I felt ridiculously happy Monday morning, considering that I've never met Jackie Roehl, a 10th-grade English teacher at Edina High School.

But I couldn't help myself as I read about Roehl, 47, the 2012 Minnesota Teacher of the Year.

My life was forever altered by my own 10th-grade English teacher, which now gives my editor someone specific to blame.

Mrs. Laval was the most exotic person I'd ever met growing up decades ago in New Mexico. She wore short knit dresses and green tights. She dyed her severe, face-framing haircut jet black and lined her eyes with several layers of pencil.

She was Goth before there was Goth. Her deep voice was a constant surprise coming from a woman barely 5 feet tall.

And she taught us to cherish artful storytelling like nobody's business.

For an hour a day, we devoured Hemingway and Harper Lee, Steinbeck and Shakespeare. Through literature, we learned about human suffering and heroism, about loyalty and love and, sometimes, devastating personal choices, which I would argue is pretty much the same lineup that's offered by a daily newspaper.

At least I make a direct link from her classroom to this newsroom.

Under her tutelage, I first learned about unrequited love (helpful as I snapped on my marching band spats and a furry, 3-foot-high black hat far from view of the hunky quarterback), and the power of a simple informal pronoun to reveal a world of heartbreak:

Et tu, Brute?

Mrs. Laval also thought nothing of giving us all big red Ds for missing an author's intent, which happened a lot. She expected breadth and depth in writing from a bunch of hormone-deranged 15-year-olds, and more than once in a while she got it.

A year ago, I was thrilled to run into her at a little restaurant in Albuquerque. I told her that I owed my career to her, and that until recently, her name had been my log-in password.

I'm pretty sure it was light tears that caused her black eyeliner to smudge.

I realize, of course, that the challenges Mrs. Laval faced are a world away from those of Roehl, English teacher in the digital age. Roehl's students are texting, posting, blogging, Skyping and tweeting. Mining for breadth and depth must feel sometimes like an Olympic sport.

Roehl, of St. Louis Park, was named Teacher of the Year Sunday, surrounded by cheering colleagues. She was selected from 10 finalists, who were culled from 300 nominated teachers.

Roehl's passion is working on the admirable goal of reducing the racial achievement gap between white and minority students. She noted that Minnesota has one of the widest divides in the nation.

She has earned a bachelor's and master's degree from the University of St. Thomas and co-leads an evening class through Hamline University to teach other teachers how to tap into the diverse skills of their students.

I don't know what the judges were thinking, but I like their choice. I think there are few people better suited for 21st-century challenges than an English teacher.

With the 24/7 lives our kids lead, they need someone to help them shut out the noise. To help them make sense of a world that sometimes is terribly mean. To honor their divergent voices.

Mostly, to remind them now, as always, of our universal struggles and humanity.

A great book can do that. But it's best consumed with a thoughtful, steady guide coaching them from the front of the room.

gail.rosenblum@startribune.com • 612-673-7350