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A Man Like Me

It was time again to pass out the teacher appraisals to the students, so they could evaluate his instruction. Roger Castleman found the manila envelope containing the forms in his mailbox. The appraisal form was a sheet of paper with a battery of questions on the front and back dealing with the instructor's lessons, the amount of homework, the effectiveness of the instruction and the teacher's willingness to offer extra help. Next to each question was a series of blank holes students were asked to darken WITH A NUMBER 2 PENCIL ONLY, the instruction highlighted like a health warning on a pack of cigarettes. The holes represented a spectrum of responses from STRONGLY AGREE to STRONGLY DISAGREE.

Castleman supposed it was only fair to give the students a voice, or at least the illusion of having a voice, in the assessment of instructors; he had no idea how seriously the student evaluations were taken by the department though he knew that several times in the past the entire batch had been tossed out for one reason or another, deemed "corrupted" either because of the ambiguity of the questions or the conditions under which they were administered; he never learned why, didn't particularly care. Still, he resented being sized up and cut down by the students, as in a popularity contest. Of course, it was widely known that student evaluations always corresponded to grades. If a teacher's performance were marked "poor" or "unclear" it was more often than not by a student who was failing the course.

But what really got to Castleman was the way these evaluations undercut his pedagogic authority. Not that Castleman was an ivory tower type, but the whole procedure seemed to give the students the feeling they were determining his future, as if voting by secret ballot, and in effect he was nothing more than a shill for higher education, a replaceable part. And of course he was just a replaceable part, but why let the students think so?

Besides, who the hell were these students and why should their uninformed opinion matter? Weren't they here to learn? Shouldn't they be presumed ignorant until proven worthy? How, then, could they give an authoritative opinion on Castleman's knowledge of the subject, or his preparation for class, or how "fair" the homework assignments and tests were? These kids were hardly the ones to go to for judgments on such matters. It was like the marketing people in car dealerships calling to ask how the service was and thanking you for the privilege of helping you - pure gimmick.

But from the moment he laid eyes on his students every semester, Castleman was constantly sizing them up on the scale from A to F, continually evaluating and re-evaluating their grade, like a liquid bar of mercury sliding up and down a thermometer tube. Who would get an A, who would get a B, who would fail. The academic environment bred such a mindset, the endless, unremitting assessment of not just the perceived performance but the innate talent and intelligence of other human beings. As a student, he'd always known it wasn't the knowledge but the grade that mattered. Now, on the other side of the gradebook, he knew it just as surely. True, just as the thermometer told you how warm or cold it was, the grade had to stand for something, but the status the grade conferred was what really counted, no matter what anybody said. Not the knowledge, not the dialectic techniques, not the research habits. You could frame it as a slogan on your wall: It's the grade, stupid.

Passing out student evaluations was always like walking a gangplank. He knew exactly how each of the students would mark him. Smartass Jeremy Hoyt would give him middling marks, reflecting his own self-importance. (No teacher could tell him anything he didn't already know, and he was not going to be impressed by somebody who didn't go to Harvard!) Shelley MacArthur would fawn. She already told him he was a wonderful teacher, even though he knew he wasn't. She flattered him that he was caring and helpful and encouraging, but Castleman didn't see himself nurturing anybody's writing talent - he had enough trouble nurturing his own. Was there something of a student crush going on here or just pure student asslicking? But what if Shelley said something negative, is that what he really dreaded? Wouldn't that be worse than getting back what he expected? Who can argue with flattery, after all? Christopher Leach's assessment was one he would be curious to read, on the other hand. Chris could be counted on to give an objective analysis. Chris was fair-minded and insightful. But the others? Weren't they just looking into a mirror?

Castleman thought of the title of a book he'd seen at Border's the other day - How to Make People Like You in Fifty-nine Seconds. At the time, the title had struck him oddly - did it mean, how to make people who were just like you, or did it mean, how to get people to like you? The dichotomy kind of spelled out the dilemma of the teacher - do you try to shape the student's mind in your own image, or do you try to make yourself in the student's image of a "good teacher." Be like me, or just "like" me?

This year, the college was trying out what it called a new evaluation "tool," as if this were some sort of home improvement implement to prevent plaster from chipping or stop faucets from leaking. But it looked like the same old questionnaire as far as Castleman could tell, a darken-the-blanks form with a space provided for comments nobody would ever read. The form - the "tool" - was part of a larger program that went by the acronym INANE - INstruction Assessment NEtworking, a "process" by which instruction techniques were said to be standardized, educational "targets" identified, grading, ultimately, put on an objective scale to meet state-mandated goals developed by politicians; it was all based on the idealistic democratic model in which all students had the same abilities and the same motivations.

"We've got to have the EYE-EN-AY-EN-EE forms in by next week, Roger," Milly Spaay, the department chair, sang out as she sailed past him on her way to the 101 Textbook Committee meeting. Castleman looked up just as she rounded the corner, her plaid skirt twitching at the hem as she marched, military-style, to the conference room at the other end of the building. He put the manila envelope back into his mailbox and went in the other direction to his classroom.

A guest speaker was coming to the class that evening; Milly had arranged for Joyce Proudfoot to read from her works to some of the English classes. Two other classes, an introductory literature class and a composition class, would be joining his for the reading, so it was impracticable to administer the INANE forms that evening.

Joyce was a large woman of the Lakota tribe (or was she Cree? Castleman couldn't remember from her dustjacket) who wore her thick black hair in braids and had a serape with what looked like a Navajo design draped over her full figure. Castleman had not met her before but he had read her short story collection, Marsh Elder and Goosefoot, and was prepared for a much different person than the kindly, downright beatific woman who greeted him in his classroom, her books and papers already on the podium. From her stories about the mistreatment and exploitation of Native Americans he had expected an angry, combative little woman with a knife between her teeth.

Joyce's reading was passionate, heartfelt, and Castleman envied her presence at the podium, the confidence she exuded, the way she captured the group's attention, held their interest. He felt himself shrinking by comparison and wondered all at once how this might be reflected on a teacher evaluation form. Castleman was the first to admit he was less than dynamic, though like economists who shy away from using the word "recession" even in the face of the most depressed economy, he couldn't bring himself to say the word, "boring."

During the question-and-answer session that followed, the hands flew into the air like the quills on an angry porcupine. When had she started writing? How many drafts did she write? How did she begin writing a story? When did she know what the end would be? Who were her favorite characters? Did she write poetry as well as fiction? What was she working on now?

"I like to think of myself as part of a tradition," Joyce affirmed. She was large and impressive and authoritative, like the strong Native American women of legend. "But I also feel our stories are just part of one larger story, the story of humanity. Mine is only one voice out of the many, many voices that speak as well as the ones that are silent.

"But the Indian narrative tradition is a strong one - I feel more comfortable calling myself an Indian, by the way, rather than Native American or Indigenous," she said with mock self-deprecation that made Castleman love her. "But you can feel how strong the Indian narrative tradition is in the poetry and novels of the N. Scott Momaday, who won a Pulitzer Prize in fiction in 1969 for his House Made of Dawn. You can feel it in Sherman Alexie's work, Reservation Blues and The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. Have you seen Smoke Signals? He wrote the screenplay, based on his fiction. By all means, rent it from Blockbuster if you haven't already seen it! Tonight! After class!" The class laughed appreciatively at her enthusiasm, and Joyce giggled along with them before graciously continuing her thought.

"Other contemporaries include Priscilla Cogan whose novels include Winona's Web and Compass of the Heart, and bespeak ancient tribal wisdom; Vine Deloria, who wrote a scathing indictment of U.S. policy toward Indians in Custer Died for Your Sins and Behind the Trail of Broken Treaties; James Welch, a poet and novelist whose books include Winter In the Blood and The Death of Jim Loney; William Least Heat-Moon, who wrote Blue Highways, a sort of Travels with Charlie from a native's perspective, traveling the back roads of America; and Leslie Marmon Silko, author of Ceremony and Almanac of the Dead."

Christ! And she knew her stuff too! Castleman was floored. She'd consistently score the highest marks on any INANE teacher evaluation filled out by even the most cynical, most taciturn of students. He'd never be able to marshal his own thoughts in such a cogent and comprehensive manner.

The class went fifteen minutes beyond its usual limit, but the students didn't seem to notice or care. Under normal circumstances, it was the best Castleman could do to fill up the whole prescribed period, like a lame runner limping across the finish line, and often one of the students had to leave for some flimsy reason or other - a girlfriend's mother was having surgery or some other non-critical excuse. When Joyce looked at her watch and apologized for having to leave, she received a standing ovation, and several of the students who had bought her book begged her for her autograph. She left the classroom like a rock star mobbed by fans, leaving Castleman to erase the blackboard and turn out the lights.


On his way out of the Humanities building, Castleman ran into Milly Spaay again, who asked him how everything had gone. She was pleased with his report of the students' enthusiasm for the guest speaker.

"It's so hard to get them interested in anything. I wish we had more people like Joyce Proudfoot around."

Castleman agreed.

"Did you get the EYE-EN-AY-EN-EE forms filled out and into Tina's mailbox?"

"I'll do it next week," Castleman promised. "There were other classes with us, so it would have been awkward. Might have corrupted the results."

Milly looked at him sharply to see if he were making a joke but decided he wasn't. "Be sure to get them in next week. They've got to be in the academic dean's secretary's mailbox by next Thursday at noon, or else."

"I will, I promise," Castleman said, and to prove his sincerity he ran back to his mailbox and packed the manila envelope with the INANE forms into his briefcase before driving home.


One evening at his desk, reading through the short stories his students had submitted, Castleman idly looked over the INANE forms, to refresh his memory about the content. It was then that he first felt the impulse to fill the forms out himself, but only to reject the notion out of hand. It would be unethical to do so.

But the more he considered it, the more he thought, why not? It would serve the bastards right. The students would never ask about the evaluation forms, and if they did, he could make up a story about how they'd missed the opportunity because of Joyce Proudfoot's reading. Nobody in the department would ever find out; surely they didn't care what his scores were. Not that he was afraid of getting bad marks, just that he resented the practice in the first place. Of course, he'd have to vary his technique for marking the boxes, some with checks, others with X's, as well as darkening in the holes on others, as you were supposed to do. (What percentage of students ever follow directions, after all?)

Castleman spent a good fifteen minutes working out the details in his mind, shaking his head at the fiendishly clever ingeniousness of his plan, before going to bed. Then he forgot all about it until the afternoon before class, when he was collecting his material for the evening - assignment sheets, marked-up stories, a hand-out on going from situation to plot and magnifying conflict, which he hoped might stimulate some of the students and even, though it was doubtful, generate a discussion. And that was when he saw it, the manila envelope.

The whole crazy plan came spilling effortlessly back into Castleman's brain, and on impulse he opened the envelope and took out the forms. He looked at the directions again. Give the instruction sheet, envelope and INANE evaluation forms to a student representative. Write the course number on the blackboard and then leave the room while the student representative explains the procedure and the students complete the forms. When they have completed their forms, the student representative will deposit the sealed envelope into the academic dean's secretary's mailbox and notify the instructor that the evaluation process has been completed and class may resume.

Because this evaluation procedure would easily account for twenty minutes of the evening, Castleman was tempted to go along with the rules, but remembering the scheme he'd worked out was like recalling happy times he'd had with a former girlfriend, and he spread the INANE forms out on his desktop and proceeded to write in the course number in the space provided on the upper right corner of the form.

It was about then that Castleman started to feel trapped. What could he do now? Wasn't he committed to his deception? Could he simply erase the number from the forms? Tell the students he'd gone ahead and filled that part out for them? But wouldn't that be unethical in itself? With a doomed feeling he plunged on, filling out one form entirely, giving himself the highest marks. He was committed now; there was no turning back. He filled in another form, again blackening holes with the highest scores. And then a third. The fourth he marked with X's and the fifth with slashes, a sixth with checkmarks. He left one or two questions unanswered, and modestly gave himself lower scores for "preparation" on a few and even, on one "grades fairly" he answered STRONGLY DISAGREE.

But as he went on he felt himself snared in a web of deceit and he had a sudden memory of being in eighth grade; a friend and he had broken into the junior high school and changed all the E grades in the Algebra teacher's gradebook to B, looping the three prongs together with a pen of the same color, and only then realizing that if they did this for themselves, they'd have to do it for everybody in the class in order to avoid detection, and not only everybody in their class, but everybody in every class that Mrs. Heiber taught, the only way to cover their trail for sure. By the time they'd finished they were sweating and weak in the knees…but it worked! When the grades came out for the marking period they'd gotten better marks than they'd expected or deserved!

Still, Castleman was overcome with the feeling that what he was doing was wrong. It was not wrong because he was breaking the rules - indeed, that was about the only satisfaction he took from filling out the INANE forms. It was wrong because…because…because he'd never know what Christopher Leach really thought of him as a teacher, because he wouldn't have the satisfaction of Shelley MacArthur's ass-licking superlatives, because he knew he couldn't stand up to the implicit comparison he'd feel with Joyce Proudfoot…because ultimately it was a cowardly thing to do.

But there was no going back now, and as the room darkened to evening, the halo of light from the desklamp grew big as a spotlight on a Broadway stage, singling out his duplicity for the whole world to see, and it didn't matter that nobody was watching. Castleman hunched over, workmanlike, darkening in circles like a lonely miser counting his coins.

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