by Eric Schoonover
The corgi sits next to the stack of papers. Perhaps he’ll eat some: there are essays on Melville, Whitman, even Elizabeth Bishop. Some tasty stuff, even whale meat there, but he only nickers and dreams of a Xmas-day bone. Children race through my study, loving to slide across the wide waxed floorboards on the runner rugs, their winter surfboards, crashing into the dictionary stand holding the giant Webster’s III. I shout. The dog looks up. The phone rings. It is the day before, long before, caller-ID, so I scrunch deeper into my great comfy chair . . . and hope. “Dad, the phone’s for you. Sounds like another sob story!”
Time: 9.30 a.m. 24 December, many years ago. This is the worst time in an academic’s year.
Our semesters always ended just before Xmas. Grades had to be submitted to the registrar within 78 hours after the final examination—in hand. So, if you gave an examination on the 23rd you’d be staring at a pile of blue books on Xmas day. The computerized processing of grades was far in the distance. Students could not discover their final grade until the New Year, when reports were sent home; we faculty posted grades on our office doors. But some students, even some of my students, couldn’t wait: they began calling before I’d even read their exams or papers. I had clearly informed them, repeatedly, that grades could be obtained only by those two methods: the registrar or the office door. But as my son, now too an academic, observed, “Some students never listen!” a remark that seemed to apply to a few of the some 7,000 students that I have “taught” over some 40 years of my life. (Quick checking on my arithmeticing fingers informs that probably I read a grand total of some 42,000 student papers in my academic career.)
The day before Xmas can be trying, even in a non-religious household. There are commitments of gifting, of cooking, of making music, of writing letters and cards, of visiting, of entertaining, of reading Dylan Thomas. Yet for the academic, all of this must be pushed aside in favor of the exam booklet, the term paper, the graduate thesis proposal. This is the worst time in an academic’s year.
And then the reading itself, after the younger children have fled to other adventures and the door firmly shut against the delicious smells of pies and strudels and sauces for the next day. Did Mr. Adams deliberately mis-read the exam’s instructions? He’s been a tough one, frequently missing class, missing quizzes, and then arguing about grades. Do I give him the benefit of the doubt? It’s too late for a make-up, which I always allow in term. I want my students to learn the material. If they fail or do poorly in a major segment, I feel as if they should have a second chance.
So now, with grades due in a few hours, there’s no second chance. And that first paragraph lead in Daphne Cook’s term paper on Anne Sexton sounds awfully familiar—and it’s not credited. Well, other matters are, thoroughly credited. And, you know, once you say something about Sexton, everyone else seems to have said it too. This is the worst time in an academic’s year.
Hey Professor Softy, get a grip. But I can’t just now; I have to drive to the station to pick up the New Yorkers who feel a seasonal urge to be in the country in a large Victorian farmhouse fairly near the ocean.
Morning has gone, strident Xmas trumpets blast through my thickened door. “Dad, Mom wants to know whether you can . . . and now!” A sandwich, edges curling up, has been set on my desk. Thoughtful, maybe. I think of the Frost poem we studied last month:
. . . I am done with apple-picking now. / Essence of winter sleep is on the night, /. . . I am drowsing off. “Daddy, Henry won’t play Candyland with me!” I Drowse.
I check the pile of remaining exam booklets—constantly wishing that it will magically shrink to one, well, maybe two. It won’t. I’d like to skip that part of the course. “Dad, they’re back from the beach, and Mom says it’s time to make them cocktails.” That’s the answer. An anodyne. It’s danger? More sleep. This is the worst time in an academic’s life.
After midnight, after Santa has descended though our enormous fireplace and arranged all of the presents just so, after I have relaxed again into the depths of my Morris chair, after a blanket has been pulled up over me (thoughtful) and I might just sleep a bit more, the number of booklets has magically, it seems, reduced itself to very few. And then I think of the ending of that great story of Christmas written by the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas: I said some words to the close . . . darkness, and then I slept.
Eric Schoonover, Professor Emeritus of American Literature and Literature of the Sea at the University of Rhode Island, now lives in a small 1735 Cape Ann cottage with his wife, a writer. Gone the corgi and the farmhouse, gone the blue books and even Candyland. “An Academic Christmas” will appear in Schoonover’s forthcoming book, Telling Tales.