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.
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.