School Days

I had planned to end this year’s blog with a more general update on things. What’s going on in my life. What movies I’ve seen. What books I read. The TV I watched, the music I listened to. I’ve also been waylaid a bit, both with family obligations, and with a banger of a head cold that’s kept me out of the loop for a bit. Frankly, I’ve been in a state of near exhaustion for the last month. So I was going to just let 2017 sputter out on its own without me.

Then my sister forwarded the obit.

Let me tell you about John Alexander Ballachey. “JB” as he was known to we students of Brockville Collegiate Institute. JB taught history. He was, I believe, head of the department, but I may be mistaken in that regard. He’d taught at our school since the late 1960s, even teaching history to the parents of some of the kids in my class.

He was an institution.

It sounds cliché to speak of a teacher who inspired you, but in JB’s case this was all true. I’m a huge history buff today and that’s largely due to him. He made learning fun. He didn’t care about dates and events that occurred on them. He wanted you to see the connections. Many times our classes were about what could have happened at certain junctures, as opposed to what ended up happening. What if Hitler hadn’t invaded the Soviet Union. What if the French hadn’t lost the Plains of Abraham? What if the 1980 Sovereignty Referendum had swung in the Parti Quebecois’ favor? It was, in essence, storytelling, based on historical fact. You needed to know your facts with JB and he wouldn’t hesitate to call you out for it. And the thing was, you wanted his approval, that wry grin and winning smile that told you “good job” without his having to say it. I was a fair-to-average student in many regards, but for two subjects; English, and History. I succeeded in history class because JB made it an adventure to learn.

JB wasn’t just a teacher though. He was also a longstanding member of the Brockville Operatic Society, appearing in dozens of musical productions. I appeared with him in late 1989, sharing a scene with him as a reporter in the BOS production of Damn Yankees (with JB playing the team owner). We all had a hoot – him especially. For the week leading up to the performance he’d grill me mercilessly, asking if I remembered my lines (I had, I think, three). But he clearly enjoyed making me nervous, just like he enjoyed all his students. If you encountered him on the street he’d always grin, and ask how you were, even though he knew how you were doing in his class.

He was also encouraging in my burgeoning career as a filmmaker and storyteller. In Grade 12 he happily agreed (despite being busy with teaching) to perform a small role in a 1-act play I directed based on a Woody Allen comedy bit. Despite having only a couple lines he hammed them up like crazy and got the biggest laughs of the show. There was something of a performer in JB, beyond the stage, beyond the classroom. I always felt after the fact that he had no real aspirations for the stage – he really just enjoyed being in front of and around people, be it an audience, be it a classroom of students. Despite having a mild stutter he didn’t blanch, even when he fought for the words on the tip of his tongue.

I don’t think I saw him at all after high school – maybe around graduation or shortly after though I did get to tell him I’d been accepted into film school, which earned hearty, friendly punch to the arm in that guy-ish way. I don’t remember what he said, but I like to think he was proud that I was going out into the world to make history of my own – just one of many kids he taught. I think he was proud of all the kids who passed through his classroom. To teach for so long you found yourself teaching the children of former students might have made you feel your age, but not JB.

JB never left Brockville. I’m told that while he embraced world travel in his later years Brockville was always home. He remained involved in the community, in theatre, and the choir, and made animal welfare his passion after he’d hung up his teaching shoes. I am told though, second-hand, that he did know I was making a name for myself as a writer in the film and Tv biz, and thought that was fantastic news. I’m sure he felt that way about all his former students – the lawyers and doctors, and the ones who went on to teach history themselves.

Looking through his memorial page, I saw a lot of names I hadn’t thought of in more than 25 years. Students, colleagues, parents, children. All who were touched by an extraordinary teacher. You realize now, in adulthood, what an impact your teachers had on you. To me, teaching is one of the noblest of professions – the one that truly keeps the world spinning.

I never got to tell JB any of this, but I’m saying it now for all the teachers out there. I want to say how much you do matter, to every child you teach, to every parent whose child is entrusted to you. And know that, even after those kids graduate or advance a grade and move on, they never do forget how much you meant to them.

Godspeed and good-rest, Mr. Ballachey. You were one in a million.



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