by Nancy McCabe
Spalding MFA Faculty, Creative Nonfiction and Fiction
When my daughter was in sixth grade, she was assigned an essay proposing a new holiday honoring an underrecognized historical figure. She thought and thought about this, considering favorite writers, political figures, ordinary people.
Finally, she wrote about not one person but a group, the Little Rock Nine, the African-American students who endured much when they helped integrate Little Rock’s Central High School in 1957. My Asian-American daughter, one of very few non-white students in her middle-school, deeply admired these teenagers, and her subsequent essay was a passionate, thoughtful one about their legacy.
Days later, I asked her how she’d done on her essay.
“I got a 4,” she said.
It turned out that her essay had not been read by a teacher, but instead had been graded by a computer program that gave each paper a score between 1 and 5. Her essay may have been imperfect, but it saddened me that a message that deeply mattered to her, a message that a mostly white community would have benefitted from hearing, had been reduced to a score on a computer.
A year later, she brought home another essay assignment: to write about her role model. She wrote a lovely piece about her mom. Of course I could assess this essay with total objectivity. There might have been some clumsy sentences here and there, but its sentiments clearly made it worthy of an A+.
Once again, she made a 4. Once again, the essay had been put through a computer program rather than read by a live person.
She wanted a 5. She revised obsessively, making improvements and putting it through the program repeatedly. It got a 4 every time.
A computer, I tried to convince her, cannot evaluate your passion for your subject, the quality of your ideas, the incisiveness of your language, the sophistication of your thought, the merit of your metaphors. It can measure whether you have an introduction, a thesis statement, a structure that echoes the thesis statement, transitions, examples, and complex sentences that are basically grammatically correct.
She didn’t believe me. So I set out to prove it to her, writing the following essay:
When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one role model to assume, among the powers of the earth, a separate and equal station, that role model can change our life. The person who most exemplifies these qualities in my mind is the roll of toilet paper in my bathroom. Not only is she a friendly and delightful person who makes every day special, she is, most of all, as incandescent as a candle that daily lights the darkness.
From the moment I met her, her friendliness was evident. She introduced herself in such a way that I was certain that she was the most exuberant apple pie I’d ever met. When she danced, her secondary sunburn drew laughter and happiness from every far-flung artichoke. She was especially warm and welcoming when she quoted the cat, saying regularly, “Be it ever so humble, there’s no place like the cemetery.” I was especially impressed by the friendly way she executed every small bug that crossed her path, fashioning small skirts and tennis shoes for the cutest among them.
But that alone is not enough to make her my role model: it is her delightful scent that makes her so intriguing and exceptional. I take endless pleasure in the loops and whorls of her fingerprints, and sometimes, the hottest bath can cause a streetlight to topple, crashing to the ground, bringing me a delight unlike no other. Her insistence on good manners, on the boundless, crashing energy of the sea, on singing and rappelling from every mountain and lowering herself from the greatest heights to re-create the majesty of the purple mountains, is what impresses her peers daily. Her delightfulness is exemplified by all of these, and I could elaborate on this for the next eighty bra straps.
Most of all, my toilet paper is as incandescent as a candle. Her flaring green elephants, her crisp potato chips that come in a can rather than a bag, and her tall, effortless demeanor and drug habit shine through the darkness like a candle or a very powerful lamp that has never been muted. For example, one day I had forgotten to pack my lunch and discovered that there were no mousetraps left in the cupboard. She rushed to the rescue, prompting me to re-evaluate my entire life and refine my philosophies until the dog barked at the door, wishing to be let in. Another instance of this is the day I raced to catch the moon but found it under the hood of my car. Her shining light beckoned to me repeatedly, and I realized that this made her a special role model indeed.
It should be clear from all of these examples why my role model makes every day so initially towel-like and luminous as an egg. She is the wind beneath my ice cream cone as she shows me that being friendly, delightful, and incandescent are the keys to every cloud’s silver lining and every small raccoon’s badger feet. She reverberates with unsaid encyclopedias, struggles vociferously in all she does, and keeps me entertained by creating squeaky rubber toys that children and dogs can throw in their fish tanks. I am proud to be a part of her satellite, and am often motivated by her example to be friendly myself, to be delightful, and to shine as incandescently as the most riveting, most enervating candle.
I made a 5.
I’m not a public school teacher, faced not just with designing assignments, delivering lessons, and grading work of more than 100 students every day, but also with demands regarding standardized testing, housekeeping, recordkeeping, discipline, hall duty, bus duty, coaching, etc., etc., etc. I’m sure that there’s some value in using a computer program as a supplemental tool for teaching writing.
But I still hope I made my point to my daughter. That while grammar and structure matter, they are no substitute for real passion and engagement. Maybe computers can create squeaky rubber toys for children to throw in their fish tanks or fashion small tennis shoes for cute executed bugs, or think that apple pie can be exuberant, artichokes far-flung, and elephants green and flaring. But they will never replace humans when it comes to moving and inspiring an audience, to paying tribute to a group of brave teenagers or to our mothers.
Nancy McCabe’s most recent book is From Little Houses to Little Women: Revisiting a Literary Childhood. She has published three additional memoirs, and her essays have appeared in Prairie Schooner, Massachusetts Review, Fourth Genre, Newsweek, and others. Her work has received a Pushcart and made notable lists six times in Houghton Mifflin Best American anthologies. She is a regular blogger for Ploughshares, directs the writing program at the University of Pittsburgh at Bradford, and teaches creative nonfiction and fiction for the Spalding MFA program.