It's the second to last time I'll grade the Regents exams in this job. Penultimate, I say to myself as I get out of my car in the school's parking lot. It's a minute and a half before I'm required to be there. I've gotten good at timing these things so I'm not early or late. Arriving late might lead to discipline and more contact with management. Arriving early would have me here longer than absolutely necessary. Nearly eighteen years on this job I've learned what does and doesn't work out. Penultimate, I say again. Today and again in June, then I'm done.
Inside, maybe waiting to see who shows up when, is the principal, the third in two years, borrowed from another division which he also has to manage. I say hello to him and the vice principal. The vice principal is a guy with whom I get along. I used to work here in the afternoons and he appreciated my ability to take care of things in the classroom, to keep most of the kids from roaming the halls, and to connect with kids. He gives me a hearty good morning and says that Regents grading is down the hall in the usual place. Thanks, I tell him. I say good morning to the principal, calling him by name. He almost nods. Oh well. I go down the hall wondering. Is he stressed out, stretched too think like the rest of us, freaked out by Regents exams? Or is it me? Could be. I'm not exactly beloved by management.
Whatever. I've got Regents exams to grade. I go down to the room and the usuals are there. The scoring leader who wishes I was scoring leader. The guy who has my old job. A couple others who are nice but don't factor much into my thinking. It's really just the scoring leader, the other guy, and me. We know the routine. We've done this together going on nine years. We make it work.
The morning begins as always with waiting. Tests haven't been delivered. Not everyone is here. There's no hurry. We can grade the tests in a few hours and never run late. There's coffee and chit-chat. I wait a few minutes before telling them that I'm on my way out. They look curious, maybe suspicious. I'm not coming back next year, I tell them. The other guy nods. He gets it. He asks what I'm going to do. I smile. I don't know. He nods again. He gets this too. The scoring leader says, you're not really, but changes tracks and says she can't blame me. She laughs and says, but now you'll never be scoring leader! I nod. It's a heavy blow, but I'll bounce back.
Grading the Regents isn't a terribly intellectual activity. It's straightforward and comes down to organization. It takes a full day only because it's poorly organized. The three of us are grading machines by now. The youngsters have to be taught how to grade. There would be more old-timers but management can't hang onto teachers. Most of the teachers we train to grade these things are gone in two or three years. Many years we start if not from scratch close enough to it to slow things down. That and no one listens to how things should be done.
Years ago I wrote a plan for collecting and organizing the exams each of school. It would require an extra five minutes at the school but save us at least an hour. The scoring leader suggested some revisions and took the finished plan to management. It was good stuff and would have also worked for other departments. We sent the plan and never heard back. The scoring leader, a few years back, asked if we should send it again. I probably smiled. I may have laughed. We decided against it.
Once the tests arrive we do the prep work. This is easy for the scoring leader, the other guy, and me, but takes a bit more for the newbies. By the time we are ready to grade I've been in the building ninety minutes and am wondering again why we show up on time. I don't love having my time wasted even when I'm on the clock and getting paid. Then again, I'll do this one more time and be done. The thought doesn't make my complaints disappear but they sure do shrink. I ask the other guy if he's ready. We read most of the essays because we can and it's just easier that way. He says, sure. We're always ready.
The scoring is uneventful. The newbies do their part. We do ours. Once the tests are all graded, I start going through all the test papers checking that we have all bubbled, initialed, and printed our names on every test. I worked through each school's stack of tests, correcting the mistakes, counting to be sure all the exams are here, putting them in order. Once checked, I straighten the stacks and get them set for the scantron. The scoring leader asks again, how are you not the scoring leader? I give her my usual look and she shrugs.
The other guy mentions how detail-oriented I am. The scoring leader says, you're so careful about all the little things. Mr. Organized. I remember the instructions I wrote for this process which were lost in transmission or discarded out of hand. I like systems that work. I know how to create those systems, implement them, and help people own them. I just want to get it going. I'd prefer not to be scoring leader. I'm happy to be of use to her. If I organized the whole thing, she would happily administer it and we would all work more deeply and in more satisfying ways.
I've had these thoughts every time. Think Charlie Brown trusting that Lucy won't pull the football away. And every time I end up on my back with Lucy looking down calling me a blockhead. Rats.
I had a thought this time that we should list the schools on the white board and cross off each section that's done. It would help us track where we're at and what needs doing, saving us from searching for what comes next. I mention it to the group and they agree we should do that in June. Then I think, one last time, man, and you're free. It's a good feeling. I lean back. The tests are graded but we have some more waiting time. The system is backed up somewhere down the line. That's fine. It's early and we'll be out soon enough. I think penultimate again, repeating it in my head, counting the letters. Six consonants and five vowels, eleven letters in all. This penultimate time is almost over. Next time will be the last. By then I'll be days from my last in this job. I suppose such a thing just has to be called the ultimate. It sure is starting to feel that way.