Here's the thing: no matter how much academics love teaching, their discipline, the topic of their course and/or their students, nobody loves to grade. (My colleague Art Carden used to say: "I teach for free. They pay me to grade.") And because academics continue to indulge the fantasy that their travails are not only uniquely their own, but also of monumental importance to the rest of you, they tend to complain a lot and loudly when the Grading Season rolls around every May and December. To wit, this past Thursday, after the first few hours of grading and remaining dwarfed by the massive pile of grading-still-to-do in front of me, I posted the following status update on Facebook:
Grading-Break Report #1: Have been working since 7am. The pile remains massive, seemingly immune to my efforts at reducing its power or size. I think it just laughed out loud. I blink hard in a demonstration of pride and bravery. I will not cry.One of my friends (Marcus) commented that I should start penning these reports "in the tone of Civil War letters home." I agreed, on the condition that Marcus agreed to being be my addressee, which he did. And that, dear readers, was the beginning of the Rhodes College/Facebook/Twitter phenomenon now appropriately hashtagged as #GradingWarLetterstoHome.
As happens with these sorts of things, others have decided to join in the fun. My colleague, Charles McKinney, is writing similar letters during his grading breaks, bravely contributing his share as a Scribe of this War. For posterity, if not also for a chuckles, I've decided to collect our missives here in a single blogpost. I'll update this post each time a new #GradingWarLettertoHome appears, so you'll have to keep checking back, and I'll keep them in chronological order so that the most recent is always at the bottom of the page.
Here you go, reports from the front-lines, updated daily until the Grading War mercifully ends.
5 December 2013, 3:29pm
The battle here rages on unabated, only intensifying my longing for Deliverance, for the warmth and Safety of your hearth and for some respite from the agonies that our Blessed Providence has appointed me. I take up my pen now only as consequence of the Fortunate arrival of a ravenous hunger, which came upon me unawares and forced my momentary retreat from the front lines. Despite the pains, I give Thanks for this brief moment to recall my Fondness for you in these lines. Also for the brief moment to avail myself of the ever-diminishing rations.
I do not wish to stoke the fires of your Concern for my station, but I fear that Nature herself conspires against us. This very eve, the temperatures are falling as swiftly as our morale. Take confidence, dearest, that I have not yet shed the shameful tears of cowardice and resignation. I am resolute, even if increasingly weak. I pray the morrow is less portentous. I pray you pray the same for me. I remain, as ever,
Leigh M. Johnson
It has been a long first day in battle. We engaged with Steadfast valor and Discipline, despite the overwhelming force of our Opposition, who seem to outnumber us as the stars in Heaven outnumber all of our days below the Firmament. Alas, I fear the end remains as regrettably distant as I am from you now.
I regret to report that it grows frightfully cold and dark here. I can neither see nor think clearly enough to continue on. I trust and Hope, as I know you do also, that Grace provides me another day to venture forth in and for the Right.
There is a strange, small, mechanical contraption nearby, around which the others have gathered and from which a Strange melody pours forth. The little Box sings that that the Hills are alive with, that our Hearts will be filled with, the Sound of Music. Oh, sweet Marcus! Would that our hearts shared those musical Hills together at this very moment!
My love to Father, Mother, and all our dear friends safe at home, who I trust are watching over you. Until my return, of which we both must remain assured, I continue to be
Leigh M. Johnson
PS- There is another soldier with me, whom you may know. His name is Charles McKinney. Please check in on his family as you are able. You must care for one another there, as we do here, and as God and His Angels do for us all.
6 December 2013, 10:05am
I take up my pen this morning to inform you once more of my disconsolate station. Please pardon the poor condition of this missive. You no doubt hold it in your delicate hand now soaked and tattered by the wretched weather conditions that have beset us. Pardon also the weak penmanship, the lack of Poetry in these lines, the ineptitude of my authorship. An icy cold paralyzes both hands and mind this morn. Only Prayer and memories of you keep my Soul safe from the same frozen ruination.
I return to the front today with a heavy heart as I have yet to receive a reply from you. Our young mail-boy, Josiah, was always a delicate and sick creature. I pray his fragility has not prevented him from dispatching his most important of Duties: carrying home my news and my love to you, dearest Marcus. What little I have seen of the Grading War, already far too much for one Soul, has convinced me that its greatest cruelty is this unbearable loneliness.
Steeling myself once more for today's fight, I expectantly await some affirmative report of your Welfare and remain, as ever,
Leigh M. Johnson
PS- Unfortunately, I am unable to send news of our friend Charles, who is stationed nearby but from whom I have received no word of late. You should carry a positive report to his family nonetheless. In the meantime, we can hope together that Providence finds a way to make your false report a True one.
I pray this finds you well and taken neither by fever, hunger, exhaustion nor the wretched loneliness that animates my pen now. It is late afternoon here. The Wintry Hell, which I only scarcely described in my previous letter, continues. It is punishing, dear Marcus, as merciless as it is relentless, simultaneously freezing and burning what remains of my and my compatriots' Will to persevere. I will not frighten you with the horrific details, but today's battles have been particularly disheartening.
And so, I have withdrawn to a nearby billet where I have found a moment to write, a hearth and, I confess, also a bottle of spirits.
This moment to think on you, the comfort of the fire and the blankets here are a welcome respite, but the spirits' warmth is truly a Godsend. I must confess that some of the others look upon me now askance and with the Judgment of a stern Parson for my present indulgence. They insist it is far too early in our struggle to mollycoddle the drunkard's vice.
To them, and to you, I say: Each must endeavor to survive this War as she can and as Providence permits, for there are no Guidebooks in the State of Nature.
I doubt I will return to the front again today, though I will remain, as ever,
Very Fondly Yours,
Leigh M. Johnson
PS- It pains me to relay that I am no longer certain of our friend Charles' fate. He promised regular reports, but the silence from his front is now deafening. Please say a prayer tonight that the Darkness has not fallen over his eyes.
PSS- As you are able, please also send report of Josiah.
I pray this meager note finds you comfortable and protected from the many and various enemies and obstacles that persistently nip at our heels. It is my sincere hope that you suffer from none of the sickness, despair and loneliness that dog our weary steps and invade our mirthless dreams. As I hurry to complete my note, night falls. The cold and the persistent rain have conspired to place a blanket of ice over my fellow soldiers and me. The cold is merciless, my dear Leigh. I fear that many will not survive till the morning. And yet, we must push on, even in the face of this despair. Our dogged determination would have it no other way.
As we are wont to do from time to time, a few of the men and I gathered around a small fire to recount merrier times in the Grading War. There was Abraham, a sturdy fellow from Albany, New York, Frederick, a jovial blatherskite from Pittsburgh, and Peter from Dayton, Ohio – slow to talk but quick to laugh. All recounted moments that made them smile in the midst of this seemingly endless War. All seemed able to, if just for a moment, make some sense of the chaos in which we find ourselves. When they had all finished, they turned to me. I tried, Leigh, I truly tried, to conjure up a story that would bring some small solace, some vanishing wisp of pleasure to these men with battered bodies and broken spirits. But alas, I could conjure no image of a happier time. And so we fell silent, and took solace in the heat of a slowly dying fire.
When I read your note, I was heartened by the fact that you had found the comfort of a fire, blankets and a bottle of spirits. I take joy in your indulgence! And pay no mind to those who would interfere or otherwise hinder your justifiable pursuit of respite. I say to you, and anyone else who should happen upon these musings, you are more than justified in your pursuits, for you too know the unspeakable pain and indescribable anguish of this Grading War. So, find your pleasure. Find your comfort. Revel in what little sanctuary you discover along the stony road we trod.
One of the ancient Greeks wrote that “In our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, against our will, comes Wisdom – by the awful Grace of God.” If this is any true measure of Wisdom, I daresay that you and I – and all who endure this Grading War – are wise indeed.
I will try to write you again, but I cannot be certain of it. I will remain, as ever,
Very Fondly Yours,
Charles W. McKinney
7 December 2013, 11:20am
Oh Happy Day! This morn found my heart both gladdened and relieved after procuring news that Providence continues to shelter dear Charles from the most savage indignities of this Grading War. Just last evening, our beloved friend dispatched a treasure chest's worth of encouraging words in a brief missive to me. Even as I read them shivering in the dark and cold Silence of mid-night, I could hear the full-voiced wisdom and familiar aplomb of that baritone Sage ringing from his page.
Despite that Good News, I regret to report that already this War has begun to fray the moral fibres of my Soul, tested my spiritual devotion and given me pause. I find myself at intervals querying much that we Lambs of God have been taught, much upon which I have relied, much of what I heretofore have taken to be unquestionably True. Forgive me, dearest Marcus, when I confess: some of the Revealed truths of Scripture are now manifest as puzzles to my mind. The greatest enigma afflicting me at present, formulated as humbly as it is imperfectly, is this: Why did our blessed Saint Paul, in his first epistle to the Corinthians, give to Love a privileged place in the triumvirate of Faith, Hope and Love?
I say to you now, dearest Marcus, that our friend Charles' recent letter to me, coupled with the increasingly unbearable paucity of the like from you, inclines me to believe nothing more resolutely than that Saint Paul was wrong. The greatest of these is Hope.
But no more of this solemnity! I've availed myself of a hearty (even if tardy!) breakfast today and, as I write now, I am mere moments away from returning to the front rested, nourished, emboldened and hopeful. I dispatch this post, as ever, with love and devotion, with prayers for your Health and also that of Josiah, and I remain steadfastly and devotedly and
Leigh M. Johnson
I hope my slender missive finds you comforted by the fact that our mutual endeavor – this horrible Grading War – will be soon ended, at least for a while. I too am heartened to hear from you! Your kind and thoughtful words gave me proof once again in the kind hand of Providence. It is a much-welcomed salve to my current situation. Your words warmed me, even in the midst of a seemingly endless night, a night bounded by cold weather that, like the Hounds of Hell, persistently nips at the very fabric of my being. Yes, your words were most welcome. I hope you will not mind, but I could not help but share them with a few of my compatriots – dear comrades who have not heard hide nor hair from any of their loved ones. Of course, they fear the worst – that this damnable War has gotten the better of their brethren. All I can offer them are my own solemn appeals to Hope – and the words of your letter. While these are not words sent by their own kin, they are words that nevertheless provide some small succor to those who hear them.
Dearest Leigh, I wish not to burden you with my persistent lamentations. And yet, only you can understand the depths into which this irredeemable odyssey drags my weary heart and fatigued mind. It seems as if many of my young charges – those who would lay claim to my tutelage – have neither heeded nor honoured the core of my instruction. A season of reckoning is now upon us; their various deficiencies are laid bare as I hear back from them. Their reports are a hollow mockery of the Language. At the merest investigation, their swelling phrases and garrulous insights are revealed to be nothing more than, to quote a learned man, “brass fronted impudence.” They quibble with me incessantly about the direction that I provide, and then proceed to disregard that very direction! Their musings are the plainest puffery. Their powers of argumentation seemingly crumble with a wisp of inquiry, at the slightest intimation of debate. Indeed, I grow weary of this Grading War, for it reveals in me a resounding uncertainty as to the quality of my tutelage. It forces me to look within the abyss, my dear Leigh, and question the very cause upon which I have staked my Sacred Oath.
Your letter means more to me than I can say, dearest Leigh. For in it, you have reminded me to take solace in Hope. Having done this, I am also reminded of the pupils who have shown themselves to be admirable, thoughtful and brave in the midst of this most trying of times. This Grading War is a scourge. It robs us of the full usage of our fragile faculties. Perhaps worst of all, it blinds us to the glimmer of progress that many of our weary soldiers make. Steven – a bright-eyed boy from Ohio – has rendered a persuasive report, most persuasive indeed. Susannah, from faraway California, has crafted a document whose words and thoughts echo the strength and intelligence she inhabits. Young Jennifer from Boston, wise beyond her years, has shown herself to be a most worthy constituent. Yea, though we walk through the Valley of the Shadow, Hope reminds us that we need not – indeed cannot – walk it alone. You have reminded me that Hope can be a beacon for us in this dark hour. It is a lesson that I shall not soon forget.
I will leave you now to return to the front line in this execrable Grading War. But I will do so having been nourished, both by your words and a hearty meal that will, God willing, sustain me for the treacherous undertaking that lies before me, before us. It is my desire that these few words, while written in haste, will find you comforted in the knowledge that you are not alone in this endeavor. It is Hope, indeed, that sustains us. And it is with a hopeful heart that these words will find you well.A
s ever, I remain yours in this Eternal Struggle, and pray that the Hand of Providence protect you and keep you.Your humble friend and compatriot,
Cherished friend! I take up this pen now, an instrument all-too-deficient for the task with which I charge it, after an admittedly brief service on the front today. I confess, dear Charles, that I am weary. I am tired. My early retreat from the battle on this day comes on the heels of two very long, hard-fought engagements. One can only strive as one is enabled by Fortune or Providence. I am confident that your Heart must confirm as much, if not also your Body.
I trust this letter finds you (and our Fellows alongside you) safe, warm and still persevering in the Struggle. I received your most recent missive only this last eve, with equal parts relief and delight. I understand from your report that your current post is close-by, though unfortunately too distant for us to exchange the long-overdue and reassuring embrace that might serve as our mutual salve. As you read this now, assuming as I must that Providence has not yet seen fit to alter my current state of affairs, I grievously report that I am not well. I fear my beloved Marcus, dear to you but far dearer to me, may have become—a consequence either of poverty or vice, I cannot be sure—yet another casualty of this War. For days now, I’ve received no word from him, despite my regular dispatches home. My heart aches tonight no less painfully than Job’s, though I cannot find within myself the strength evidenced by Job’s exemplary Patience. And so I write to you now, rather than to my dearest Marcus, as a fisherman casts his line out into fallow waters, hoping against Hope for some solicitous confirmation from the indifferent deep
Today, Charles, I found myself face-to-face with one of the Rebels. Her visage was desperate, exhausted and inconsolable, and I cannot help but report to you that I saw in her my own likeness. I ask you this, and only you, dear Charles: are you confident that we are on the side of Right in this War? My brief encounter with the Opposition inclines me to believe that they are like you, like me and like all poor Souls in these wretched trenches we share. They are, as I have borne witness, nothing more or less than the spiritual kin of Job. Do you not also wonder, in the cold and dark we now suffer, why this a War at all? Dare I ask you if this current conflict is, unthinkable as it may be to us now, nothing more than a charade? Who profits, my friend? Who gains? More importantly, who is destroyed? Who are our enemies, after all?
God forgive me this thought, but what if we simply refused to engage this War as it has been given to us to fight?
On that suspicion, no doubt blasphemous, I retire for the day. Godspeed the end to this ridiculous Conflict. As ever, my thoughts and Prayers remain with you and those beside you. In Hope and solidarity and, of course, in Friendship, I remain
Your Loyal Confidante,
Leigh M Johnson
I worry you may have fallen ill or, worse, that you have been beset by a Darkness so paralyzing that it prevents you from taking pen in hand. You must be aware by now, I trust, that I remain desperately and utterly in need of some reply from you. Please, my dear, send word of your condition post haste. I can only hope that whatever Misfortune conditions this protracted disappointment of mine has landed not on your (our!) sweet doorstep, but rather that of the incessantly unreliable Josiah's.
Neither of us were ever fond of, or trusted, that boy, I know. I won't tell Charles if you also wish Josiah ill.
With impoverished yet steadfast devotion, I remain,
Increasingly Suspiciously Yours,
Leigh M. Johnson