Terrified. Excited. Nervous. Worried about my height. Worried about my body. Worried about my impending popularity, or lack thereof.
I walked into Room 406 to see a group of fellow 7th graders - some I knew, most I didn't - sitting in silence at various desks. I took my place in one... and waited. This was a Gifted and Talented class that I begrudgingly took at the request of my mother and Donna Whiting. In the back of my mind, I knew I was going to drop it for something music or art related.
The bell rang and in walked this eccentric yet beautiful lady with big hair, dress shorts (a common theme in 1991 perhaps?), colorful tights, and a tie. "Mrs. Oldham," she wrote on the board. Old ham? Was she an Easter dinner gone awry? My 12-year-old wit was almost as amazing as my 32-year-old wit...
She began by talking about how she didn't know too much about Gifted and Talented in the way of Quiz Bowl and Knowledge Masters. She didn't care anything about doing logics puzzles or strategy games. But she did know gifts and talents. She did know about an artform I wasn't too familiar with - theatre. Acting. Public speaking. She knew how to take the kids who weren't sure where their places were and find a niche for them.
Needless to say, I didn't drop the class.
Donna Whiting had found this gem hanging ceiling fans in Factory First and snatched her up. That Donna Whiting... I wonder if she has any idea how many lives she has changed by walking into that lighting store and acting on her gut. I will be forever indebted to her for that... and well, she wears a cloak. A red one. She's so classy...
Over the next few weeks we learned that this eccentric beauty, Jane, had great plans for us. She introduced us to The Bubble Theory and Reader's Theatre. She brought competitive speech and debate into our vernacular. She was always a friendly and comforting face in the midst of junior high hell. And then she even wrote a piece of theatre for us to perform entitled "Junior High Hail." In it, she hilariously and eloquently was able to put down the things we were going through just by listening to us. Always having felt like I'd rarely been listened to, this was the first time I genuinely thought that my opinions and problems were valid. In fact, valid enough to be written about and shared.
Some of us at our first tournament with Jane - October 1991
Little did we know she was going through quite a hell of her own. She was only assigned to the position temporarily for a teacher on sick leave. She had just gone through a terrible divorce. She had a new baby at home, and she wasn't 100% sure how long she'd have funds to even feed him. Somehow it never deterred her. She was always there for us.
I spent the next six years basking in her knowledge. I cut the cake at her wedding to quite possibly one of the best men to walk the planet and the one to make her "Mrs. Balgavy" or "Mrs. B". I went to her with things I couldn't talk about to anyone else. She was a non-family adult who I felt comfortable with, which every teenager needs. She listened. She never judged. She steered me away from teenage angst by making me think it was my idea. She refused to let me go down the road of unhealthy rebellion (drugs, alcohol, sex, etc). And she even made me feel needed, yet never obligated.
Throughout high school she was supportive yet wise in her advice regarding grades, boys, friends, parents, bad attitudes, work, and the future. She taught us how to play the un-game which created trustworthy friendships that are among the most important I have to this day.
In the 12th grade, I auditioned for "Guys and Dolls" KNOWING that as one of her darlings, one of her cherubs, one of the lice of her life, I would absolutely get a lead. I could dance, I'd been taking voice lessons, and I'd been around for six freaking years. I drove up to the M Building and parked in the forbidden Work-Study parking lot. As I walked down the hall to M110 I was filled with excitement! I was about to see how I'd be spending my final semester of high school! Here's what I found...
Joy's inner dialogue...
Sky Masterson....Christopher Brown (yay! my best friend)
Sister Sarah.....Andrea Alford (that's curious, but Andrea CAN sing. I'm sure I got Adelaide)
Nathan Detroit...Cory Whitfield (another yay! my oldest friend!)
Miss Adelaide....Kim Forsyth (what the... wait, no way. huh? so where am I?)
(all the way to the bottom.. scrolling through the names, not characters.. the LAST name on the page)
Havana Seductress...Joy Sims (WHAT?!?! A made up role?!)
I drove to my mom's office to inform her I would be skipping school due to this grievance. Then I drove to the junior high. I stormed into Mrs. Balgavy's room. The fact that she even allowed me this tantrum shows the level of tolerance and love this woman had for me. She let me be angry. She let me cry. She let me feel sorry for myself... for about 10 minutes. And then she laid it down. She told me I wouldn't always get what I wanted in life. She told me that not every decision made is about me. As an only-child, I'm not sure I had ever been made aware of this until that instant. I was speechless. And as she predicted, I was absolutely fine in the end.
She told me to go back to school or else I'd miss Louisa Lawless's rendition of No Doubt's "Spiderweb" at the talent show. Thank God I listened to her... it was truly a glorious cover. One that got her Saturday School, but SO worth it.
Me with Louisa and Jane at the River Market in May. Louisa refrained from wearing leather pants and humping the floor at this particular outing. But that is definitely what got her Saturday school in 1997.
I can honestly say that almost all of my favorite high school memories revolve around Jane or her influence. I'll list a few here. I apologize in advance, Gentle Readers, for the inside jokes. It has to be done:
- Dead chickens at play practice
- J-O-L-E... E-L
- The meth lab down the hall at Harvard... they were much too loud.
- Hall talks - even when they lead to seizures
- Being deaf and performing sign language at the Clinton Watch Party
- 75 cents for orange juice
- "he was stoned! like with rocks!"
- I would pick *pick* more daisies
- Thank you, Ms. Elskin. We love you. And now, Grish.
- Barbara Benoit
- Fruit bats eat fruit. Did you ever wonder about that?
As much fun as I've had with Jane and because of Jane and even sometimes at Jane's expense, she's definitely been a shelter during many storms. Through deaths, divorce, illness, family matters, and loneliness, she's never failed. And even when I haven't gone to Jane directly, the people who I've reached out to the most when life seemed to be failing me were all people she had a hand in bringing into my life.
Jane - Thank you for being so wonderful. Thank you for being a wonderful teacher. Thank you for your insight and laughter. Thank you for walking into Room 406 twenty years ago today. Thank you for sharing your life with so many of us... especially with me. Thank you for changing my life for the better. Thank you for just being... I hope you have a great school year. And I hope I'm there to celebrate many more.
God gives the moments. We make the memories.
-Jane Morgan Balgavy. "Time" 1996.
This is what lifelong friendship looks like. Here's to 20 more years, my teacher, my mentor, my friend.