My toughest, most beloved teacher

(ROCKWALL, TX – September 10, 2018) The teacher walked in to my junior year AP English class, slammed the door, her heels echoing off the floor as she walked before us. Her blue eyes were piercing. She dripped confidence and resolve as she introduced herself and the class expectations; we were intimidated.

Ironically, Mrs. Vowell was her name.

“You will write in here and you will write well,” she stated, “one misspelled word receives an F, one run-on sentence… F, one fragment…” yes, you guessed it, an F. We were going to fail, and we did what all kids do when confronted with an unforgiving, oppressive teacher—we told our parents.

That night Mom participated in the old time version of a Facebook rant. The wall phone rang incessantly and conversation after conversation occurred with syllabus in hand and every word scrutinized. This new teacher was not going to ruin our futures. The next day the headmaster would get an earful and things were going to change.

Change happened, but not to Mrs. Vowell.

The toughest class I’d ever entered transformed into the most interesting. She forced us to read difficult authors: Dostoevsky, Conrad, Flaubert, Chaucer, and Hawthorne. As we struggled through each book, she made them come alive, helped us see their ideas, and then compared them with our own. I thought I hated Shakespeare until I read Macbeth with Mrs. Vowell, then I couldn’t get enough of him. We had a Renaissance Day where we dressed up as characters from the time period and did group projects, and mine filmed a David Letterman’s Tribute to the Renaissance complete with an interview from King Henry the VIII as he ate a smoked turkey leg.

I made my first “C” in Mrs. Vowell’s class. The papers she assigned were brutal. I always expressed solid ideas (my content grade would often be A’s) but my execution in writing a pristine essay was always a bit off, somehow, somewhere, a misspelling or grammar error snuck through my multiple drafts. I made it my mission to write something, anything that she would consider an A.

That junior year flew and we were relieved (actually excited) to find out that the next year we would have Mrs. Vowell again. She was still as tough as nails but we learned that her strict standards were an act of love, not punishment. We learned that her demands made us better. By the time I entered college, I realized what a gift she had been. There was not a professor in all the university that could match her expectations. I made straight A’s in English and composition. The books were easy and my ability to decode their meaning was second nature. One professor had even asked me, “Who taught you how to write? You are one of the few in the class that can actually compose complete sentences.”

Now, I teach English and I know that Mrs. Vowell had something to do with that, but I wonder how she’d fare today? Our parents only griped a little and eventually they let her do her job, but today words like lawsuit are dropped, and as a result, it is hard to find teachers with the same toughness and high expectations that we faced in her. Sadly, I can tell you, the kids are losing out, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Yes, as parents we must protect our kids but we also need them to struggle, we need them to toughen up, and we need them to experience the Mrs. Vowell’s of the world. If they do, they’ll definitely never regret it.

By Scott Gill of Rockwall. Scott is a teacher, coach, and author of “Goliath Catfish.” Follow Scott’s blog at and read his “Front Porch Ramblings” at

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