My relationships with red ink have been myriad and complicated.
In the fall of 1973, I was a junior at the University of Arizona, a pre-med chemistry major with a predilection for classes in literature and philosophy and history. The previous spring, I had asked a graduate T.A. in an American history survey class to suggest a few books that would “teach me how to think” (yes, I was a that naïve). He did provide a list (whose strangely curated selections I devoured over the summer). However, his more lasting contribution to my intellectual development was the recommendation that I take a class from his Ph.D. advisor, John V. Mering. That legacy turned into a 36-year relationship that ended only with Dr. Mering’s death in 2009. He did indeed teach me how to think, and as I tell every new crop of incoming freshman composition students, he taught me everything I know about writing.
My first class with Dr. Mering–and my first experience of the connections that could be forged with a red pen–was History 207a: The Civil War. Our first assignment was to read The Confessions of Nat Turner by William Styron and write a 1,000-word book review. When Dr. Mering passed out the graded papers, I saw that the first page of mine was splattered with red ink. Unaccustomed to receiving anything but high praise for my college writing, I turned the pages in slow trepidation; each succeeding page was as besmirched as the first. When I got to the last page, below the grade of “A,” I read, “Miss Bozzola, you will need to redo this assignment. Please see me in my office.”
That visit to the office in the basement of the Liberal Arts building began with the recommendation that I procure forthwith a copy of The Elements of Style (universally referred to by cognoscenti as Strunk and White). There followed two years and two summers of intense focus on developing my writing to “make every word tell”: avoid the passive voice; never use two words when one will do; use action verbs; when we have a perfectly good Anglo-Saxon word, use it by preference over a synonym with a Latin root. Dr. Mering even inspired me to write an entire paper without ever using a form of to be! That required a level of focus and discipline I have seldom achieved since those heady years when everything was possible.
I switched my major to history and hauled Strunk and White, along with Henry W. Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage–a graduation gift from Dr. Mering–2,000 miles to do graduate work under the eminent historian of the South, George B. Tindall, at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. Tindall himself claimed to be a purveyor of Strunk and White, but he also told us with pride of a contest he had with Vernon Wharton, in which the two compared the weight of their two classics of Southern history (yes, in avoirdupois), and Tindall’s Emergence of the New South won by several ounces. Miss Bozzola, now an apostle of concise writing like her mentor, was not amused. As I recall, Dr. Tindall himself didn’t use much ink of any color when grading our papers–all of which had to be 20 pages long.
A lifetime later (1989), I returned to graduate school in the guise of English major. By then, what has now become the “coddling of the American mind” and a rampant culture of victimhood was firmly entrenched in that bastion of Southern liberalism located in Chapel Hill. My thesis advisor, Weldon Thornton, did not incline to thorough written critique. However, the minimal comments he did make on our papers were in green pencil. He explained that the university required the switch because red ink was too intimidating. I thought such a policy was silly then. Now I see it as the insidious beginning of the end of meritocracy in American education. Of note, a colleague told me that she attended a recent professional development session where she was likewise cautioned to avoid red ink. In 2023, when some universities eschew mathematics requirements altogether because of math’s insistence that some answers are wrong, green, with its connotation of “go ahead and do whatever is in your head,” wins by a mile over red, with its urgent insistence to “Stop, look, and listen!”
In the fall of 1992, I responded to a lifelong calling and began teaching English part time in the North Carolina community college system. That semester, one of my students told about her traumatic experience in high school English, when her teacher used so much red ink that her students called her Bloody Mary. That narrative didn’t stop me from liberal use of my red pen, but I attempted to couch the perceived attack in kindler, gentler terms. That is, I tried to convince that first batch of students that my willingness to offer them thorough and sometimes harsh critique resulted from my desire to take their writing to the next level—wherever they started. That is, all those bleary-eyed hours I spent with red pen in hand were signs of devotion to their success.
In 2011, I was able to turn those long years in the adjunct pool into a full-time vocation as an English instructor at Fayetteville Technical Community College. Students who evaluate me on ratemyprofessors.com regularly call me a “tough grader,” but they just as frequently check “gives good feedback.” With six–now seven–composition classes most semesters, I still go through my share of red pens. In fact, each semester I am fortunate enough to encounter two or three bright, clear-thinking, articulate students whose papers are marked–like mine in Dr. Mering’s Civil War class–with a grade of “A” along with ample comments and proofreading marks in red ink. I don’t require them to visit me in the office, but I do invite them. Sitting face to face with students whose exemplary work is already beyond the requirements of beginning composition, I pull out Strunk and White and show them several ways to make their writing “lean and mean”–a metaphor particularly resonant in this military town, home of the Army’s elite 82nd Airborne Division and 3rd Special Forces Group (Airborne). I tell them about misplaced modifiers, pronoun case, and how and why to avoid the passive voice. And considering the fact that some of these students continue to correspond with me several years after taking my class leads me to believe that they appreciated my patient tutelage in grammar, punctuation, and style.
This summer, my skills behind the lectern have been challenged–and rewarded–beyond anything I had ever imagined. I am blessed beyond measure to have been chosen to teach in an intensive six-week program designed to ease a group of at-risk high school graduates into college life with a class called College Transfer Success, along with beginning English or math with a co-requisite support class. We meet two hours a day, four days a week, so we have become much more a part of each other’s day-to-day lives than occurs with most student-teacher relationships in college. And I have been stretched to the limits of my creativity in presenting the material, providing inspiration, and prodding the students gently or sternly as seemed most appropriate in the instant.
I have read them so many times the closing lines of “Invictus” by William Ernest Henley that our unofficial class motto has become “I am the master of my fate; I am the captain of my soul.” One day I wrote “Obstacles” on one end of the whiteboard, followed by a paraphrase of Marcus Aurelius: “The obstacle is the way.” On the other end of the board, I wrote “Responsibilities” and a reminder of the class motto. In between, I wrote the words “Jump Start,” the name of their program, and talked about that phrase as a metaphor. And then I asked them to write an extra-credit in-class essay discussing some of the obstacles they had faced in their very complicated young lives and which responsibilities they were going to use to overcome them–assisted, in part, by that metaphoric jump start.
Later that same day, a student asked about how he could turn his 300-word essay into the required 600-700 words. After offering advice to focus narrowly and to provide more concrete and specific details, I turned the discussion around and began to extol the advantages of writing small. Of course, that germ of an idea was all the entrée I needed to bring up the reliable standby I discovered precisely 50 years ago. After offering some tips directly from Strunk and White (and even eliciting a few hands when I asked who had read anything by E. B. White), I made a bold promise: “This book is important enough to good writing that I will buy a copy for each one of you who passes the class.” The following Monday, I told them my 15 copies had arrived–and asked that they please not leave me with an overstock of The Elements of Style in my already overcrowded instructor’s office.
Too soon came last Wednesday. Moving rapidly toward the due date of the final paper, we had only two more days of class remaining. I had offered extra credit to those who would print their works cited for my review. Only three accepted the opportunity–three who didn’t really need the extra points. But I sat down next to each of them and marked in red every single error of punctuation, capitalization, spacing, and indentation. Despite their being quite competent first efforts, the appearance of these documents suggested the hand of Bloody Mary. But I made sure that each one of these students knew that their work was already good; I just wanted it to be perfect.
I then began prancing around in front of the classroom, gesticulating grandly in a way that seems to get their attention—even a few grins. I explained how much I wanted to be able to critique their ongoing drafts so that I could help to make them better. I repeated what has become another of my mantras–how much I genuinely care about them, how deeply involved in their futures I feel, how very much I want them to succeed. Suddenly inspired, I stopped, faced them with arms spread wide and tears in my eyes, and exclaimed, “Red ink means I love you.”
I spent Friday afternoon in the office with 15 copies of Strunk and White in front of me. I pasted a copy of “Invictus” on the title page. Beneath it, I wrote, “The obstacle is the way,” (Marcus Aurelius, 121-180 AD). Inside the front cover, I wrote a message tailored to each of them individually and signed my name, under which I wrote my telephone number so that they can call me for help writing an MLA paper to making it through a dark night of the soul.
Monday they have an in-class reflections essay. For afterwards, I have prepared a huge watermelon fruit salad, some homemade hummus, and some mini-quiches. Not all will pass, but I will give them all the books already inscribed for them. I have a few Blackwing pencils for door prizes. I plan to offer them a stylish farewell and make them believe they deserve it. Never have I invested so much of myself into anything for so long and so intensely. Never have I winced quite so painfully as when I wrote above that not all of them will pass. That I can be so much more than I have ever been has been a revelation and a turning point late in my life as a teacher.
It’s not only red ink that signifies my love for my students–and for the career I am honored and humbled to be devoting my life to. It’s exciting to know that even at 70 years old, something new can happen every time I unlock the door and cross the threshold into my classroom.