Grading

I groaned, turning the mug over in my hands. Despite its cheery mass-printed slogan – “Number 1 Teacher!” – it felt cheap. Hell, it was. If I closed my eyes and focused, I could trace back its component elements, back through the Asian factory where these cups were churned out by the tens of thousands, back to the mud pit in backwoods China where the clay had been scraped from the ground.

I didn’t bother summoning the focus. Even an insignificant little charm like that taxed my strength almost to its breaking point. I hated knowing that I’d fallen so far, feeling my limits hit me so quickly.

The mug might be cheap, unremarkable, but it still held coffee. I got up, crossed the teachers’ lounge over to the ancient Mr. Coffee that sat on the counter, its flameless heat spells showing the strain of countless years of constant operation. I poured a cupful of hot, steaming coffee into my mug, replaced the pot back on the etheric coil that served as its heating focus.

Back to grading. Part of me always hated grading, seeing these students struggle to work through the forms that, to me, felt as basic as breathing. But I also found some pleasure, seeing when one of them understood how to shape the elemental surges between the planes, managed to properly balance the entire energy equation. It was like watching two people sit on either end of a teeter totter, and for the entire ensemble to float, less than a hair’s weight differing between them.

I picked up the next paper, glanced at the name, groaned out loud. “Tommy, what mess have you made this time?” I asked out loud, taking a fortifying sip of coffee. I flipped to the first page of planar gate equations, and grimaced.

It wasn’t that Tommy wasn’t a good kid. He came from parents of high birth, a good pedigree, but he didn’t ride their robes into a comfortable life. If he’d asked me, I might have advised him to reconsider, but he tried hard.

Unfortunately, he just didn’t have the gift for it. I followed his scrawl down to the final line, and had to close my eyes for a moment. I uncorked my red pen, tried to figure out where to even start.

“If you’d tried casting this,” I wrote at the bottom, “you’d have burned yourself out – and probably lobotomized everyone within a three to five mile radius, depending upon which plane you were attempting to access.” I next went back up to the beginning, marking his mistaken assumptions.

I didn’t bother continuing to mark his work as it grew more and more convoluted and strayed from the path. I’d have him try it again, see if he could correct for some of his errors.

Setting Tommy’s paper aside, I reached for the next in my stack. Fortunately, it wasn’t a big stack. I had the dubious honor of teaching Advanced Planar Rifting – one of the most advanced classes offered at Constellations Academy. Most students skipped the class without a second thought; they’d never need such finesse in their lives. These days, almost everyone just used the public portals. You didn’t need to know the magic behind the operation to step through an open gate.

I took another sip of coffee. I knew that I’d gotten the position as a favor, not based on my qualifications. I was qualified, of course; only a handful of people knew more than I did about the theory, and the box in the back of my closet sat full of dusty trophies and awards for theory.

Theory. That was where I excelled. I’d helped to craft some of the most powerful spells, spells that had shaped our world today.

And then, after my work was done, they’d cast me aside, stuck me in a cushy and useless dead-end job where I couldn’t raise too much fuss. They still heaped compliments on me, and the royalty checks flowed in. I deposited each one at my bank on the fifth of each month, and immediately handed the funds out to the first beggar that I encountered.

In this world, the theory carried limited value. What truly mattered was the ability, the talent to execute. The talent that I lacked.

I sighed, wrapping my fingers tightly around the handle of my coffee mug. It was cheap, I thought to myself again, looking down at it. Cheap, identical to thousands of others. Nothing unique about it, nothing special.

But it served its purpose. It held coffee, and right now, that was all that I desired of it. And while I sometimes turned on the television and despaired at the state of the world, at least I wasn’t out there trying to fix it, inadvertently making it worse.

I picked up my next paper. Damien. He had a decent grasp of the basics, although he’d showed an unfortunate tendency to reverse the polarity signs halfway through a complex proof. I flipped his paper open to the first problem and began reading, the soft ticking of the coffee maker keeping me company.

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