It was Friday morning and the weekend was not off to a great start. My husband woke up with lymph nodes the size of golf balls. I had a head cold and an earache. My daughter Lucy had nothing and went to school. A few hours later, my head was even cloudier and my husband’s nodes were tennis balls. We were tired of lying next to each other in bed, moaning for no good reason, so I moved the tennis ball nodes out of my way and I got on the phone. The doctor’s receptionist said they don’t work Friday afternoons (how nice), but that my husband needed to get moving to the urgent care center. He drove himself, his cantaloupes hanging down, the sound of Girl Scouts singing “Do your Ears Hang Low” filling his head.
I had invited a group over to discuss the imminent closing of our local elementary school. Some of us were meeting for the first time. We were white middle-class women, so it took a while with the introductions. The women went into great detail about what last name they were currently using, why it was/was not the same as their husbands’, and how none of their children had the same last name as them nor even as each other. As if it was all by accident but at the same time purposefully progressive. After about half an hour of that, we got down to business, and were only interrupted every once in a while by the hostess sneezing into the biscotti and someone whispering “gross -- but isn’t she a college professor?” I found the “but” amusing.
After the group left, I wondered why I hadn’t heard from my husband -- was he dead in some ravine? At Target? Catching a matinee of Little Miss Sunshine? I knew that no matter which of these options was the answer, he would not call to tell me (he’s like that, self-effacing). I would have to do some work to find out what was going on. I called the urgent care facility and they said he was just leaving the doctor’s office and, yes, they would tell him to call me, which he didn’t. I pulled the blanket over my head on the couch and worried that I should be grading student compositions.
But all I wanted to read was the “people in the news” section of the paper, with its tales of Britney’s black hair and Tom Cruise’s postpartum depression. Reminding myself that I am in fact a college professor, I looked in the back of The New Yorker and tried, as every week, to come up with a line for the “cartoon caption contest.” As with every week, I came up blank. I went back to the local paper and read a letter to the editor about how the women who wanted the elementary school to stay open were acting like “unruly toddlers.” And they couldn’t even be identified because they kept changing their last names.
I turned back to the French compositions and my correction Code, which I have been using for 20 years. A is for accent (wrong one, needed, not needed); INT is for interrogative (wrong, needed, not needed—you get it); ORTH is for spelling mistake; SG/PL is for change singular to plural or vice versa; PAS CLAIR is for really, really, not clear; and MOT is for find a different word, please. After all these years, I can do this with my eyes shut, and that’s what I did.
But it was boring. I goofed around on the Internet, where I found that one scholar has the following to say about the usefulness of correction Codes: “Most students expect and value the feedback they receive in writing, and research has shown that there seems to be a connection between active correction of errors and improvement in writing skills.” I was equally pleased to find that “corrections place an importance on what is corrected,” for I myself have been doing this for years without realizing that it was a pedagogically sound practice.
I felt very pleased with my innate sense of pedagogically correct corrections. My own general impression is that students think that a “Code” is somehow modern, a type of technology even, making of composition writing a science. If A is B and C is D, then what is X? Should be a no-brainer. Thus, the teacher is exempt from accusations of being fuzzy, vague, and subjective about grading, that is, doing grading the humanities way. With science on my side, I sloshed through another composition.
My husband finally returned and recounted how worried everyone at the clinic had been, how many tests and IVs he had had, and in the end how many prescriptions he needed to get filled. No one at the clinic knew anything about what was going on with him, but it was Friday afternoon and they wanted to go home. By Saturday morning, his cantaloupes had devolved into lemons; my cloudy brain had devolved into Styrofoam. I drank tea and slowly battled my way through three compositions. “DEM” is for demonstrative adjective or pronoun (your choice). Then there’s “M” for verb mode. “Mal” (maladroit, awkward) is the least understood and usually ignored by students. When I corrected their revisions, I would have to decode their misunderstandings of the Code.
On Saturday afternoon, my husband took Lucy to horseback riding and they came back with a kitten. I was expecting this; in fact, I told Lucy she could keep a kitten if she promised not to quit Girl Scouts (after the sit-upon incident of a few weekends ago at Camp Hickiwawa -- if y ou read Fleur faithfully you’ll get this -- it was hard to keep her enthusiasm up). There she was, this eight-week-old tiny ball of white and gray fluff, already attacking our only armchair and already pooping indiscriminately. And the fleas. We gave her a flea shampoo and that provoked my husband to cite a cause for his neckline balls: He had had a leftover bot-fly from our August trip to Belize. It had been living in his skull for a while, quite a while, until he got sick of it a few days previously in the middle of the night and cut it out of his head with very sharp instruments. Then, unfortunately, he forgot Manolo’s (director of the Monkey Bay Wildlife Refuge -- again, try to read Fleur regularly) warnings and took a few showers with his special anti-dandruff medicated shampoo. It’s a real no-no to take a shower within three days of removing a cranial bot-fly; the water and soap sneak into the cavity vacated by the larvae and just sit there, ready to infect. Why the infection would move down to the neckline and form Monkey Bay balls is anyone’s guess.
I hadn’t had have to teach Friday, fortunately, but I had received my share of bizzarro academic e-mails, which I now read through. In response to a fairly straightforward recounting of some fairly obvious facts to the members of a department committee, I received a memo that accused me of making “strange allegations”: “Professor LaDouleur clearly knows nit of which she speaketh. She maybe was at the Macke machine when that decision was forced.”
Now, I’m the kind of academic old-timer who doesn’t mind at all accusations of making “false” allegations -- that comes with the territory. But “strange”? Was this like alien strange? X-Files strange? Kinky sex strange? And what were all these other borrowings from a Rosetta Stone that I couldn’t read? -- “nit”? “Macke machine”? (I didn’t even know our building HAD one!)
I decided this colleague must be speaking in Code, so I turned to my composition folder. PRON REL (relative pronoun); VOIX (active not passive; passive not active); MM (word missing) -- I found no references to “nit” and Macke machines (could that be MM?). I wished I had this guy’s Code. Maybe there was a link to it from the department homepage. Nope. I finally printed it out and underlined “nit” and wrote “ORTH” over it. I underlined “speaketh” and wrote “OLD ENGL” on top, thus inventing for the first time in 20 years a new entry for the Code. I underlined “forced” and wrote “UN CH” (unusual choice) above -- another new entry -- and I underlined “strange” and wrote “SEX?/ALIEN?” I gave the composition -- oops, e-mail -- a C-, because it was only midway through the semester and I figured my colleague had ample time to catch up to the level of the rest of the class.
Some students don’t appreciate the Code because they find my chosen symbols to be inane. Accents (A) are part of spelling (ORTH), as I’ve always said to them -- so why have a separate symbol that confuses everything? V is hard to distinguish from CONJ (conjugation) and T (verb tense), especially late at night over a 12th bowl of cereal (I tell them I understand, because I read an article about how college students really love cereal).
But I can’t change after all these years. I never had a secret handwriting when I was a child, although I certainly had many not-nice secrets I could have written down, and the Code was standing in for that. If I changed it, I would be changing my past, falsifying my secrets, using adjectives for adverbs and vice versa (ADJ/ADV). No, I wouldn’t correct their compositions on-line with red computer “tracking” ink. No, I wouldn’t use numbers instead of abbreviations in my Code. I was old, and I was tired; maybe I was even strange. They’d have to wait for me to retire to be moved into the 21st century, when Codes will surely come under fire, friendly fire in the Culture Wars.
The kitten, which Lucy insisted we call “Kitten,” still had a few fleas after her bath, but we told Lucy that was to be expected. A lesson in life, it turned out. We would do another wash, and then maybe another, and then just live with it until she was old enough to wear a collar and join the fat cats on the block. By Monday morning, the kitten knew where to poop, my head was clear, my compositions graded (most got C-), and my husband’s neck as smooth as a just-mowed lawn. 20 compositions, 30 fleas, and one bot-fly down, I thought; not a bad score for a weekend. And a really cute fuzz ball to look at. I chose a turtleneck with a triple collar to protect my neck from the fleas of academic life and set out for the office.
Fleur LaDouleur is the pseudonym of a professor of humanities at a Midwestern university.