For a few months one summer I worked at Measurement Inc., an organization in North Carolina that grades the essays children write for standardized tests. I worked there to help put myself through graduate school. Instead of shelving organic food or putting chocolate sprinkles in customers’ lattes like most starving grad students, I somehow decided to read essays written by third-graders. To this day I am not sure what I was thinking.
The work was pretty grueling, now that I think back on it. Dozens of test scorers sat in rows in a classroom, and during the first week of training, we were drilled on the criteria for evaluating essays. Over and over we scored samples according to a strict rubric. We were looking for three things: a paper had to have a main idea, supporting evidence and specific details. Each category received a score from one to five.
After we were all calibrated, the scoring began. We read essays nonstop from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., every day. Since Measurement Inc. served schools nationwide, we worked in volume. There was such pressure to grade quickly that we became an assembly line of critique. Henry Ford would have loved it. I often wondered that summer why anyone would want to grade essays for a living.
One older woman named Alice had obviously been there for a long time. She had a raspy voice, perfect for cracking one-liners. If you remember Selma Diamond from “Night Court,” you can picture Alice. She was such a pro that she could score two dozen essays during a nap. That’s why her preferred seat in the room was behind a huge white column. I asked her once how she could stand staring into the column all day. Alice deadpanned, “I have a vivid inner life.”
Only one thing made the job bearable and kept Alice and me going. All of the children were given the same writing topic: Describe the funniest thing that ever happened to you.Eight-year-olds do not generally have a highly sophisticated sense of humor. Their stories often featured people bumping into things, falling down and getting gassy at bad moments. Any episode of the Three Stooges would cover most of the topics they found hilarious. But there were occasional gems. About once a day, we’d all stop grading to listen to an essay that was a real howler. After a few weeks, I started jotting them down.
Recently I found my list of some of the funniest things that have ever happened to third-graders. And as I re-read the catalogue of comedy and tragedy, I remembered the stories, such as the boy who glued his eye shut. Or the girl who fell up the stairs and got carpet in her braces. Or the poor screaming child who ran around the beach with a crab pinching his backside. Or the boy whose sister once picked her nose while on a date and got a Lee Press On Nail stuck in there.
Some of the stories about adults were pretty wild. One kid’s grandmother got so mad during the movie “Die Hard” that she threw a doorstop at the TV. Some unfortunate mom got her head caught in a steering wheel. One poor lady suffered the indignity of having a lizard poop on her nose. According to one child, a “fat bald man caught the spirit at church,” ran around the room until he got his head stuck in a fake plant and then fell and “squashed a choir girl.”
Even worse things happened in the bathroom. One girl fell “way down in the toilet” and got stuck. When rescue efforts failed using peanut butter and Crisco, we’re told that “the fire department came and sawed her out.” Another child got her hand caught in the sink, and the paramedics ended up taking both the girl and the sink to the hospital. One boy learned why you should never tinkle near an electric fence. I especially liked the child who had mastered his euphemisms and wrote about the time he “used the washroom” on himself.
Occasionally, spelling and usage caused problems. One child began his story by saying, “I’ve seen many funny things, but this one cuts the cake.” One boy broke his leg and had to wear a “casket” for four months. Another child did his best to describe the family Halloween costumes. They went as “Count Drackqueler,” “Doctor Franckinstime” and a “Gost in a Big White Shet.”
But of all the stories from that summer, my favorite was both funny and endearing. As often happens in the world of children, it seems that a little girl wet her pants at school. But instead of laughing at her, the entire class decided to wet themselves in solidarity to make her feel better. Leave it to kids to figure out that we’re all in this together. United we stand, divided we leak. Have a great summer.