Tue, Jun 5, 2012
Westerford High School, Cape Town
Some decades ago, an ethologist, Robert Ardrey, gained much exposure with the idea of the ‘territorial imperative’. His study of animal behaviour led him to the conclusion that the strongest drive in the beast was setting up his territory and marking the boundaries over which others of its kind must not cross unless prepared to bare tooth and claw. The thing which Ardrey said that had his name hanging in the air for a little while was that humans, too, mark their territory.
I teach English; I mark it. My territory is marking. Ardrey had it all wrong: there are no boundaries to marking.
It should be done in the confines of four walls, but many times it is not. Take any car park, for instance: it may not seem a desirable place in which to mark, but, on a Friday night, when you have been asked to drive a youth group to a mall in which they have disappeared for upwards of two hours to lurk, run around or play assorted evil games, there is a choice: does one stay inside the vehicle, positioned under as bright a light as possible, with all the interior lights also sucking away at the battery, or does one roam around the fabricated cement maze, doing nothing in particular? ‘Oh, but why not take your marking into a coffee shop? People do that all the time.’
No, the distractions are too many: give me a car park where the only distraction will be the security guard who might walk by a few times, looking suspicious at first, then sympathetic. A car park is quiet, uncomplicated and boring: it is not trying to be anything else but a car park, unlike coffee shops trying to infiltrate book stores, florists and food troughs. With a car park comes focus: it is so unpleasant that marking’s a pleasure. And you remember where you marked – now isn’t that something?
I remember: Grand West Casino (it comes with skating-rink attached – for the kiddies); N1 City (so depressing that the pen set the pages alight); a ten-pin bowling alley in Bellville, Kenilworth Centre (laser-hunting inside, dodgy characters outside) and Tyger Valley. These were always night experiences; daylight might have made them seem better, but I doubt it.
I never worried about being hijacked as I sat there. In fact the only time I have ever been worried about airing my scripts has been on the train. As no mugger would ever have obliged and lightened my load, it was not this I feared, but that some interested commuter would look over my shoulder and remark: ‘Oh, I see you are marking Senior Certificate First Language English (Higher Grade) Paper Two – how interesting.’ Yes, one was once ‘allowed’ to take home the hallowed scripts, provided it was not too obvious. I suppose that marking on a train can be called obvious, but I was once or twice tempted to klap a few en route to the centre, having the memo so in the brain that it could be done on the train. Planes, too, have been territory: once the turbulence is over and the passenger next door is either uninterested, uninteresting or absent, how about a script or two for entertainment?
Marking is very useful. As mentioned already, it can save one from malls. It can also gild the pill of chores. Years ago, when my children were very young, we belonged to a baby-sitting club which allowed us the luxury of phoning up members to book them to mind our kids for a particular night. It was a simple barter system: we were then in the red and when another couple needed someone to babysit theirs, we would be given the call. This worked out very well for me: not only did it save money, but it also advanced the cause of marking, provided that the children were not tetchy or hyper. Once they had been put to bed (usually by the parents who probably thought that it was best, seeing it was a dad not a mom who was doing the beat), I could mooch around, skim a few of their books, enjoy some of the delicious dainties which had been left as an offering and then settle into some serious marking. And it only got better: there’s nothing like getting ahead when there’s no choice but not to. Quite often the couple, enjoying the gorgeous freedom of being alone, would stay out far later than they had intended. When they put their heads very sheepishly around the door well after one o’ clock, they were not met by an indignant stare, but a cheery ‘Hi, enjoy yourselves?’ I had scored: there were extra points in the bag (if you came in after midnight, it was double points earned) and had rolled over a whole batch. Had I tried to do this on a weekend night at home, not a third would have seen the little red pen.
It’s where, not what I’ve marked that’s memorable. To illustrate: our school sets an infamous project which requires holiday marking: it is so long that taking them on during the term ends up in frustration as there is seldom time to settle down to them properly and feel any satisfaction in the process. But what do I remember about marking these (and, back in the bad old days before computers there were some dreadful 10,000-worders, horribly handwritten) … ? A rondavel overlooking a river at Hartenbos, a bungalow in the mountains above Aurora along the West Coast, a cottage in De Hoop Nature Reserve, others in The Wilderness and Citrusdal – even a girls’ hostel in P.E. and a boys’ in Jo’burg – these I remember well.
A piece of advice which everyone has heard at some time or another is: ‘Don’t take you work home with you.’ Teaching wouldn’t happen if that were heeded. Marking must be bagged, brought home and returned in one piece: it’s as simple as that. Home is where the marking is and marking is my territory.