of my fingers.)


Monday, November 26, 2018

A welcome surprise in the mailbox

After being away for five days, I wasn't exactly expecting a welcoming committee when I arrived home yesterday, but I did find some surprises. I was pleased to find the wood-burner still well stocked and the laundry more or less under control, clear signs that my son had done his due diligence in my absence. I found two dead mice--hurrah!--but also several mousetraps that had been sprung without catching anything, and I found a lot of empty birdfeeders. Also, the undergrowth in the woods has died back enough to reveal hidden things, so I was surprised to see the green garden bench that got washed away in the flash flood last spring. It's lodged against the trunk of a tree downstream from our bridge, a little out of reach but I think we'll be able to retrieve it eventually.

But the biggest surprise was a letter about books from someone I barely know. I mean, a real, hand-written-on-paper letter from a young person interested in books and reading. "You probably don't remember me," it began, but I do remember and I was pleased as punch to read and respond--by hand, in words written on actual paper and enclosed in an envelope with a stamp, if you can imagine such a thing.

I've always loved receiving mail but these days it's pretty rare to find a real letter in the mail. For a while my mailbox was so jam-packed with election flyers that I hated to open it up and let the vitriol spill out, and these days the mailbox serves as a temporary repository for holiday catalogs that I'll stack up and throw away, so it's nice to get some real mail that's not asking me for money or votes or any immediate response. Somehow, the lack of urgency makes me want to drop everything and respond right away.

And then what a letter! It came from the sister of a former student, someone I probably met once and then glimpsed a few times on Facebook. She'd just read Toni Morrison's Beloved for the first time and was trying to process her complicated response; "Not only was it unexpected," she wrote, "but it was impossible to expect." A letter from a virtual stranger eager to discuss a work of literature: what's not to love about that?

Of course we could have shared this exchange of ideas more quickly and efficiently online, but I like the measured pace of snail-mail discussions, the ability to think clearly before committing ideas to writing and then mull over responses, and I love the happy little moment when I see a real letter in the mailbox and the eager anticipation before opening.

But yesterday that anticipation lasted longer than usual, as I couldn't enjoy opening the mail in a house that smelled like dead mice. First carry in the luggage then put away groceries, discard the mice, feed the wood-burner, burn the trash, start some laundry, and finally reward myself with a nice cup of tea and a real letter. What a nice surprise! Not only unexpected, but impossible to expect.