Animal Crackers and Cocoa With Ms. Balkom
A friend from high school emailed me today. Our senior year English teacher died. It wasn’t a total shock– I heard at my reunion a couple of years ago that she was ill. All the same, the office went still for a moment. There are people we don’t see for years, that don’t cross our minds for months, but we still feel real loss when they leave. Ms. Balkom was this kind of person.
There are a lot of things to be said about death and loss and English teachers so often being the people that impact our lives the most, and I could probably write some things that would make her cringe about sparks burning in our hearts or whatever. Instead, I’m just going to honor her with my favorite Balkom story.
English IV AP in our all-girls school was a strange place.
First, we met in a forgotten annex off the main room of the library. They used to store dusty VCRs there and the only windows were near the top of only one wall in the room. We sat in tottering desks under fluorescent lights during the last period of the day. We resented that– the school allowed seniors with study hall during 8th hour to leave. We suspected they purposefully scheduled English AP during that block to sabotage us. There might have been 15 of us all crowded into that space meant to be a closet. Our numbers shrank considerably when Ms Balkom visited our junior year English class and barked that it didn’t matter if we called her class “Honors” or “AP”- she was teaching the same course and we should be prepared to sweat. From two classrooms of 20 girls each in English III Honors down to 15 total. We were the brave few.
Second, those brave 15 were a motley crew. We were a mix of the usual, “I must take every honors class I can so I can get a scholarship and go to college and be successful and preserve my class ranking” (um, yeah, guilty) and the artsy types who eschewed other honors classes but excelled in English. There was a cross section of high school hierarchy- an athlete or two, some student council busybodies (again, guilty), almost the whole drama club, some borderline goth girls, a girl nominated for Homecoming Queen… you get the idea. But under the flat gaze of Ms. Balkom, we were all best friends for about an hour a day. In that room, we perfectly understood each other. We were in the trenches together.
Third, and most important, our fearless leader contributed to the general strangeness. Ms Balkom looked the part of the crazy English teacher: short, thin, salt and pepper hair cut in a wispy bob, oversized sweaters, and shark eyes. She never once smoked in class, but I always visualize her sitting in her desk with a cigarette dangling from her hand as she rasped that we would be reading Richard IIIagain because we clearly missed the point. (Years later I contend that we did not miss the point. It’s a sucky play. There’s a reason most schools stick to Hamlet and Othello and such.) She alternated between blunt academic and whimsical artist. She filled our papers with chicken scratch critique, told us “not to be stupid” when writing our essays for the AP test, and once shut down my interpretation of poetry with a simple, “No” before asking someone else to answer (no explanation, no “well, poetry is subjective,” just, “No”). But she also read us poems about animal crackers and cocoa, she dressed as a cheerleader when we played the junior class in puffy polo, and she had the best throaty laugh– like something out of an old Hollywood movie.
So, there we were. A stuffy gray room, a group of misfits with a shared purpose, and a salty middle aged woman who was nearly mythical at our school for being a difficult teacher. Since it was an English class, she didn’t put much stock in tests. She preferred essays and response papers. By the second semester, we hit a groove. Most of us already knew what college we would attend so we weren’t that concerned about grades (except those of us with high anxiety… again, guilty). We settled into a comfortable routine– we would gather our desks in a circle and discuss that day’s reading like a really great book club. I remember that class fondly, naturally. But then came the drama test.
Ms. Balkom announced she would be giving us one test that 9 weeks. We would mostly write essays, but we could count on one test– the drama test. We spent several weeks learning about the history of drama, learning the terminology, reading excerpts from plays. I think most of us saw it as an opportunity to get an easy good grade. Essays could be subjective, but there’s one right answer to a multiple choice question, right?
A little foreshadowing: you might think that, but you would be wrong. Dead wrong.
So we actually studied. By this point in senior year, I won’t say we were phoning it in in other classes, but let’s just say I spent most of Honors Physics founding the Boys R Stupid Club with my lab partners. This test felt important though. We liked the class, we liked the drama unit even if it did involve reading Richard III TWICE, and I think most of all– we just liked Ms. Balkom. So for this test, I made flash cards. I think there was a study group at a coffee house. The day of the test, I sat outside the gym with my best friend and we quizzed each other. I remember thinking we were ready, that we had actually worked hard and it would pay off.
In college, I took a stats class that left me spinning. I took a psychobio class that literally made me scream. I had to memorize all the parts of the brain and their functions for another class and explain the physical mechanics of a flip flop for another But this… this might be the hardest test of my life. There was a matching section with something like 30 concepts with corresponding definitions, but we wouldn’t use all terms so it wasn’t a simple one-to-one match as we were allowed to use some concepts more than once. There were those dreaded multiple choice questions with answers like, “D) A and B only, E) All of the above, F) A, B, and E only.” There were True/False questions that made no sense. For once, the short answer responses felt like a recess.
That afternoon, we all handed in our tests to a smiling Ms. Balkom. I think it was a Friday. I think she told us to have a good weekend as she gathered all the scantrons. I think we all exchanged looks as we left and knew that it would be our last weekend on the planet.
On Monday, you could have easily picked out the members of English AP by our faces: pure, unadulterated terror. We all knew we bombed. Every last one of us. Nobody left the test thinking, “Well, I think I guessed right…” I remember going back to my notes that weekend, aghast that I could have forgotten so much, and found that many of the concepts tested couldn’t be found in my notes. I wasn’t alone. A cloud settled over us, we passed each other in the halls between classes with shared condolences in our eyes, and for once we did not pray that the day would end.
We whispered amongst ourselves– did she know yet? Did she grade them over the weekend? Did she run the tests through the scantron machine at school yet? Would we have to pretend it went fine? We watched for her in the school halls throughout the day; a rumor spread that she was cursing in the teacher’s lounge. But she was the type to curse anyway, so it could be nothing
How could this have happened? We weren’t dumb. There were National Merit Scholars in our midst. Our valedictorian sat next to me during the test. For the love of everything good, we actually studied for this one.
We finally met in our annex. For once, we did not chatter. Mary did not try to show off her dance moves. Erin wasn’t harassing Clare about what she was doing after school. Diette wasn’t making fun of me for generally being lame. We just sat in our desks, quiet as mice. Anne Boleyn must have felt that way in her tower. Maybe when you were little, your mother would get really angry with you and shout, “Just wait til your father gets home!” It was exactly like that.
Lizzy finally broke the ice. She said something like, “She’s going to come through the walls like lightening and KABOOM.” She pretended to explode something in her hands. Balkom’s rage would incinerate us all. How could we have let her down?
In the end, she came into the classroom with a flat expression. We tracked her progress to the front of the room and she dropped her stack of papers and books on a desk. She looked up at us, a room full of basset hound eyed 18 year old girls quaking in our scruffy tennis shoes. I’m not sure exactly what she said, but in my memory, she always says in a voice dryer than the desert, “Well. That didn’t go well.”
And that was it. In the end, I can’t remember if she yelled at us. I think she handed back our tests and, sure enough, the highest grade went to our valedictorian and wasn’t any higher than an 85. Most people were much lower than that. I think we went over the test, she agreed to grade us on a curve, and there might have even been a make up test or extra credit or something. There’s not a profound big finish to the story or a punch line. It’s kind of a lame story, actually. We took a really hard test and no one got an A or even a B. That’s it.
I’m sitting here with my hot cocoa (but no animal crackers), and I’m trying to figure out why this story comes to mind, why this is the tribute story. Other than producing a ridiculous, nonsensical test, Ms. Balkom isn’t even featured that much. Years later, I’m not even facebook friends with everyone in that class, but I know that if I only say, “drama test,” to any of them, we’ll have plenty to say to each other. Any one of them would groan and then laugh. And maybe that’s the key to any good teacher- someone that scares the shit out of you but then leaves you laughing.
The first day of class, we sat in our desks like petrified bunnies. The last day of class that year, we sat outside and had a tea party. I still have the plastic tea cup… and a picture in which Balkom the Great and Terrible is wearing someone’s hula skirt.
She was always interesting, always thought-provoking, always witty, always honest. I’m glad to have known her and even more glad that I learned from her in the equivalent of the cupboard under the stairs. Cheers to you, Ms. Balkom. Thank you.
“Animal crackers and cocoa to drink,
That is the finest of suppers, I think;
When I’m grown up and can have what I please
I think I shall always insist upon these.”