This word is killing your grade

The word was “occurred.” Even today, I hesitate as I carefully consider its correct spelling.

In 1977, I was an aspiring journalism student at Temple University in Philadelphia. Incredibly gifted and passionate teachers who demanded the very best from their students staffed the faculty in Temple’s School of Communications and Theatre. Among those professors was Dr. John Lent, who taught a “History of Journalism” class. One of his assignments was to research an historic figure in journalism, write a comprehensive paper, and deliver an oral report. In turn, we would receive two grades – one for written content and one for the public speaking component.

Dr. Lent presented the ground rules very clearly. True to form, he stressed that spelling errors in the report would not be tolerated. His reasoning was clear. If we wanted to be communications professionals then we needed to develop a proper respect for the written word. This included proofreading our material and delivering grammatically correct work that was flawless. Unfortunately, his mandate to the class failed to resonate with this 20-year old who instead would have to learn a career-defining lesson.

I chose to research newspaperman Joseph Pulitzer. I took the assignment seriously, wrote a comprehensive paper, and made my presentation to the class. I was pretty confident about my performance. Dr. Lent must have agreed. He gave me an A on the spot for my public speaking. A few days letter he returned my written report.

I gazed at the clean sheet of double spaced type on page one – now interrupted by a single word circled in red. I was in trouble. Page two –the same word was circled again. Serious trouble. The third time, that all too familiar word was accompanied by knee-buckling pithy commentary from my professor, “this word is killing your grade.”

That word was ”occurred.” I managed to misspell it three separate times. Grade killer? Yes, he gave me an F. But over time, that lousy grade nurtured a wake-up call that reintroduced me to Dr. Lent’s demand for excellence. Today, three-plus decades later that passion has not dimmed. Even my text messages lack the typical acronyms, abbreviations and deliberately omitted punctuation that define today’s cryptic communications. Sure, my GPA took a massive hit from Dr. Lent’s harsh lesson, but it was a small price to pay to appreciate true zeal for the written word and ultimate respect for our craft.


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