Commentary 27 May 2010 07:18 pm

James Ballor: Parting waves, shaping lives

Here is this week’s column from The Alliance Review:

When James Ballor strides the halls of Alliance High School, the sea of students parts.

It’s not his height, exactly, even though he towers over most students — and teachers. Nor is it quite his speed, although he does move far faster than the normal flow of traffic. To have a conversation with a moving Ballor requires an extra hop or skip; keep it brief, or you’ll be left out of breath and eating his dust.

It could be the distinguished mustache or the formal attire — suit coat and tie, perfectly creased trousers (never “pants,” he insists, because it’s slang for “underwear” in Britain). But I doubt it.

No, I think students part before him for the same reason that the surf splits before a reef, because they sense something immovable, an implacable force of nature that cannot — will not — be denied. He is a living legend in Alliance academia — a scholar par excellence, the go-to guy on all matters literary or grammatical, a virtual fountain of knowledge regarding music and movies. More to the point, he is a teacher of all of the above, and a damn fine one, to boot.

Visitors to the “What Would Ballor Do?” fan page on Facebook will encounter the anecdotes — stories of bananas suspended from classroom ceilings, of diagramming the lyrics to Warren Zevon’s “Werewolves of London,” and of threats to award zero credit for ending a sentence with a preposition. They will learn the cryptic language of a James Ballor English class, where “giving the finger” isn’t as dire as it first appears, and where “smart as a mug” is a compliment to be treasured.

It’s also the place where you’ll find encomiums like this: “The man shaped my entire adult life. Can’t even explain what an influence he’s had on me as a journalist and as a person.” And, “I’ve spoken so highly and to such a great length about Mr. Ballor (that) my husband suspects he’s more myth than man.” And many sentiments that echo this: “GREATEST TEACHER I EVER HAD!!!” (I expect Ballor hates the triple exclamation points.)

Callow freshmen who have never had the privilege of taking one of his classes sometimes ask about the tall dude who looks like Mark Twain and walks like Clint Eastwood. All I say is that they need to experience him for themselves; once they do, they never ask again.

Sometimes new faculty members pose the same question. I know I did when I landed in the AHS English Department in 2002. The man already loomed like a Titan in my mind, and not only because he was the public face of the high school, the faculty member whom The Review photographed every year on student scheduling day.

I knew him as the definitive Ebenezer Scrooge, a role he played to perfection in many a Carnation City Players performance of “A Christmas Carol.” I was also aware that he was an uncompromising perfectionist, refusing to release a yearbook or an issue of the school newspaper for printing until it met his exacting standards. Oh, and that he had run with the bulls in Pamplona, tried out for “Jeopardy!”, and had summarily dismissed me as a student teacher back in the late ’80s. (Not that I held a grudge or anything.)

What I didn’t know then (but soon learned) is that he is one of the nicest people around, always willing to step in and step up when a hand is needed. One of the defining professional experiences of my career occurred when he and I co-produced a student performance of “Dracula.” Watching him work with, cajole and inspire outstanding performances from the cast was inspirational, like attending a master’s class in drama, motivation and teaching techniques all rolled into one.

But after today, the seas will part no more. Like Robin Hood firing a final arrow into Sherwood Forest, or King Arthur sailing off into Avalon, James Ballor heads into the next phase of his life: retirement.

What he leaves behind is a legacy of 30-plus years of exceptional teaching and thousands of students who have infiltrated every walk of life, spreading the knowledge of Latin and Greek prefixes, suffixes and root words, Shakespeare, speech, debate and humanities that they gleaned from his classes.

It’s a fine legacy, one that would make any teacher proud.

Selfishly, however, I wonder who will make the sea of students part when school is back in session in the fall, and what many of us will do without the man who, as Shakespeare once wrote of another great leader, “doth bestride the narrow world like a Colossus.”

But unlike petty conspirators gossiping about Caesar, the proper way to read the line as it relates to James Ballor is the same way that his students speak of him — in hushed reverence, awe, and most of all, with gratitude.

11 Responses to “James Ballor: Parting waves, shaping lives”

  1. on 29 May 2010 at 1.jose J Centurion said …

    Very well said. We know him by another name but he separates the seas just the same. He is a gentle lover of Bob Seger and an avid despiser of all things Doors which makes musical and lyrical clashes fun. A wonderful man to sit and listen to as he may say two words on the back balcony as he sets his thoughts before an encierro (got coffee?). He is a dear friend. I am sure he will miss his students more than the students will miss himm. He is just that type of person. Reminding us every day that life is NOT a tale told by an idiot full of sound and fury signifying nothing! Congratulations Curly, abrazos! Enhorabuena!

  2. on 29 May 2010 at 2.Caroline McIntyre said …

    Well said.

  3. on 30 May 2010 at 3.Chris Dwyer said …

    These fine words describe a man that is the cornerstone and President of the
    “No-Bullshit Monkey Pena” . This a group of people
    who meet in Pamplona, Spain and live the life of “Fiesta” and revel in the traditions of San Fermin.
    “Curly” has been running bulls with many of us for over 30 years. We celebrate life and challenge death
    each day of a 10 day festival and towards the end of this time you really feel like you have gotten to know each other.

    I think I know Curly, but he has so many facets that he can still surprise me. I know that his
    retirement will leave some large shoes to fill, literally, size 13.5, and his mentor ways and sage advice will be missed. I am glad that I will see him in Pamplona this year where all the members of the NBMP will succor our brother knowing that he will greatly miss being with his students and peers because real teachers never stop being what they are. Socrates true successors. A man of virtue integrity and valor. My friend Jim “Curly” Ballor

  4. on 01 Jun 2010 at 4.Mark Schlink said …

    Never have more truer words been spoken … a gentle man and even more so a Gentleman. I have known Jim since 1984 and it has been a pleasure to call him a friend.

  5. on 01 Jun 2010 at 5.Steve Farley said …

    I wonder whether any of us will receive a postcard from Andorra.

    Not sure what to think about Ballor retiring finally. I saw him when I was knee-high as Lloyd Dallas in “Noises off.” Saw him as Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, hell I performed with him in it one year. He was an excellent Captain Hook, and never ceased to amaze me as one of the most intelligent people I know.

    Having been out of high school for a few years now-not many yet-I’m not sure it’s going to ever be the same there. Rather, I doubt it ever will be.

    A final toast to one of the greatest.

    James Ballor

  6. on 02 Jun 2010 at 6.Rex Freriks said …

    What more can I add to what has already been so warmly said by my friends Jose, Caroline, Chris and Mark ? James (Curly to all of us) parts the waves of the mass of humanity at the Running of the Bulls as profoundly as he parts the waves of students at Alliance High School. Presence speaks a universal language be it English or Spanish. Although teaching may be over I assure you we all will continue to learn from him.

  7. on 03 Jul 2010 at 7.G.T. Long said …

    Alliance High School and indeed, Alliance itself has a HUGE gap in their education system with the retirement of James Ballor. He is one of my best friends, and the only good I see of this is that I and others who have known him for years can now spend some more time with him now that he is a bit more free. Somehow however, I don’t think his retirement will be full of sunsets, not Mr. Ballors style, I look forward to the new adventures that are now just forming in his formidable brain. Good luck James, let me know if you need a compadre. G.T.

  8. on 08 Jul 2010 at 8.Gary Shrewsbury said …

    Although he won’t be in a classroom, we will always be willing students of James Ballor.

    The loss to Alliance High School will be unmeasurable, but my hope is, this allows Curly the time to visit family and friends more often in Michigan. Not to mention attending breakfast the second Sunday in March!

    Congratulations on a wonderful career and enjoy your retirement Jim.

  9. on 09 Jul 2010 at 9.Jon Hansen (A.K.A....well, you know...) said …

    I have to believe the article above is the most accurate piece of journalistic work that the Alliance Review has ever published. Pulitzer? Just sayin’.

    An indomitable spirit if there ever was one, Curly will always be remembered warmly by anyone who has come within the length of a separated-from-the-rest-of-the-pack bull’s tail from him. (And, I suspect, that an inestimable percentage of his former students could attest that the facial expressions of “Mr. Ballor” did, on more than one occasion, unmistakably mirror those of that particular agitated species of four-legged, early July, eight and five o’clock entertainment purveyors.)

    Ohio has lost LeBron, but its seemingly every four-year voting machine-challenged citizenry still happily lays claim to being ruled under the benevolent dicatorship of the REAL King James. Long live the King!

  10. on 20 Apr 2011 at 10.Tom Schreiber said …

    Having taught with the esteemed Mr. Ballor for 12 years at A.H.S. in the 70’s and 80’s the above column brought back some great memories. From his 60’s party every March to his passion for fantasy baseball and his desire to try so many of the opportunites that life presents, the man who Ran With the Bulls and housed the Michigan Embassy was and is truely a Man for All Seasons. I hope that retirement is as good to him as he was to all of us he croosed paths with over the years. Well done Ballor!

  11. on 28 Jun 2011 at 11.Lee Winfield said …

    Dear Curly, Hi from Istanbul, Turkey (where I am now assigned). Who can imagine you have retired. Perhaps not “retired” but moved on to the next chapter. If you’re still running the bulls in Pamplona, stay safe. And Viva San Fermin!! Abrazos from your friend, Lee

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