How long has it been since you handed in a paper, and had someone grade it? Tests and grading seemed to be a way of life when I was growing up. Every Friday, when I was in Miss Jordan’s 4th grade class, we had a spelling test. She would lean against the front her desk, rather unceremoniously, and read the test list of spelling words we were supposed to know how to spell.
It was always quiet in our room, during those spelling tests. Miss Jordan would always say the words on the test twice, with a fifteen second pause between sayings. During that pause, we were supposed to be thinking, and if we knew how to spell the word, write it on our paper. The words all had to be numbered. And they had to be in the right order. And after you had done your best to spell the word just pronounced, you were supposed to look up at Miss Jordan so she could see that you had answered the question, before she read the next word. Usually, it was a twenty-word test. Twenty moments to wait, twenty words to spell.
At the end of the verbal test, Miss Jordan always said, “Now, pass your paper to one of your neighbors, and we will grade your spelling test. (Miss Jordan was no dummy. Having the kids correct the papers meant all she had to do was record the grade in her book.) And, once again, Miss Jordan would begin to read the twenty-word list of spelling words. Only this time, after she pronounced the word, she would slowly spell it, so every kid in the class could compare what his ‘neighbor’ thought was the correct spelling with the actual spelling. If the spelling was correct, we marked nothing. No ‘C’ for correct, or ‘G’ for good job. No mark at all if the word was spelled correctly.
But if the spelling was incorrect, we were to make a large and easily detectable check mark by the misspelled word. No hint at what was wrong, or why it was misspelled. No mercy for the offending speller. Just a large check mark.
Then, after all twenty words were checked, we were to write the number of wrong or misspelled words at the top of the page, draw a circle around it, and return it to its owner. Everyone had to own their own spelling test.
How many times, I wonder? How many tests did I grade in my growing up years? How many check marks did I leave on my neighbor’s page as testaments to the reality that they didn’t know the correct spelling of a word? And why, I wonder, did I take a sort of almost undefinable delight in finding a word that was misspelled and marking it ‘incorrect.’ It was like my job to find misspelled words. I was almost disappointed when my neighbor spelled the word “antagonist” correctly. And I was secretly pleased when he missed the word, ‘association.’ I marked it wrong! And after all twenty words had been carefully evaluated, I wrote the number of wrongly spelled words on the top of the page, with large numbers, and a circle, so Miss Jordan would be sure to see. And, I can still feel the sadness and pain of misspelling a word, myself, and having my neighbor mark my ignorance with a large number, and a circle around it at the top of my test so Miss Jordan would be sure to see it.
I am still struck occasionally with the idea that I am somehow responsible for finding all the misspelled places in my neighbor’s life. I hope to someday outgrow that strange need for checking off all the missteps, and mistakes, and shortcomings in those I share life with. I mean, it’s not as if it’s my job to keep track of such things and report the mistakes I see to God. No. I’m responsible for something that never showed up when I was grading those spelling tests in Miss Jordan’s 4th grade class. I’m not responsible for spelling. I’m responsible for … mercy.
(Luke 6:36 —) “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. “Do not judge, and you will not be judged; and do not condemn, and you will not be condemned; pardon, and you will be pardoned.”