Marking Time – January 2012 CW Comp.
Len Larcombe, teacher of Chemistry and fifth form master sat at a small desk in the staff room of the provincial public school. It was the spring of 1928 and Larcombe was almost forty years old, ten years before he had been a captain of artillery and ten before that an amateur boxer of some note. His service in the war and in the ring had left him somewhat deaf in both of his large somewhat battered ears. He settled himself into the wooden chair and lit his pipe, pushing the glowing embers deep into the bowl with a calloused and nicotine stained forefinger.
Marking time, not exam time, that had been last week, now it was marking time. On the small desk in front of him sat a stack of some thirty folders, the fifth form exam papers for this, their last examination before their school certificate test in the summer. Each folder contained the examination records of one pupil and the folders were arranged alphabetically by surname. Len sighed; he was marking no less than five subjects for this group, Arithmetic, Algebra, Geometry, Trigonometry and of course Chemistry. Len was not a mathematician, he had been asked and had agreed to cover fifth form math by the Deputy Head Master and regular math teacher Dr. Glynn Ball who was busy with the sixth form mathematics workload. Len sighed again, he’d do the math papers alphabetically by subject first, and keep the Chemistry until last as a reward, his passion was Chemistry and he enjoyed both learning and teaching.
Four hours later Len was three quarters of the way through the Geometry papers, he placed another folder face down on the output stack and picked up the next pupil’s folder, he opened it to the Geometry test and quickly flicked a red pencil tick into the right margin of the first question, untidy he thought, but correct, by this time he knew the order and content of the questions and only needed to scan the answers for correctness. His red pencil flicked a cross in the right margin of the next answer, wrong derivation of Theorem 89, his eyes scanned down the page, to the beginning of the next answer, untidy again he thought, then he caught sight of the end of the previous answer, that looked right. He stopped and carefully followed the previous proof with his pencil point, now it looked correct, not the textbook proof, but correct.
Len stood up stiffly from the hard chair and taking the folder in his hand, left the staff room and walked down the short hallway to the Deputy Head’s office, he knocked. He heard a muffled “It’s open” and walked in. Dr. Ball was deep in the sixth form’s fragile understanding of integral calculus and looked up with a smile, “Some pretty bad stuff here” he muttered, before adding, “What have you got there?” Len offered the folder, open at the Geometry test “What do you think of that” he said. Dr. Ball glanced at he answer “Not textbook” he said and looking more carefully this time “But a good proof, short, insightful, maybe original, in fact a better proof than the textbook, I know Simmonds who edited our text, he’s a bit of a plodder, I may suggest he use this when he does a revision. Whose work is this?” Len flipped the folder shut and showed Dr. Ball the name on the cover. “Ah, the untidy boy, he’s something of a dreamer, a bit crackers too so Matron thinks, what say you?” “Yes to all of that” said Len “A sorry childhood as I understand it, conceived in India, born when his parents returned to England and then left in the care of a family friend when they went back to India, not a sign of family since he was three years old, and here he is going on sixteen” “Well, give him full marks for that answer,” responded Dr. Ball “It was a pleasure to read, like a flash of sunlight on an otherwise dull day, and speaking of dull, I’d better get back to differentiating the bad from the awful.” “Thanks Glynn” said Len, closing the door quietly on his way out and returning to his own desk. Opening the folder he had carried he marked the rest of the paper, all correct but also uniformly very untidy, an odd pencil sketch in the margin, a cauliflower? A cloud? “Maybe I’ll have word with the lad” he thought “He should be in the Chemistry Lab for revision period.”
Leaving the staff room Len crossed the hall and entered the Chemistry laboratory, a large room with fixed benches and stools currently occupied by the fifth form engaged in after hours revision including homework assignments. The group was supervised by a sixth form prefect who sat on the teachers bench facing the class and dangling his legs above the floor. The class stood as he entered, the prefect included and they all looked his way expectantly. “Excuse me Mr. Ellis,” said Len to the prefect. “I need to have a quiet word with one of the assembled.” Spotting his quarry at the back of the room (where else?) he pointed a forefinger and crooked it towards himself in an unmistakable gesture. Follow me. A quiet groan issued from the group of boys. He’s in trouble for sure being the collective wisdom. The boy stood and walked hesitantly towards the door, which Len opened, followed him through and closed firmly behind them. In the large hall the boy looked smaller and untidier than ever, his hair stood up unbrushed at the back of his head and the cleanliness of his linen left a lot to be desired. Len held out his folder open to the Geometry test and pointed to the marginal drawing “Is this yours?” asked Len, the boy looked him straight in the face with his unblinking brown eyes, and waited in silence. Len first thought was that the boy would deny all knowledge of the scribbles but then thought “Stupid question, they are on his test paper” so broke the silence with his second question, “What is it and why is it there?” The boy lowered his head and frowned as if thinking carefully about the answer, “It is a cloud, sir, a cloud of small machines all working on a big problem. I was thinking about solving problems and I had the idea that any problem however large or complicated, could be solved most quickly by breaking it down into the smallest possible pieces and solving each piece simultaneously with a large number of identical simple machines.” The boy stopped and turned his penetrating gaze back to Len. “Well, yes, but next time try to stay focused on the exam and please try to be little neater in your presentation” responded Len more than a little surprised by the boy’s answer. “Yes sir, said the boy, is that all sir?” “Yes, thank you,” said Len “you may return to your revision.” The boy returned to the Chemistry lab leaving Len shaking his head in the hall.
A few minutes later he was back at his desk still holding the boy’s folder. He flipped back through the other exams that were in the set, some marked, some not. All were uniformly untidy and several had other undecipherable scribbles in the margin. Some of the marked papers showed real understanding, the sciences and mathematics in particular, others showed an almost deliberate disregard for the subject and the questions, one comment from the long suffering Mr. Voake fifth form English master read in part “I can forgive his writing, though it is the worst I have ever seen, and I try to view tolerantly his unswerving inexactitude and slipshod, dirty, work, inconsistent though such inexactitude is in a utilitarian; but I cannot forgive the stupidity of his attitude towards sane discussion on the New Testament. Bottom of the class.” Len smiled, he wasn’t much given to sane discussion of the miracles either and thought that the boy’s unwavering stare may have contributed more than a little to Voake’s outburst.
“He’ll be OK” Len thought, “He will get his university place, even if only just.”
“Well, it’s past time I got back to marking. Marking time again. Poor lad, he’s marking time too but what is he waiting for? It is just like he is somehow conserving his insight and creativity for some future purpose known only to him. Almost as if he had been born before his time.”
“What ever will you make of yourself lad?” he muttered as he laid the folder aside with another sigh and one last glance at the name on the cover “Alan Matheson Turing”.