LAYTON -- Debbie Davis gets a sparkle in her eye and a bounce in her step when she talks about teaching students how to write. It is her passion, and her students see that in her.
That's why, for many of her former students who gathered to honor her recently, it was no surprise that she won the "My Favorite Teacher" award recently.
Davis was given a $5,000 check and a Nook Color reading tablet at Barnes and Noble because a former English student, Emily Burns, wrote an essay touting Davis' many qualities.
Burns' essay was selected from more than 18,000 essays nationwide.
Burns also received a $500 gift card along with the Nook Color on Wednesday night, but she had no idea she would be receiving a prize.
"This was written for (Davis), and the fact that she won is the best prize for me," Burns said with a beaming smile. "The fact she won really gives me all the happiness."
It has been a rough year for Davis. She took what she thought would be a short leave of absence from teaching in December when her husband was diagnosed with cancer.
When his condition dramatically worsened, she wasn't able to return to teaching her students, and she lost her husband to the disease in April.
In May, she and the rest of the teachers and students learned that Christian Heritage School, where she taught, would close permanently at the end of the school year.
"These last few months have been a blur, and then somewhere in the midst of all this despair, there was this bright spot," Davis said of the award.
Davis' unexpected departure is what spurred Burns to write the essay last winter.
"I wanted to do something to show her in a very big way that we care about her," Burns said.
The caring was evident at the awards ceremony as former students, teachers and friends united to celebrate Davis' award. Word got out on Facebook to many former students, who were thrilled for her.
Ashley Digiacomo admits she was not at all surprised to hear of Davis' award.
"She basically got me into college," Digiacomo said. The 18-year-old just finished her first year of college and feels she owes much of her success to Davis. This past year she emailed papers to Davis and asked for input.
"I wasn't even her student, and she was helping me," Digiacomo said. She remembers intense class sessions where Davis encouraged her and her classmates to keep reaching to obtain something better with their writing.
"We all became good writers because of her," she said.
Burns stated in her essay that her attention deficit hyperactivity disorder has been a challenge for her and her teachers, but not for Davis. She wrote that Davis looked beyond her ADHD and found strengths and called her parents to tell them how great she was and that she had potential. Burns wrote that the encouragement gave her confidence and hope.
Davis feels very strongly about helping her students be able to write. Before she started teaching English 10 years ago, she was in the Air Force for 22 years. During her time with the Air Force, she never thought a lot about teaching, but came to know how vital writing was in every aspect of life. She recently heard about a study that said 75 percent of students leave high school not being able to write with proficiency, and that thought is unsettling to her.
"If you aren't able to write, you don't have a voice," Davis said. "I wanted to teach writing."
Davis will be teaching at DaVinci Academy in Ogden next school year and is hoping to create a community tutoring program for writing.
"Teaching writing is extremely difficult, but it is so important. I am privileged to be a part of these students' lives," she said.
This is the first year Barnes and Noble has done the "My Favorite Teacher" essay contest. Pete Spransy delivered essay entry forms to schools in the area last winter and had an overwhelming response from writers in kindergarten through 12th grades. He remembers reading Burns' piece.
"Hers far and above outshone the others. It was thought-out and heartfelt," he said of the essay.
He and others chose the best essays locally and sent them to a regional competition, and the best of those were then sent to a national level.
"It is very exciting. We are just thrilled to death that someone from here won," Spransy said. "But once I met Mrs. Davis, I could see why she won. She is incredible."