Commentary 27 May 2010 07:18 pm
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.