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N*ot College – A Higher Standard

events and traditions parent's guide Aug 31, 2017

Fresh out of Plebe Summer and about a week into the academic year, I was assigned my first graded piece of work at the Naval Academy: a three page paper in my Naval History Class.  As our teacher, Commander (CDR) O’Hora, explained, this paper was assigned to us so he could evaluate our initial writing ability.  

To this day, I can’t remember the topic that was assigned to us, but I do remember the one and only requirement for the paper: the paper had to be at least three FULL pages. 

It couldn’t be 2 ¾ pages, it couldn’t even be one word short, it had to be at least three full pages of writing and a word on the fourth page.  

That was simple enough.  I had written 3 page papers all the time in high school. I enjoyed writing, and I felt like it was one of my academic strengths.  And as the academically high achieving, nerdy kid that I am, I wanted to do as well as I possibly could. I mean, it was my first assignment at the Naval Academy, and I wanted to start strong.  

As I completed the paper, I thought it was pretty good.  It was well thought out, properly structured, had supporting documentation, and even more importantly, it was about 3 ¼ pages long.  

However, it wasn’t GREAT, and therefore I wanted to make it better.  It’s good enough… just turn that sucker in, Grant.

But unfortunately, that’s not how I operate, and I wanted the paper to be as good as it possibly could be.  Luckily, my best friend from high school, Ryan Allen, is a phenomenal writer.  He would constantly help me out in high school and edit all of my papers, and so I gave him a phone call and asked if he would take a look at my paper to help with grammatical errors, sentence structure, and the general flow of the writing.  Being the great guy that he is, he gladly accepted, edited the paper, and sent it back to me about an hour later.  

As I was reading through the paper, I was thrilled with how it turned out.  He changed many of the awkward transitions, got rid of the fluff and excess wording, and fixed all grammatical errors.  The paper was great.  

It was EXACTLY how I wanted it to be.  However, there was one small problem, the paper was now about two lines short of being three full pages.  

As I pondered where I could add an extra sentence or two, I kept failing.  I didn’t want to add any additional information.  My points were clear and concise, and exactly how I wanted to portray my argument and my writing style.  

That left me with one simple solution: reach deep into the bag of microsoft word tricks.  

I decided to change the size of the font of every single period (not the text font, literally just the periods) in my paper from size 12 to size 12.5 in hopes to extend the length of my paper, and IT WORKED.  After adjusting the size of the periods, my paper was a full three pages and even ran onto an extra two lines on the fourth page.  

So now, my paper was exactly how I wanted it to read AND it met the length requirements.  I walked into the class the next day proud and confident, and turned in the assignment with a smile on my face.

The following week, CDR O’Hora was handing back the exams when he made an announcement: “If you don’t receive an essay, come to my office after class.”  There’s no way that could be me.  I didn’t really do anything wrong.

However, after he was done passing back the essays, I did not have any paper sitting on my desk.  

Naturally assuming the worst, here is an accurate description of me during the longest 50 minute class period of my life as I awaited the trip to his office.

As I approached his office, my stomach felt like an empty pit. However, I still had the slightest bit of hope that this wasn’t going to be a bad conversation.  “Shut the door, Midshipman Vermeer,” he barked.

Yeah, there’s no hope.

“Do you think I’m stupid?”

“Uhhhh, no sir,” I hesitantly responded as I was too scared to produce words.

The moment those words left my mouth, it became a pretty one way conversation as he slammed down on the table with his fists and slightly raised out of his chair leaning towards me.

“Really? I think you do think I’m stupid.  Did you actually think you can pull this bulls*** over on me?”


“Do you really think I wouldn’t notice you changing the font size of your periods?”

Nope.  It was the periods.

“You must think I’m really stupid,” he said softly as he slid the paper towards me.

As I took a look at the paper, the only thing I could think was HOW???? How can he tell a difference?  This man is a magician!  I mean, I knew I changed the size of the periods, and I still couldn’t tell a difference.

“You’re lucky that you’re a plebe,” he continued.

“I’m not going to put you in for an honor offense for trying to deceive me, but you will get a 0 on the paper and the spotlight is on you.  You have a long, uphill battle in front of you in this class. You better be perfect from this moment on.  There are no short cuts at the Academy, and this will not be tolerated.” He said, building up to the, let’s just say… ‘colorful’ highlight of this conversation.  

Now I’m going to spare you the colorful speech he gave, but it can be summarized with the following sentence: If I ever did anything like that again, he would personally staple a certain part of my body to the chair I was sitting on, and have me kicked out of the Academy faster than I could blink.  

As I numbly walked back to my room, I immediately called my mom and told her I was coming home.  This place wasn’t for me.  

And my mom, as the heavenly saint she is, calmed me down and told me that we would talk as a family later that night.

After she hung up, my mom, being a classic mom, called multiple of her friends to tell the story and ask for advice.  Many of our family friends told her that I should come home, and expressed how ridiculous it is that I would get in trouble for such a small thing.  But there was one friend who didn’t feel that way, and whose viewpoint changed my life for the better.

Expecting another “that’s so ridiculous response” from her friend Teresa, my mom finished her story only to be shocked by Teresa’s response.

“GOOD,” she said bluntly.  “I’m glad that the Naval Academy is holding the midshipmen to such high standards.”

And while that was not the comforting response, that response made me realize something that inspires me to write this story now.  I know there are funny T-shirts that emphasize this fact, but the Naval Academy is not college.  

It’s not your average college, and it’s not your elite college.  It’s just different.  It’s unique.  And unique is not always a fun thing.  

The mission of the Naval Academy is to graduate warfighters dedicated to a career of Naval Service.  Therefore, there is no acceptance for short cuts.  There is no acceptance for changing the size of your periods when the instructions say 12 point font.

Because here is the truth: everything we do is habit forming.  Therefore, we must form habits of excellence and hard work, and we must do the little things right, because that is expected of Naval and Marine Corps Officers. We are going to be trusted to lead divisions and platoons, to manage expensive equipment, and to execute our jobs at the highest levels.

The Naval Academy is hard, plain and simple.  

There is no way around the fact that we are held to a higher standard at all times.  And while in the moment it sucks, it is part of the reason the Naval Academy is a special place to be from.  

And while it’s likely CDR O’Hora doesn’t even remember this encounter, it was life changing for me.  I wish I would have taken the time in my firstie year to thank him for what he did, but I will always be extremely grateful.

This was not a fun lesson to learn, but the story of changing the size of my periods will ALWAYS be a reminder that I must be excellent at all times.  

I must be excellent to myself and be the standard of military professionalism.  I must be excellent to others, taking care of my brothers and sisters in arms and ensuring that they too live to that standard of military professionalism.  And I must be excellent to every command I go to, ensuring that the team I am a part of constantly sets the standard of military professionalism and excellence.  

As Admiral Byrne puts it: Be excellent to yourself, be excellent to others, and be excellent to this place.