Clarity on soulful public educators

There is no more spectacular a tutorial on great teaching than Ella Fitzgerald in her element. Behold her 1979 performance of “Make Me Rainbows” on YouTube. Hear how she effortlessly wraps her voice around the Count Basie Orchestra. Feel the groove as she does what she loves, within her range of expertise, at full capacity, amid stellar expectations at every level. Know that her spectators are awestruck, stimulated, inspired to excel on their own stages. Never more will they abide mediocrity. They’ll forever be more interested, critical listeners because the First Lady of Song, 62 years young and at the top of her game, awakened them.

It was also in the late 1970s that I witnessed some pivotal performers at Ballard High School. It takes only one teacher to make a lifelong learner. Our class of ’80 was blessed by several who inspired us to make a difference. My closest cohorts became doctors, lawyers and computer scientists. Under the leadership of nonprofit executive Phil Marshall, The Healing Place became a national model of addiction recovery.

I’m an average student, less affluent than my peers. But I’ve spent my career doing what I love. And I like who I’m becoming. My teachers share in my prosperity. To the extent that clear thinking is the basis of clear writing, all my teachers share in my clarity.

Greg Bobrow, teacher of world history and social studies, personified noblesse oblige. He defined the French phrase via John F. Kennedy: “Of those to whom much is given, much is required.” The lesson was not lost on our predominantly affluent class, which, post-desegregation, was learning with — and from — less privileged students.

Back then, student-teacher boundaries were less strictly enforced, though we respected the crucial ones. As a result, we were able to socialize. Otherwise, a group of us wouldn’t have been at humanities teacher Jim Gregg’s house to meet Barney Bright, a brilliant artist and sculptor, whose second wife, Gayle, taught us English.

My senioritis clashed with her high expectations, but she and Mr. Gregg took a humanizing interest in me and Susie Stevens. After school one afternoon, they surprised us by attending our dual drama competition at U of L. Susie became a distinguished actress. In 2009, I became Mr. Gregg’s advocate after he was admitted disabled to a Prospect nursing home, where I visit him regularly.

Psychiatrist Carl Jung got it right: “One looks back with appreciation to the brilliant teachers, but with gratitude to those who touched our human feelings. The curriculum is so much necessary raw material, but the warmth is the vital element for the growing plant and for the soul of a child.”

Before Sherleen Sisney became the first National Teacher of the Year in 1984, I revisited Ballard to thank her and her colleagues. She replied that a private school was trying to recruit them, but they wouldn’t go “because we have the best students in Jefferson County.”

Three of Ballard’s finest retirees — Allen Sleadd, 79; Greg Bobrow, 75; and Gayle Bright, 81 — recently died within a two-month span. Eloquent online tributes by scores of alumni measure achievement beyond the capacity of any standardized test. They manifest what activist Emma Goldman considered the focus of education: to tap “the wealth of sympathy, kindness, and generosity hidden in the soul of a child.”

It took a village of strong schools — faculties, staffs, students and parents who shared a sense of community and of destiny — to build us. At Mr. Sleadd’s wake atop The Irish Rover last Saturday, my teachers explained the magic. Our principal, Pat Crawford, had cherry-picked them and “we had great respect for him because he supported us,” said Penny Cooper.

Teresa Byars added, “We all got along, we supported one another, we had good kids, and it was a great place to teach.”

By all accounts, Ballard is still superior. But its heyday cannot be replicated.

I draw comfort from Dr. Seuss’ admonition, “Don’t cry because it’s over; smile because it happened.”

It helps me smile to imagine Ella as our teacher and listen to her urge us onward:

Make me a room
Where I’ll bloom out of season
Make me sunsets
Paint our names in the sky
Let your arms be my wings
And together we’ll fly
Don’t let me fall till I’m all I can be
Make some rainbows … for me.