The last couple months I’ve been thinking about my high school English teacher Barbara Ballard’s retirement this week. I went to a small public high school in the town of Coupeville on Whidbey Island and she has been a fixture there for quite some time now.
I’ve always been the sort of person to have a brain like a dry sponge. It is often ready and willing to soak in anything and everything given to it which really was difficult to deal with in high school. Most of the teachers didn’t know what to do with me because I tended to be ahead of the curve in terms of their curriculum. I mostly hung out and made art, soaking up whatever new bits of new information I could get my hands on.
That changed my junior and senior year of high school when I began taking Ms. Ballard’s English classes. They were the first classes where I truly felt challenged (apart from never quite being able to get a positive score on the V-sit in P.E.), and even though I didn’t give much mind at the time to any writing skill I may have had it felt wonderful to have something other than sports I could pour my competitive spirit into (even if I was only competing with myself).
Though I didn’t recognize how honing my writing by continuously running the gauntlet in her class might help me in the future I’ve had the last few years to contemplate it. After all, finding myself in a position where living with treatment resistant bipolar disorder has kept me from being able to work a traditional 9-5 job I’ve had a lot of time at home to try to figure out an alternative that would allow for feeling even a sliver of purpose or fulfilment, and it seems I’ve found that again through the writing Ms. Ballard helped me build a foundation in.
In a way this realization has not been unlike when Dorothy finds she had the power to get home all along in the Wizard of Oz. After all, the first time my bipolar symptoms reared their ugly head was in my junior year of high school. Amidst the paranoia and psychosis, the intense mixed episode where I’d find myself feeling both amped up and tragically devastated at the same time I was enrolled in Ms. Ballard’s English class. When it came to the point where I needed to be hospitalized in order for me to get the treatment I required my mother told me that she spoke with my teachers about it to get my assignments worked out.
At 17 the idea that my teachers were aware of such an intense experience I was having, one that I desperately wanted to hide at first, was terrifying. Especially when it came to those teachers (well, there was only one really) who were demanding great work: Ms. Ballard.
I was too young and inexperienced with mental illness at the time to be able to recognize how well Ms. Ballard handled the information and how seamlessly she accommodated my situation in class. Once or twice she allowed me alternative reading from the rest of the class when she thought the content might not mesh well with my situation, and if she eased up on her critiques at all it didn’t keep me from trying as hard as I had before. She never made me beg or try to explain myself and she never acted condescendingly toward me (something many other adults were doing at the time). She simply allowed an unspoken understanding to sit between us and in doing so I felt comfortable enough to go on to complete a University of Washington English course in her class for college credit my senior year.
Like I said, I had little expectations for what writing could do for me at the time, but the treatment I received from Ms. Ballard at a very delicate time in my life left me with an enormous respect for her.
It has only been in the last few years that I’ve merged the skill of writing I’d gained with my experiences with mental illness to create a platform to help other people understand what it is like to live with mental illness and why it is important to be fluid and supportive in how we handle situations with other people. In my mind we could all take a lesson from Barbara Ballard because it seems she’s at the head of the class.
Thanks for providing an atmosphere where I could succeed and congratulations on your retirement!