If you're corresponded with me, you've probably noticed my sig file is a kind of opaque reference: "a wink eventually becomes a twitch, a twitch the sign of some inner disturbance." I've been asked enough about it that it seemed the time to finally commit to the internets the passage it comes from, which had, until now, somehow escaped the Google machine. Ladies and gents, from the oft-forgotten masterpiece, A Fan's Notes, by Fred Exley:
In the Glacial Falls teacher's manual, a booklet I had been assured was Biblical in its authority (chiseled in stone), I one day came across a high-toned and vague clause (very much like a paragraph in any education textbook) calling on teachers to pass with the grade C any student who was "working to capacity" -- a capacity one could, I guessed immediately, determine from the IQ records in the guidance office. With a number of seasoned teachers in the system I tried to discuss this clause, but they seemed reluctant to talk about it -- more than reluctant, tired, very tired, as though the clause had been discussed all too many times. There were some obvious questions needing answers. What about the superior student who doesn't make any effort at all but still manages to get a B? Reversing the principle, do I give him a C, and if I do, does that C, in the eyes of the administration, represent the same as the C of the student capable of doing only 40, 30, 20 percent of the work?
"What the clause means," one young and spirited teacher said finally, winking outrageously, is that everybody, but everybody, daddy, passes."
That outrageous wink answered everything. Through some impossible-to-administer policy, the faculty had been rendered moral monsters. Asked to keep one eye open, cool and detached, in appraising half the students, we were to keep the other eye winking as the rest of the students were passed from grade to grade and eventually into a world that would be all to happy to teach them, as they drifted churlishly from disappointment to disaster, what the school should have been teaching them all along: that even in America, failure is a part of life. (At Glacial Falls the F had been eliminated altogether on the genteel assumption that the D, the -- in Newspeak -- "unpassing" grade, somehow represented a less equivocal failure.) In the end, of course, the policy didn't hurt the student nearly as much as the teacher: a wink eventually becomes a twitch, a twitch the sign of some inner disturbance.
It was either that or "The best place to make lesson plans is at your desk." Shockingly, the book is not really about teaching English at a prep school. It's more about the failure part.