It’s funny how memories spark out of nowhere, like a dash of sunbeams coming from a window and landing perfectly at your gaze. Then, in the next step, the light disappears.
Mr. Ball, otherwise referred to as “B,” was my Junior High Language Arts teacher. Straight up and down like a short pillar, his belt marked where his shirt ended and his slacks began. A confident pointy nose and almond wise eyes, he used to rake his fingers through his hair from nape to crown. With a quick jerk, he’d brush strands out of his eyes like a swimsuit model.
In junior high, my hair was ridiculously, well, there was a lot going on, and it was Mr. Ball who made up my nickname. “Rapunzel.” And it stuck. Thankfully only for junior high.
Deliberate and thought-provoking was his speech, and he used his hands when talking while he humbly commanded the room, roaming and nodding at each student. I remember how he talked about a novel he was writing, and about the main character, a woman, who he knew so intimately. He spoke about her with a far off gaze as if she were real. “I just can’t put my finger on her name yet,” he shared with our class.
Then one day he came to class, brisk walk walk walking, fingers combing his hair, his tiny eyes doubling in size. With a high pitch, he squealed. “It’s Mercedes. Her name is Mercedes.”
This is one of my first memories of holding an awe breath for someone who had imagined a story and put it to life. It was spellbinding. Gregarious and captivating was this English teacher, Mr Ball.
What made Mr.Ball an exceptional teacher wasn’t just his passion and knowledge to inspire us toward literature and pronouns- it was the gift he gave in opening up his personal life and sharing it with a bunch of hormonal, squirrelly junior high kids. He shared his life with us. His vulnerable projects. Now, as a I work on a book, I can’t imagine his bravery in sharing his fictional characters with students who couldn’t yet grasp the weight of what he was giving in addition to teaching.
Henri Nouwen so beautifully speaks of this gift in Reaching Out, “Teaching, therefore, asks first of all the creation of a space where students and teachers can enter into a fearless communication with each other and allow their respective life experiences to be their primary and most valuable source of growth and maturation. It asks for a mutual trust in which those who teach and those who want to learn can become present to each other, not as opponents, but as those who share in the same struggle and search for the same truth.”
The greatest teachers are the ones who give a portion of their life, of themselves, to their students. They open the window a little bit wider and let the sunbeams dance a little bit longer and fuel the creative warmth of undeserved time.
And it stays with me.
Mercedes, I can see her even now.