54: When the Going Gets Tough

54: When the Going Gets Tough

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Inspiration for Teachers

When the Going Gets Tough

If you are always trying to be normal, you will never know how amazing you can be.

~Maya Angelou

It was the first day of my senior year and we were choosing our classes. There were two choices for English: Mrs. McCabe, a lovely lady approaching retirement whose curriculum consisted mostly of showing films based on literary classics; and Mrs. McDougal, who was known to be a no-nonsense, students-are-here-to-learn taskmistress who assumed all her students were going on to college. Mrs. McDougal had been known to fail students who didn’t apply themselves, too.

I was going to college, so I swallowed hard and chose Mrs. McDougal’s class.

The following day, classes began. My English class with Mrs. McDougal was the last period of the day. Shortly after all the students were seated, Murrel McDougal moved slowly into place behind her desk as if she were a praying mantis stalking her next meal. She turned and smiled wickedly at us.

“So, you’re the lucky ones who chose to be challenged this year.” Surprise, surprise. Mrs. McDougal had a delightfully dry sense of humor.

Her curriculum was challenging, as she wanted us to be prepared for college. She had structured the year into several blocks: basic grammar and parts of speech, spelling and vocabulary, writing styles, and literature. We didn’t see one film. But we each read at least four novels from her College Prep Reading List and gave a ten-minute book report on one of our reading assignments. But it was in the writing assignments that I discovered a part of me that I truly enjoyed. The assignments were Essays, Critiques, Reports and Creative Writing. And Mrs. McDougal proved true to her reputation. We worked for our grades.

One day, while we were all quietly reading, Mrs. McDougal came to my desk, winked at me, and motioned for me to follow her into the hall. I had very mixed emotions, not knowing if I had committed some unpardonable breach of English usage or was about to be asked to drop her class. When I walked into the hall, she was leaning against the staircase smiling. She motioned for me to join her. I really wasn’t prepared for what she shared. She told me I was more than just a good writer; I was a promising author, and she strongly encouraged me to write on my own — and submit my work for publication. She told me she had already sent one of my essays to a textbook publishing company, and they were going to use it. I was flabbergasted and teared up, thanking her profusely. I floated for the rest of the term. The terrifying Mrs. McDougal thought I was a fine writer!

I did finish college and go on to get a Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing. I spent time in the Army, and the years flew by. I did some screenwriting and sold several scripts, produced several of my plays and published five novels.

At my senior class’s 50th Reunion, I was delighted to share old stories with my classmates in Mrs. McDougal’s demanding college-prep English class. As we talked, we discovered something none of us had realized at the time, so long ago.

The dear lady had taken each of us aside privately and encouraged us to follow a talent in which we seemed to have shown proficiency. Some became teachers or professors; others became professionals in various disciplines who wrote reports, texts and surveys. And, although our professions were different, we were all nurtured by Mrs. McDougal, whose “toughness” helped each of us overcome any doubts or fears about whether we could or couldn’t. Her approach led to quite a few very productive lives. If she knew how positively her approach and encouragement enriched the lives of her students, Mrs. McDougal would be very happy.

~Lonnie D. Groendes

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