Not Quite 2000 Words

I owe a lot to Mr. Frank Girard. This blog is a product of his work as well as mine. Mr. Girard taught me how to write in high school, but I wasn’t a big fan of his at the time.

I remember getting detention for “cross pollination.” Mr. Girard would regularly split us up into small groups to brainstorm topics on which we would write, and we never seemed to get grouped with our friends. If he caught you talking to someone in another group, he would call that “cross pollination” which was an “abomination of nature” and you’d spend time in detention. He was quite a character and often referred to himself as “God’s older brother.” After having been labeled a “social butterfly” by my 7th grade art teacher, it shouldn’t be any surprise that I would get caught “cross pollinating” on a regular basis. However, this was not why I didn’t like Mr. Girard.

I didn’t like him because he was ridiculously hard to please. I’ll never forget the first paper I turned in because he forced me to re-write it. Remember kids, this was back in the day when we our homework was hand written by candle light. Alright, well I made up the candlelight part. Very few of us had computers at home, and those that did often had no way to print their work. Spell check? Are you serious? Back in the day you actually had to know how to spell. There were no punctuation suggestions. Re-writes really were re-writes, not just edits. This…. was writing.

He would assign 2000 word essays, oh my god 2000 words (which is nothing for me now). I remember counting words to make sure I hit the minimum, and writing them in such a way as to take up more pages than necessary. Afterward, being forced to re-write a 2000 word paper was a demoralizing experience.

So, I re-wrote it with the corrections he suggested. I turned it in and received it back with a C. Even the second draft was covered with so much red ink that I thought he had opened a vein and hemorrhaged all over it.

This was shocking because I had sailed through every previous writing class. At first I thought this taskmaster simply had it in for me, until I looked at other’s papers. It was obvious that a significant portion of the school’s budget must’ve gone into red pens for Mr. Girard. So, I buckled down because I had to complete this class for graduation and eventually my writing improved. He was so strict in his grading and missed nothing. When I learned to avoid most of my mistakes, he found more advanced problems to correct. Eventually, my writing improved and so did my grades, but I wasn’t very appreciative until much later in life.

When I went to college I aced my English classes, because of Mr. Girard. I wrote much better than most of my peers. In fact, it became obvious to me that the professor who taught Bio Ethics (primarily a writing class) stopped correcting my papers after the first one and simply scrawled a grade on them seemingly at random. There were some comments in the margins of the first and last pages, but nothing else. This was offensive to me because I spent hours writing them to Girard’s standards. However, when the prof gave me a B on one of them, without so much as reading it, I took action. I turned in a few papers in a row with real content on the front and final pages and then copied and pasted (we had computers by this time) several pages worth of text from the Bible for the middle portion of my essays. He never noticed. When I brought this to the attention to the Dean, my grades miraculously improved.

When I became a Science Teacher, a job I still miss some twelve years later, my appreciation for Mr. Girard grew. I took up the torch to promote good writing, something my district was pushing, and gave my students meaningful writing assignments in my Biology classes. I didn’t realize the hell I had unleashed on myself. The kids couldn’t write properly, even in the age of computers. They had no sense of sentence structure, proper punctuation, etc. Imagine my shock when I got 150+ assignments every two weeks or so from my students, and I could barely read them. This is no exaggeration. I literally spent my weekends with… you guessed it… red pens. The time required to read all of these papers was ridiculous, and I still can’t imagine how Mr. Girard managed to do it; especially since most of the papers he read were hand written as opposed to typed. It’s no wonder the man wore thick glasses. Eventually, I was asked by the administration to stop the writing assignments because the kids complained to the English department, and parents were complaining that their kids were being taught English in Biology class. It was obvious to me that they needed to be taught to write somewhere, since most of these kids were acing English with such poor writing skills, but I digress.

I respect Mr. Girard for his dedication to his craft, his unfailing demand for perfection from his students, and his unparalleled work ethic. Sadly, he died several years ago so he’ll never get a chance to read this.

I suppose that’s a blessing in a way because if he were still alive, I’m sure he’d print out this page, correct it, and send a copy back to me covered in red ink.

Oh I never did stop “cross pollinating” either.

24 comments to Not Quite 2000 Words

  • Kim

    That was a very nice read. It makes me wish I had him as a teacher.

  • That is so awesome! I love the part about the Bible text. What a hoot.

    I echo your feelings about writing. My high school English teacher, Mrs. Weathersby, was awesome. I’ll have to tell my term-papers-for-money story at some point.

  • What a great story – and well written of course 🙂 Everyone should have at least one Mr. Girard in their life.

  • I went to a Texas A&M and can assure you that the professors don’t ready anything you turn in. The professors used their graduate students and teaching assistants to do this job.

    I would have actually appreciated a class like this as I work every day to improve my writing skills.

    Just an fyi, I found your post through @brento’s tweet. Brent, thanks for the link!

  • AJ Fritz

    I had terrible english teachers until college, however I did have the world’s greatest chemistry teacher in High School. One of the papers I wrote for her I used as the writing sample for my college application. The admissions office actually responded with (paraphrased) “It is rare that we recieve a scientific paper as a writing sample, and even more rare that the sample is of the caliber you presented in yours”. I showed it to my teacher and she just sat down and cried. I think I made her year.

  • Jonathan – I swear, I’m not knocking the Aggies, but you misspelled “read” as “ready.” I’m just sayin’. 😉

  • Brent – That doesn’t surprise me at all. It has been a very long week. I know you can appreciate this one:

    We are working with a division to upgrade their SQL server from 2000 to 2005. They have proprietary applications that work but they then created some custom code to run a web interface. The code is trash and I am having to rewrite it. Of course they failed to test any of it so the new server, it is now live and customers can’t access the web app.

    In the middle of the above we had a major storage failure that crippled many of our VMs, The storage didn’t help with my performance testing for the SQL server.

    No excuses, I didn’t proof my comment. But I am just sayin’ 😉

  • It takes a Texan to get through a week like that. 😉 Good luck, sir!

  • Thank you. It has been one for the books. @SqlAsylum, @GFritchey, and @SQLChicken have been a big help this week.

  • Aimee Pyne

    Fabulous story. I can just hear Mr Girard’s seriousness with “cross pollinating” but i love the humor of it. It also took me many years to appreciate my English teacher, my math teacher and my parents.

  • David – Thanks for sharing the story. We definitely rise to the level of expectations – unless concern about self-esteem gets in the way.

    My mom’s family is from Texas – a few A&M grads.

    My mom always told the following joke:

    Two A&M students were walking to class. The first says, “Did you hear? The library burned down last night!” The second answers, “That’s ok. I already read the book.”

  • Thanks for this. It brings back several teachers that I ‘hated’ at the time, and have grown to appreciate. Especially a particular English Lit/Writing teacher and a Spanish teacher. Both were impossible to please, and both taught me to constantly expect that I could do better. And yes, I agree, way too many young folks just cannot express them selves and their ideas in writing.

  • Ah, it is with fond memories that I recall Mr Girard’s infamous Rhetoric class! I managed to avoid *most* of the cross-pollinating, but I wish I had paid more attention to how he actually graded our papers. I majored in English education in college, and what I wouldn’t have given for a copy of his point system. For those of you who weren’t blessed to have Mr Girard as a teacher, he had this system in which each type of error was worth so many points. I remember a simple spelling error was one point. But the dreaded “NP” (not to the point) was worth three or four. Misplaced modifiers … dangling participles … they all had a point value assigned to them.

    If I remember correctly, when we got our papers back (marked in red, of course!), they did not announce our grade. We had to determine that. We had to add up our points to deduct (based on the number and types of errors he had found), and then we had to do something with that and the number of words in our paper. Whatever his mathematical equation was, it always turned our grade into a percentage. Our grades were never an arbitrary thing. They were carefully determined by that point system.

    If anyone remembers how he did that or what the point values were, I’d love to know.

    I also remember him assigning term paper topics. His reasoning? He didn’t want to read 150 papers on abortion or any such similar topic. Each topic that he assigned required us to actually research because undoubtedly, we would know little to nothing about that topic. It also assured him that we wouldn’t be “sharing” research. If I remember correctly, my final paper for him had something to do with labor unions. A topic I knew very little about.

    When I saw his obituary in the GR Press a number of years ago, I was saddened. The world had lost a great teacher.

  • Melissa, thanks for jogging my memory. He did have a statistical method to his grades, which is something no other writing teacher ever used with me. It was fair, but oh so frustrating at times. I was sure that many of his students remember him fondly.

  • Jim Chapin

    Interesting read. I remember Mr. Girard as well. Only I never had him as an english teacher. His class was only for the serious students. At that time of my life I didn’t have a clue. I knew Mr. Girard in a different way. He was my grandfather’s brother. Well, step-grandfather, but he was grandpa to me for 25 years. Mr. Girard knew who I was, and that is all I wanted him to know about me. Even though not all of us took his class, we all knew his reputation. I was intimidated by him. If I saw him in the hallway, I would turn around and go the other direction. He was not physically intimidating, but he was more intellegent than most. It is funny that you say he said that he was God’s older brother, because Mr. Girard did not believe in God. I knew this because of my family connections. My grandfather did not believe in God either, until I visited him at his death bed. I ended up speaking at my grandfathers funeral, and of course, who did I see. Good old, intimidating, Mr. Girard. In a way, it was my chance to finally face him. I did. I thought to myself, if my grandfather can change his mind about God, that so can his brother. To make the story short, I spoke about God and my grandfather. I could see that it still did not sit well with Mr. Girard, but after the service, he came and shook my hand. He told me nice service and he appreciated what I said about his brother. Anyway, when I read your blog, it took me back to those times. I certainly was intimidated by him back then, but I also respected him.

  • Dave, this turned out great! Grandville is slowly losing the great icons of our District. It is truly not the same as it used to be. Grandville had many greats during our time there. This is obvious if you look at all the Grandville grads around our age that are now teachers and many of them teacher here in the district.
    As you know my dad passed away around the same time as Mr. Girard. Mr. Girard is the only teacher, I think who dared give the Principals’ kid detention – and yes, it was for cross pollination. When I called my dad to tell him I had detention, I remember him laughing and asking “Mr. Girard?”, “Cross pollination?” “Yes,” I answered. This is a tribute to the easy going nature of my dad and the strict morals of Mr. Girard.
    He truly was a great teacher. I recall my brother telling me of a class he took at CMU his freshman year where the teacher knew my brother went to Grandville and had Mr. Girard because of his writing style.
    Anyway, thanks for the trip down memory lane.

  • Mark Teusink

    Mr. Girard had me pulled from Baccalaureate practice so he could take issue with me regarding one of the theories I wrote in my paper about dinosaur extinction. As I was supposed to be preparing to graduate high school, I found myself in Mr. Girard’s classroom arguing with him that accidental suicide-by-flatulence was indeed a supported theory at the time. I stood behind my sources, and he eventually let me slide. I think he just wanted me to do just that – claim ownership of my writing and defend it. I think if I were indifferent at that moment, he may have actually given me a failing grade on the paper.

    I also remember his poster of Ming the Merciless (from Flash Gordon) on the wall, which was captioned, “Silly humans, who will save you now?” I always found that to be a bizarre and intimidating thing to see every day, which of course is just the way Mr. Girard wanted it.

    Mr. Girard was truly a gem. Thanks for the memories.

  • Erika Slack Nicholson

    David, thanks for this blog! You recognized a great man! I never had him for a teacher but I did play chess in his office during my lunch breaks. He was a teacher that took the time to talk to students not at them. He never wasted his words. He would as questions and accepted your answer. In my personal case, he had some insights and offered an ear and said if I would talk to him he try to help but he was willing to listen!

    He always took the time to encourage and to correct, and always spoke the truth. He loved his job as a teacher and was good at it. And if you needed correction, he offered it too. Thank God, i never made him mad.

    He was a great teacher, a great friend. I will never forget him.

  • […] Ugh. We know it’s a report. It’s redundant and a waste of time to include the word “Report” in your report. This is something else I learned through the pain of red ink from Mr. Girard. […]

  • Oh for petessake! I googled Mr. Girard and found this.

    I had one hella crush on him in Rhetoric class during the mid-to-late 60s (sorry, but I choose to NOT use an apostrophe when writing 60s, and I expect a thunderbolt full of red ink at any moment).

    You could call it a tribute to his class, but for the past 40 years I have often been called “spelling nazi,” “grammar queen” and “teacher” (disparagingly).

    Which brings up this observation: what’s wrong with the following sentence, copy/pasted from your entry? ~

    “Remember kids, this was back in the day when we our homework was hand written by candle light.”

    I have mentally scrawled a red circle around “we our.”

    You’re welcome! 🙂

  • Arnie

    I also noticed that it was the ‘candle light’ that was doing the writing…

  • 😀
    …And which is correct: to call it “candle light” or “candlelight” ….?

    Okay, I’ve got some “real work” to do now.
    Yeah, right.

  • Roger A. Hofstra

    Frank Girard was my English teacher in 1963, and my Rhetoric teacher in 1965. I hated him; he was a perfectionish, who criticized me constantly, held me to account by failing my term paper about two weeks before
    my 1966 Grandville High graduation. He tutored me through (but did not help) the rewrite of my term paper.
    I had, indeed “plagiarized” one item by probally willfully omitting a footnote.
    Fast forward……
    Because of Frank Girard and his evenhanded criticism, discipline, integrity and lack of bias, I became an English and Journalism teacher. You guessed it; the kind of English teacher that he was. I excelled in college, creative writing, and teaching because he was my adopted standard. I resented him because I got caught taking shortcuts, not turning in my best work.
    He taught me that excellence is both the means, and the
    goal. There is no thrill like bumping into a former student of yours 30 years later, to hear “I became a teacher because of you, even thought you were a crabby,
    hawk eyed perfectionist, and I thank you for that.” I doesn’t get any better than that, does it?

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