Teachers are heroes
Mrs. Balyeat is my all-time favorite teacher and whenever I see stuff online where people talk about unsung heroes, or their favorite teachers, or teaching, or To Kill a Mockingbird or Of Mice and Men or ANYTHING, I think of Mrs. Balyeat. She was my 7th and 8th grade English teacher, and was a total badass.
Mrs. Balyeat loved and promoted reading. I know this is not a novel thing for a middle school English teacher to do, but still. An entire wall of the classroom was bookshelves. It was her own personal lending library. She kept a paper spreadsheet of what each of us were reading, all books she’d lent us. When we finished our book, we would bring it up to her desk, and she would ask us what we thought about it. This time was important for me because I got to gush about the book. It was also important because yes we were writing book reports in this class, and learning to write argumentative essays, but I liked the informality of getting to just say “oh my GOD Gone with the Wind jeeeeeeeeez.” I guess I would credit some of my confidence in informality to the equal weight she put on these two ways of engaging with literature. I imagine a lot of people get put off reading because of the way it’s handled in school. I LOVE to read, but I do not love to write essays about books. I was the grouchiest English major I knew. Good lord WHYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYY is how I always felt when beginning a paper. The way papers asked me to think was different than the way books prompted me to think, and I never learned to reconcile the two. Studying writing has been a much more effective companion to reading for me than comparative literature. But Mrs. Balyeat.
Her recommendations were so insightful, too. Because she kept track of all of our reading, and knew what we loved, she was our librarian as well as our teacher. I never stopped missing this relationship with her. She now works in a bookstore, actually, so if you want Mrs. Balyeat to help you find what to read, you can visit her at The Book Stall.
She was a tough woman. At the time I was aging out of my ability to make choices by instinct. I was very quickly moving into that period of intense peer awareness and insecurity. As a kid I had been bold and lively, but now I wanted as little attention as possible because I knew I was hideously ugly and far too tall and very stupid. But I also wanted a lot of attention because I needed to know if I was at all lovely or talented or smart. Big mess, you know the deal.
Also my best friend was very sweet, and people were always saying: Marion is so sweet. She was an adult favorite. So then I was like, oh shit I have to be sweet because people like that. Thing is, I am not sweet! I am kind. I am thoughtful. But I am not gentle. I am not nice. I am opinionated and energetic and critical. I am a lot like Mrs. Balyeat. And she was respected. She was in complete command of her classroom. She had impressive vocal power, the kind where she could talk slow and low and you knew she was just so disappointed and the entire classroom would silence.
She was demanding. If you handed her something and she knew you could do better she would just look at you with these eyes and then you would shrivel. I f*cking love strict women. Intimidating women. Hard to impress women. Women who know exactly how good they are and demand you respect them. It seems crucial to have had this kind of female influence at such a sloppy time in my development. Yes I ruined my eyebrows. Yes I went hard into cargo pants. Yes I had blue eyeshadow and the Savage Garden album memorized. But Mrs. Balyeat was there. And I couldn’t not notice the effective cool of Mrs. Balyeat. Her button downs and audacity didn’t speak to me in 7th grade, but I respected them, and I remembered them and they speak to me now.
The final piece, and the bit that takes her from a great teacher to a major influence on me is that we connected. She paid attention to me. She let me and my friends eat lunch in her classroom every single day after we got kicked out of our lunch table by other girls. Looking back I’m like oh lord. It was probably her only student-less part of the day and she let us come in there and jabber and make up dances. She made me feel intelligent and pushed me to prove it. I actually still feel it, too. I feel like I owe her. Seems like you grow up and you realize who all you’re indebted to, and then you work to pay them back by being the person they thought you were. I definitely feel that with Mrs. Balyeat. I went to lunch with her a few years ago, she made me call her Betsy. She thinks I am a good person so I have to be one. It is basically that simple.