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Margin Notes on Gentleness

By May 1, 2015 3 Comments

Once again I am inviting a guest to post in my place. After losing my dad on April 16, my mom suddenly declined. She is now in hospice care with an advanced cancer diagnosis. I welcome your prayers for her and for my family.

Today’s post is from Lauren Boersma, one of the regular writers for The PostCalvin blog. This post appeared there on March 24. Thank you, Lauren, for this gift!

I’m a ninth and tenth grade English teacher. I assign a lot of papers, which means I grade a lot of papers (I know, I know. I signed up for this. Unless you signed up to be a rebarbative pest, please go away). I teach approximately one hundred students.

Let me tell you something. One hundred papers is an insane amount to grade. It’s inhumane. I’m not complaining. I’m stating a basic psychological human fact.

I’m also complaining.

Wednesday evening, I graded papers. Thursday evening, I graded papers. Friday night, I played violin for a wedding, and I slipped five essays into the outer lining of my case and snuck off to make margin notes in between wedding toasts. Saturday afternoon, I spent five hours at a coffee shop while, somewhere in the world, somebody baked an entire casserole, cleaned the house, and did seventeen loads of laundry. Saturday night, my boyfriend went out with his friends, my roommate went to a work party at the Gilmore mansion, and I spent my evening with a fraying knapsack and an immortal stack of essays in the 28th street Denny’s.

Grading stresses me out. My heart feels like it’s in a doorless, windowless room that’s slowly filling with water. My eyes get crusty. My head gets hazy. My body feels like someone has stabbed two violin pegs into the place where my shoulders meet the bottom of my neck, tightening all my muscles like strings near the point of breaking.

When I grade essays, one of the biggest psychological roadblocks I encounter is the unshakeable feeling that it’s all futile. Nobody cares.

Friends say “That sucks. See you next Tuesday!!”

Inconsiderate jerks say “You signed up for this.”

Students throw twenty-two minutes worth of margin notes into the recycling bin, if they’re feeling environmentally friendly.

It makes me want to cry. It makes me want to quit my job. It makes me want to gather everyone I’ve ever disapproved of into one giant lecture hall, to stand behind a lectern and present an articulate, well-reasoned multi-media presentation of rage on every perceived injustice I’ve ever experienced.

I quiver on the edge of defeat. I snap at my friends. I whine to anyone who will listen. I pick at my boyfriend. I begin to hate most things in the world.

This particular Saturday night, in Denny’s, my vanilla ice cream and characteristic joyful temperament were melting into a puddle of white-chocolate raspberry pancake balls and self-loathing.

My waitress was a young person around my age, with a genuine smile, square-frame glasses, and hair in shades of fuschia and teal.

“Are you ready to order?”

“Can I get you any more water?”

“Refill your hot chocolate?”

“Will that be all tonight?”

She tapped her fingers on the computer screen, waiting with my debit card in her left hand, and glanced down at the stack of orange-markered, poorly-stapled papers resting on the counter.

“Are you a teacher?” she asked me, smiling.

I gave some sort of half-crazed blink that indicated the accuracy of her assumption.

And then, this dear person with Buddy Holly glasses and My Little Pony hair said “I think that’s amazing.”

And I said I think I want to buy you a summer home off the coast of Maine.

Aloud, I actually just sort of half choke-sobbed a word that may have been “thanks” or “shbuurr.”


When I got my wisdom teeth out in high school, I reacted very poorly to anesthesia. Not in a physical, life-threatening way, but instead, in a weirdly melancholy panic attack. I have a very vivid memory of sobbing in an elevator, touching things repeatedly and begging my mother to tell me whether or not they were real.

With her words Saturday night, that waitress had done the emotional equivalent of re-introducing me to what was real, but instead of my instability wearing off gradually, as the anesthesia had done, her words caused human gravity to return all at once.

I cried on the way home, and thanked God for the existence of this person. What an easy thing it is, for us to affect other human beings. What a wonderfully and frighteningly easy thing to do. And also so difficult. I can write comments in the margins for years without altering a student’s trajectory even a degree, but one off-handed comment in a Denny’s altered my trajectory for a month, bare minimum.

Words are important.

I believe that, and I suppose it’s one of the reasons I teach English in the first place.

I also suppose I became a teacher in hopes that the thousands of margin notes, probing questions, rebukes, and gentle reminders would pile up into a ramp that will lift a student just the tiniest bit closer to the height they aim for. (If I die young, you can read this line at my funeral. Side note: I’d prefer not to be buried in satin, or laid down on a bed of roses. Laying me down on a bed of Nutella and Disney VHS tapes will suffice.)

Sometimes, I wander around in that anesthetic fog of discouragement and feeble apathy, then I’m reminded by someone’s gentle words that there are things that are real, that are tangible, that are worthwhile.

And I think that’s amazing.

Debra Rienstra

I am a writer and literature professor, teaching literature and creative writing at Calvin University, where I have been on the faculty since 1996. Born and bred in the Reformed tradition, I’ve been unable to resist writing four books about theological topics: beware the writer doing theology without a license. My most recent book is Refugia Faith: Seeking Hidden Shelters, Ordinary Wonders, and the Healing of the Earth (Fortress, 2022). Besides the books, I’ve written well over two hundred essays for the RJ blog as well as numerous articles, poems, and reviews in popular and scholarly contexts. I have a B.A. from the University of Michigan (Go Blue!) and a M.A. and Ph.D. from Rutgers. I am married to Rev. Dr. Ron Rienstra, and together we have three grown children. Besides reading and writing, I love classical music, science fiction, fussing in the yard, hiking, and teaching myself useful skills like plant identification and—maybe someday—drywall repair.


  • /svm says:

    I, for one, read all my margin notes from high school English, and kept my papers — only those, somewhere — lo these forty years. Most memorable red-penned note was the circle and question mark around the word, “vies.”

  • RJV says:

    Ditto, svm. And I recently penned a thank you note to a former high school English teacher whose margin notes — and encouragement — have led me to a lifetime of appreciation for thoughtful expression and the beauty of words and lexicon (and, I might add, strongly contributed to my success in testing out of English 100.) Take heart, Lauren!

  • James Schaap says:

    “Someday you have to write a novel,” my teacher scribbled on an old essay I wrote a thousand years ago. When my first novel came out, I gave her the dedication. I’ve still got that paper.

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