During the Summer of '81, which was between my sophomore and junior years of high school, my family moved from New Jersey to Southern California. This gave me just a couple months to get acclimated to the new culture (such as it is) before starting a new school year at Norco High School.
Norco is not the most glamorous of SoCal communities, by the way. Small ranches, horse paths, a constantly lingering dung-like aroma . . . Malibu it ain't. I really can't sugarcoat it, moving to this shit-kicker of a town was a disappointment. Even compared to New Jersey.
Come September, I began 11th grade at NHS. I had no idea what to expect, but as it turned out, it wasn't a whole lot different from Middlesex High back in Jersey, except that most of the Norco campus was outdoors and, you know, the aforementioned dung-like aroma. But in the end, high school is high school, so before long it was back to business as usual.
My favorite teacher, by far, was Mr. Garland, who I had for Algebra II. He was from Arkansas, or maybe Tennessee, one of those states in the Hillbilly Belt. He wore a suit and tie every day, he was very well-mannered, and he had a distinguished southern drawl. His passion for teaching was obvious. Whenever we learned a new skill - the quadratic formula, trigonometry, ordered pairs - he would give us "drills" to reinforce the concepts.
"Remember, y'all," he'd say, "ya gotta duh-rill, duh-rill, duh-rill, so you get faaast and accurate." That became an oft-imitated mantra among his students . . . "duh-rill, duh-rill, duh-rill."
Mr. Garland's grading policy was very competitive, and it kept us motivated to do our best. After each drill or exam, he would rank everyone's score on the blackboard, with names going alongside the top fifteen. Scoring near the top was quite an accomplishment, and we wore that badge of honor with pride. In retrospect, it was probably discouraging for those who regularly showed up at the bottom (even without a name attached, if you got say, 15% on a test, you knew EXACTLY where you stood), but it sure made us work hard to top each other.
He had an interesting scoring system as well. It wouldn't necessarily be based on a 100-point scale. A test, for example, might be worth 2500 points. We would earn a certain number of points for each question, and he'd also award "neatness points", "extra credit points", "detail points", lots of different opportunities to raise our scores even if we weren't nailing all the answers. In fact, I remember one time that a student who'd struggled all year finally got 2100 out of 2500 (about 85%) and then Mr. Garland threw in fifty "proud of you points" which bumped him up into the top ten. Some of us complained that it was unfair to award "gift" points like that, but looking back on it now, it was actually pretty cool.
As you'd guess, the same group of ten to fifteen students pretty much dominated the top slots, so the competition around final exam time was pretty intense. My crowning glory came at the end of the first semester, when we would find out who made the top ten for the entire course. We're talking about 25,000 total points available. I was sitting about third going into the final exam, so I knew I'd have to do well. I'd at least have to outscore the two people ahead of me (Sharon Reynolds and Darren Holman, if memory serves) to be number one for the semester. I studied, and created my own drills so I was pretty confident. Well I ended up getting the highest grade on the final, which put me at the top overall.
And I didn't even get any "proud of you points".
To build our confidence, Mr. Garland would always remind us that algebra is "purty easy, huh?" He would finish even the most convoluted lecture with that reassurance.
"The reciprocals of y'alls basic trig functions are called the cosecant, secant, and cotangent, ruh-spectively," he explained. "The inverse functions are called the arcsine, arccosine, and arctangent, ruh-spectively. There's arithmetic ruh-lations between these functions, which're known as trigonometric ah-dentities. With these functions y'all can answer virch-ally any questions about arbitrary trah-angles by using the law of sines and the law of cosines. These laws can be used to compute the ruh-maining angles and sahdes of any trah-angle as soon as two sahdes and an angle or two angles and a sahde or three sahdes are known. These laws are useful in all branches of geometry, since every polygon may be duh-scribed as a finite combination of trah-angles.
Purty easy, huh?"
Sure, we all nodded, but . . .
My favorite Mr. G. story involves not a test that I aced, but one that I bombed. I hadn't studied for it - I'd had a couple after-school events that week, and honestly, I got lazy. I took the test, had a feeling I didn't do so well (I'd completely blanked on a couple of key formulas), and kicked myself all the way home. The next day, Mr. G handed me back the test, with a giant "D" laughing at me from the top corner of the page.
"Come see me after class. We need to talk."
"Okay Mr. Garland."
After class, I tried to explain. "Mr. G, I know I blew it. I had a rehears -" He cut me off mid-sentence.
"Were ya in the hospital?"
"Then ah don't wanna hear it. Here's what's gonna happen. Yer gonna study yer butt off tonight, come to mah classroom tomorrah mornin' at 6:45 and take the test again. Yer not gonna get away with this lazy attempt. Now get outta here."
What? I was getting a second chance. It was my fault I bombed, I didn't deserve this reprieve. Well, I studied until about midnight, showed up the next morning and retook the test, and got an A-. When I turned it in, Mr G looked me square in the eye.
"The only reason you got another chance is 'cause I know yer not a D student. Don't let it happen again."
"Yes, sir." And I didn't. That was the last time I went to any class unprepared for a test. Ever. Which, of course, was Mr. G's intention.
For the two years I attended Norco High, Mr. Garland was voted Toughest Teacher. He was also voted Favorite Teacher. It's not a coincidence. We loved him because he was tough on us, but he also did everything he could so that we'd succeed.
And that, y'all, is what a being a teacher is all about.