A Toast to My High School English Teacher

We had all heard the rumors by the time we walked into her class that first day of my junior year of high school.  Florence Rowe had a reputation of being the hardest English teacher in the school.  Someone you just didn’t mess with.  

Every day she stood in the hall outside her classroom and when the bell rang she closed the door, walked to her desk, checked roll and immediately began lecturing.  She slowly paced back and forth and you didn’t dare interrupt her. 

We were the accelerated class so we spent our time reading novels and writing literary analyses of them.  If she didn’t like your paper, she simply wrote “nope” at the top and you got to try again.  If it was really bad, she wrote “how tacky.”  And the minute she found a fragment, she stopped reading and gave you a zero.

While we were reading John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, I marked every fragment and pointed them out to justify our use of this poetic license.  She told me when I’d won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction then I, too, could use fragments. 

In our senior year Mrs. Rowe had surgery and I went to visit her after she came home from the hospital with my friends, Ross and Steve.  She lived in an apartment in this brand new high-rise building that had underground parking with a doorman who announced over an intercom that you were coming upstairs.  When we got there Mrs. Rowe’s friend let us in and led us back to the master bedroom where she was resting. 

You know, when you’re a kid – even when you’re a senior in high school – it still seems weird to think of your teachers as regular people.  People who get sick and have to have surgery and who lie around in bed in their pajamas to re-cooperate.  It’s especially hard when that teacher is someone you’ve really put on a pedestal.

But at some point we grow up and realize our teachers are human, special as they are. 

When my friends and I walked into Mrs. Rowe’s bedroom I’ve never seen anyone move so fast in my life.  So fast that she nearly spilled the can of beer she was drinking all over herself and the bed.  The nightstand was crowded with all kinds of debris so she had no place to put it and we all just stood there looking at each other.  At our brilliant, prim and proper English teacher in a nightgown with a can of beer in her hand. 

Coors Can by Eddie~S

With all the dignity she could muster, Mrs. Rowe held the can up for her friend to take from her, but the friend just stood there with her hands on her hips.  “Aww, hell, Florence, these kids don’t care if you’re drinking a beer,” the friend told her, “just finish it off.”

 And she was right.  

I never write anything that I don’t think of her.  Especially fragments. 


10 Comments Add yours

  1. Summer says:

    Those high school English teachers! They’re almost as integral to one’s adult formation as band directors.

    1. sallygary says:

      How did you guess my next blog post?!…..

  2. kelvin says:

    What a great little slice of life you shared with us. Love your stories, your words and you. When are you going to write about Tequila Mockingbird? You can start out with the immortal line “Alabama must be in the Rose-Bowl with Jem winning the scoring touchdown.” or maybe, “You felt sorry for her? You felt sorry for her? Ha ha ha, he felt sorry for her!” You might just want to write about a drunken mob scene where two people met and became friends.

    1. sallygary says:

      Lots more stories in me!

  3. Sherry Harlass says:

    I taught water aerobics for almost 20 years and frequently thought of Ms. Rowe when we used the pool noodles … “30 lashes with a wet noodle.”

    1. sallygary says:

      Oh yeah, I forgot she used to say that! Thanks, Sherry.

  4. Debbie Johnson says:

    Thanks for your post, Sally. I had Mrs. Rowe when I was a senior, and she was my favorite teacher. To this day, I am very careful about sentence fragments in my writing. What better legacy could she have than former students who still remember things they were taught over 30 years ago!

    1. sallygary says:

      Isn’t that amazing?! I can still hear her saying, “Cease & desist, rash youth!” on those rare occasions when our class got a little rowdy! She was my favorite teacher, too. And I’m still drawn to the people who love me where I am, yet call me to something better, something beyond what I could accomplish on my own.

      1. Debbie Johnson says:

        Sally Gary, you are well loved!!!

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