Howard is an avid short story reader who likes to help others find and understand stories.
Arthur Cavanaugh's short story "Miss Awful" is about a substitute teacher who makes drastic changes to the mood and expectations in a third-grade class. It's a popular short story for students.
This article starts with a summary then looks at themes and some questions.
Summary of "Miss Awful"
Roger, a boy in third grade, think he can go to the park instead of doing his homework because his regular teacher, Miss Wilson, won't be at school tomorrow. His older sister, Elizabeth, thinks he doesn't make sense. Roger puts up with her.
Roger is noisy and rambunctious. He also has a concern for people and animals.
Roger likes Miss Wilson because she's relaxed and fun. His parents think the school, St. Geoffrey's, is too permissive. Roger's academic achievement is unremarkable.
He finishes dessert. Roger, his sister and his father get ready to go to the park. Roger will do his spelling when he gets home.
On Monday morning, Roger gets to school early, as usual, so he has time to play. He brings various toys with him. He has fun with his friends.
The bell rings and Roger and his classmates head inside. The classroom is different. The desks are now in rows, not a semicircle. A loud clap and a loud voice order the students into lines. This is new to them and they're slow to respond.
The new teacher is tall and straight with glasses and gray hair, and holds a potted plant. She repeats the command to form lines, one of girls and one of boys. She marches the students to their desks.
She makes Jane the coat monitor. The teacher orders the class to be seated. She places the plant on the windowsill and says that children and plants will grow with the right care.
Her name is Miss Orville. She's been teaching for forty-six years and doesn't put up with nonsense.
Miss Orville tells the class to take out their homework. She starts her inspection, making critical comments as she goes. Roger hasn't done his homework. As Miss Orville gets closer, Roger drops his backpack, spilling his supplies and toys. She confiscates the offending items.
Roger's mother soon notices that something has changed. He's nervous and stressed. On Monday after school, he calls his new teacher a witch and says her name is Miss Awful. He doesn't have time to get a soda because of all his homework.
After school on Tuesday, Miss Orville marches the students outside and dismisses them. She reprimands one of the mothers for her son's television viewing habits and error-filled homework. The mothers are unhappy with Miss Orville but decide not to complain due to her having a temporary posting. One of them, Nancy, recognizes her from somewhere.
On Wednesday morning, Roger is worried that his shoes aren't properly shined. After school, the dismissal routine is expanded. Miss Orville tells Amy's mother that she should assign daily chores to the girl. She then reprimands Roger's mother over his poor spelling.
Roger's mother tells her husband about the embarrassing experience that night. She doesn't get much support from him or her daughter.
On Thursday after school, Miss Orville tells Nancy that her son Bruce has made excellent progress on his penmanship. Nancy remembers why she recognizes Miss Orville. Last year, run-down buildings were torn down nearby. Miss Orville was one of the tenants. She had refused to leave. The authorities had to remove her. She was relocated to a furnished room.
On the way home from school, Roger says the students call Miss Orville lots of bad names. He reveals they have some plan to get back at her.
On Friday, Miss Orville informs the class that Miss Wilson will be back on Monday. The news relaxes the students somewhat. Tommy drops his pencil case and picks it up without permission. He doesn't care when Miss Orville corrects him. She continues the lesson without yelling. Roger is glad that Tommy is standing up to her. Tommy drops the pencil case again and picks it up. Roger's not sure he should have done it twice.
The class leaves for lunch without being dismissed. They come up with ways of getting back at Miss Orville—throwing rocks at her or tripping her. They settle on Midge's idea of ripping the leaves off her plant. Roger objects, saying they should forget it.
After lunch, Miss Orville takes out her copy of Treasure Island, as a treat. The class disrespects her with improper diction. She explains to the class what a privilege it is to attend school and learn. She's been hard on them because she wants them to be good citizens.
She stops speaking when she sees the plant. It's been destroyed. This illustrates what she's talking about. It's the opposite of being educated, being civilized. She hopes the person responsible is sorry.
At the end of the day, Miss Orville dismisses the class. She stays at her desk. Everyone leaves except Roger. As Miss Orville gathers her things she comes across Roger's confiscated toys. She returns them. He puts them in his pockets.
Roger stays standing in front of her desk. Miss Orville asks why he's still there. He stands up straight and spells "flower" and "castle". Miss Orville holds back tears. Roger leaves.
Theme: Balance Between Work and Fun
At the beginning of the story Roger is not vigilant about doing his homework. Miss Wilson is going to be away on Monday, so if he doesn't do it “who'd know the difference?”
School is all about play for Roger. He likes Miss Wilson because she is fun, and he likes his school for the same reason. Roger's father thinks Miss Wilson is “excessively whimsical”. After hearing a story where a lot of time was wasted, his mother thinks it “sounded typical of St. Geoffrey's”.
Roger's attitude toward school is paralleled in his eating habits. “Roger attacked dessert with a lot more zest than he had shown the peas.” He likes the easy, enjoyable parts but neglects the parts that take some effort.
Roger's mind is set on playing. He goes to school early so he will have plenty of time for fun. He brings baseball cards, string for a kite, a water pistol, and a whistle.
The focus is clearly on fun. The result is that “Roger's scholastic progress wasn't notable.”
In contrast, Miss Orville is scrupulous and focused on work. She changes the mood immediately by rearranging the desks from a semicircle to rows. She commands the students to line up and march in unison. She appoints a coat monitor, and doesn't tolerate poor penmanship or misspellings. Of course, she confiscates Roger's toys. She assigns punishment homework, and insists that shoes are shined.
The result is that Roger becomes “nervous, harried, continuously glancing over his shoulder, in the manner of one being followed.”
There is no balance between work and fun. With Miss Wilson, the students aren't learning much and don't have a sense of responsibility. With Miss Orville, they are learning but it causes them undue stress. There is no break from their strict routine.
Ideally, the students would have a teacher who combines the best of Miss Wilson and Miss Orville.
Theme: Judging People's Motives
Miss Orville is strict and direct in her criticism. Due to this, Roger views her as a witch and calls her Miss Awful. He doesn't consider the possibility that she has good motives for her behavior. He assumes she's just an unpleasant person.
Miss Orville's speech near the end of the story reveals her motives. She views school as a privilege and a priceless gift. She wants the children to grow, to become good citizens.
She tells them the world isn't a playbox. Knowing some of Miss Orville's backstory suggests her life hasn't been easy. She lived in a run-down building. She wouldn't leave because, presumably, she had nowhere else to go. It's possible she still teaches because she can't afford not to. Miss Orville wants her students to be prepared for the harshness of life.
While her method might be too extreme, her motives seem good. She has her student's best interests at heart.
1. What does Miss Orville's comparison of plants and children tell us about her teaching style?
Miss Orville compares children to plants and the instruction of the classroom to the care a plant receives. They're both living organism that will grow with proper care.
This is a simplistic comparison. Children are much more complex than plants. She doesn't view her students as individuals but as a group who will respond in the same way to the same things, as would plants.
She tells the students what is required of them. She doesn't try to make a personal connection with any of them. She doesn't make any allowances for different personalities. Plants will thrive if they're simply given what they need. Children need more to be at their best.
2. How does Roger's attitude change?
Roger takes an instant dislike to Miss Orville. This stays fairly consistent right up to the final scene. He agrees with his classmates that they need to get even with her in some way.
We're told that Roger cares about people and animals. This is confirmed by his reaction to the suggestions that they throw rocks at Miss Orville or trip her. He doesn't want to hurt her. He has misgivings about the revenge plot and suggests they drop it.
At the end of the story, Roger understands that Miss Orville isn't all bad. When he stays after to show her he's learned from her, he's acknowledging that there was some merit to her method.