I got some bad news yesterday.
As I write this, I’m not thinking clearly, and that will require some editing, because I want this to be as close to perfect, as I can make it.
I went to High School in Kerrisdale… Magee, Grad Class of ’80.
In Grade Nine, there were all the regular cast of Characters… the one who were smart, the ones who were cool, the jocks, the nerds, the bandies and the rest.
I was in the middle of the rest… I was beige.
Not small enough to get picked on, not hard working enough to be academic, not confident enough to be funny… most people in my Class, when I meet them today, don’t remember me… and I don’t begrudge them… I did nothing to stand out, and because I didn’t know who I was, or what I wanted… it was fine with me.
Grade Nine was all about the School trying to give us options… Guys did Industrial Education, while Girls took Home Ec. Science was split into four chapters… Earth Science, Biology, Chemistry and Physics. Even English was divided, so that we could have two different Teachers.
I started off the year with an English Teacher who believed that in order to be successful in English; you had to be able to identify every single segment of sentence structure. I couldn’t have sorted it out, even if I had a map. That irked her, and I was close to failing. Because of her, I hated English class.
Next semester, I arrived at my second English Class, and a spritely, older man with snow white hair came bounding in. He had a spring in his step and an enthusiastic chuckle in his every word. His name was Mr. Ballard, but (for reasons that are unclear to me) all the older Grade Students called him Doc Ballard.
He taught English, was the Tennis Coach, and sponsored the Ping Pong team. He loved what he did, and was enthralled by it. Around the corner from the lunch room, was an area off the janitors’ room, where he and another teacher, (Mr. Davies) would take their jackets off, roll up their sleeves, and play (to us) World Class Ping Pong. He loved to make high arcing shots, and when the shots would glance off the table edge, as they often did, he would laugh his staccato chortle. On the rare event of a miss, his shoulders would go up high, his whole body would jerk, and he would let out the most heartfelt “OH !”
He also loved writing, and challenged us all to grasp the impact of the many selections he would deliberately read out to us… trying to wring from every syllable the tension, drama or joy that the author had intended.
He challenged his students the same way. He wanted passion for writing in his class… offering extra credits, if we wanted to write on our own. The more we would write, the higher the mark.
With him, we had no fear of being kept behind in class, because those of us, who were writing, knew he wanted to give us his thoughts on our writing. He would talk about structure, and flow. He wanted the writing to make sense, and talked about the impact of words, and showed how changing one word could make a vast difference to the emphasis and the sense of a passage.
This was 1977, and there were no computers, there were no electric typewriters in homes, there was a choice of pen and paper, or a clunky old “hammer the keys” manual typewriter, typing on Onionskin. And I would sit there by the hour. Sadly, I only kept a few of the dozens I churned out, but I do have my favourite.
Inspired by Doc Ballard’s encouragement, and a number of movies that had recently come out, I decided to write (what in Grade 9) a tome… 2500 words. A suspense thriller, filled with assassins, good guys, motivations and undercurrents. Reading it now, it’s Grade 9… but in Grade 9, I was elated.
When it was done, I gave it to him after class the next day in a Duotang binder, and he looked at me, like I was pulling his leg. He started thumbing through the pages, and saw the hours of writing and editing, re-writing before the days of liquid paper, or cut and paste. I was excited, but I think he was more delighted than I. His eyes were dancing, and he did his funny little shuffle. He patted me on the arm, and there was, for me, a real sense of how much he was actually looking forward to reading it. For the first time, outside of my family, I had found an audience.
The next day, I couldn’t wait for English Class. All class long, I was too excited to focus on the subject of the day, and when the bell rang, and class ended, I was taken aback when he told me that he was enjoying it, but that he hadn’t really had a chance to go through it thoroughly, but that the next day would be the time to review it.
Next day, I trundled into class, still slightly miffed. We settled into our desks, and he stood before us with his usual grin and his head to one side… and said, “Today I have a treat for you… a short story by Bob Gray” with which he pulled out my Blue Duotang, and proceeded to launch into an amazing reading. Speeding up when the intensity pitched… slowing down to emphasize a passage… re-reading the occasional phrase to draw attention to some writing technique. My first instinct was stunned disbelief and embarrassment. That passed quickly, as I too got caught up in the amazing performance he was giving, with my pathetic thriller.
I don’t know how the class ended, I don’t remember the rest of the day, other than the sister of a friend came up and asked me if I had really written “that story” ? I said yes, and didn’t really think of it, at the time… I only found out a few days later. He hadn’t just read it to my Class… He read it to every Class that day, Grades 8 through 12.
This happened quite close to the Summer Holidays, and I shook his hand as I asked him, on the last day, to sign my Annual, and he said something like “Keep writing!” as he wrote Best Wishes, A. Ballard, below his picture. I thanked him, and wished him a good summer.
The next year, as we were running around the Gym, sorting out our Classes and Teachers, I stopped one of the Counselors, and asked her where Mr. Ballard was. “Gone” was the reply.
I was disappointed, but I was a teenager, and got caught up in school life, work, and my new love, writing.
In subsequent years, I have put pen to paper, worn out typewriters and eventually progressed to computer keyboards.
We all get caught up in the tangled fabric of Life… with marriages, deaths, births, and other events, all creating a curtain, where we hide our yesterdays.
Every few years, usually when I was writing something late at night, I would think of Doc Ballard, and on many occasions endeavored to get in touch. E-mails to Vancouver School Board. Letters to the BC Teachers Association. Phonecalls to the same Groups. All met with the same result… no answer.
Answers ranged from…There were computer issues, so records were lost… Privacy rules prohibit, sorry it’s not possible… to… No, not even if we send it for you.
Every few years I would try, and every few years I would get the same result.
I tried again yesterday… but this time after going through the Retired Teachers Association and the BC Teachers Federation, I looked through my old School Annual, and found his initials on his photo, so I was prepared to phone every AC Ballard in British Columbia.
On the fourth call, I finally found the correct residence, as an elderly woman confirmed she was his wife. She was having a hard time understanding, at first, why I was calling, because she was having trouble hearing me. But, although I was excited, I patiently explained again, who I was, and why I was calling, and then she paused, and gave me the heartbreaking news that he had passed away a few years ago. I expressed to her my condolences. She said it would have been nice if I had been able to thank him for his kindness, before he passed… she thought he would have been touched by that.
Now, a day later, I sit at my computer, trying to find the words to describe the gift that this man gave to me.
I have not yet earned a penny from a word I’ve written, but I’ve moved people with my song lyrics… made them laugh with my short stories… and earned thoughtful replies with my letters.
I don’t know what sort of a tribute I can write for a man who, in a few short months, saw something in me, and nurtured and brought it out from where it had hidden. As a relative stranger, he showed me something that I didn’t know about myself, gave me a gift that has given me a lifetime of joy, and a voice. He gave me nothing I didn’t have, but without him, I might have nothing.
Thank you seems absurdly understated, but… it’s all I’ve got.
Thank you, Mr. Ballard… Thank you, Doc.