Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Teacher Appears

Too many sad posts lately. Unfortunately, here's another.

When I was in 7th grade, my teacher was a guy named Dave Balliet. Dave died this week. He was only 60 years old and he had suffered from a rare form of cancer for a long, long time. You could search the earth looking for someone who had a bad word to say about Dave Balliet. You would never find that person.

There are some tough jobs in the world, but teaching 7th grade has to be right up there. Your students are not really children any more, but they are hardly adults yet. Kids that age are a dog's breakfast, a tangled mess of emotions and partial understandings of how the world actually is. The typical 7th grader can figure get play the notes, but only rarely does a 7th grader understand the music of life.

In the fall of 1975, I met Dave Balliet. I was a new student at St. Mary's School in Appleton, having spent the previous two years attending a public school in town. I was supposed to go to St. Mary's, but the school didn't have ay available space, so I had cooled my heels at the public school, enduring two largely unhappy years. Before that I had attended another Catholic grade school, St. Therese, but we had moved across town in the summer between 4th and 5th grade. When I finally arrived at St. Mary's as a 7th grader that fall, I was generally a stranger on the playground and being the new kid in school is rarely much fun.

When you are a new kid in school, you have two learning curves -- the academic one and the social one. The second one is much more difficult, especially if you are even the tiniest bit awkward socially. Dave Balliet understood that and looked out for me. He kept an eye on the other kids and made sure that I was welcomed into the school. He also helped me to understand some of the social mores and gave me advice on how to handle some of the "knuckleheads." It took a while, but eventually I figured it out and Dave's counsel made a huge difference.

My great friend Mark Miller compared Dave Balliet's classroom to the televison show "Welcome Back, Kotter," which was airing at that time. It's a pretty apt comparison. Dave had been a student at St. Mary's in the 1960s and was still a young teacher in 1975, with only a couple of years of experience. But even then, he seemed a lot older and experienced than he was. And because he'd been a student, he understood the school and its history. And since it was a Catholic school, he might have gone to school with older siblings of students that were in his classroom in 1975. He understood exactly the kinds of kids he was dealing with -- generally good kids, mostly middle class, but with a few tough stories here and there.

Dave's manner was unlike any other teacher I've had, before or since. The best way I can describe it is enthusiastic gruffness. He had a touch of the curmudgeon in him and sometimes his comments would have a little edge, but the edge was never directed at the students. And he loved to teach. His specialty was social studies and during that 7th grade year he made a semester-long project of following the 1976 presidential primary season. His classroom was filled with handmade posters for the various candidates -- Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Morris Udall and eventually Jerry Brown, who got in late in 1976. I think Dave even tried to talk some kid into making a Milton Shapp poster, but that was a pretty tough sell. We would spend significant class time talking about the race, handicapping the results, making predictions about the next week's slate and studying the history of previous elections. He would ask us to make predictions, but would also ask us to explain why we thought something would happen and wouldn't accept "that's what I think" as an answer. You had to think through the issue. There were more than a few political thinkers who emerged from his classroom.

And beyond the classroom, Dave was a coach. He coached football, basketball and fastpitch softball at St. Mary's and since it was a small school, most of the kids were involved in teams in one form or another. During my 8th grade year I was the student manager of the basketball team and played on the fastpitch softball team.

The enduring memory I have of that team was something that couldn't happen today. We played a season-ending tournament and the games were played at Holy Angels, a parish on the outskirts of town. Dave had to get the team to the games but there wasn't a school bus or other transportation available. So Dave improvised. His dad had an old Chevrolet pickup truck, probably about a 1951 or thereabouts. It was huge and dirty, since its primary use was at the family tree farm about 40 miles west of town. The picture I've included here is about what it looked like, except this one is a lot cleaner. Dave took Dow, the biggest kid on the team, and had him ride shotgun, while the rest of us rode out to the games in the truck bed. Since it was a 3-day tournament, we made multiple trips in the back of that truck. We were very fortunate that a cop didn't stop us, especially since all of us in the back were standing up half the time, hanging on the truck rails and yelling stuff at pedestrians while we rode down College Avenue, the main drag in town. It must have been quite a sight. And because Dave was a very good coach, we ended up winning the tournament.

A few years later Dave moved on to teach at the local technical college and stayed there for the rest of his career. But he never forgot his students from St. Mary's. I'd see him around town from time to time and he'd always want to know what was happening in my life and would have a story about someone I knew. He was genuinely interested in making sure that his students were coming along and continuing to learn.

The old saw has it that when a student is ready, the teacher appears. In the 7th grade, you couldn't have asked for a better teacher than Dave Balliet. At a time in my life when I needed both a teacher and a mentor, Dave was there for me. I have had some remarkably good teachers in my life, but I'm not sure I ever had a better one. Rest in peace, Dave. And thank you.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Awesome commentary, Mark. Spot on as usual. Really enjoyed Mr. Balliet. Remember his room with the sun shining through the windows in the afternoon. A great man who died way too early.

I had forgotten the pickup truck and trips out to Darboy. Thanks for bringing back a great memory.

Somebody needs to get your blog to the Balliet family. It's so well done. Take care, my friend. -- Mark Miller