Recalling a teacher who made a difference


For The Beachcomber

I nearly tear up when I think about the special people who have mentored me over the years. One of the dearest is my fourth-grade teacher, Mrs. Balzer, whose photo sits prominently on my desk.

I still marvel at her gentle ways of keeping all of us rowdy kids focused on our schoolwork. She knew how to make me want to do my best. Her ability to breathe life into the book, “The Secret Garden” launched me into one of my favorite places — my imagination.

For years I called her every Christmas to say hello. Her sweet voice gave instant comfort. When Mrs. Balzer learned I had become a mother, she drove her baby blue 1960s sedan over to my folks’ home to drop off several used children’s books by Maurice Sendak for my new daughter, Emily. When I brought thank-you flowers to my teacher’s cottage door, our relationship bloomed. She invited me in for a cup of tea and announced I was from then on to call her by her first name, Eleanor. She was 77 years old, and I was 35.

We spent many hours over the remaining 14 years of her life exploring each other’s perspectives on everything under the stars, including our faith in God. My ideas seemed to genuinely tickle her fancy, while hers gave me a tremendous appreciation of how to age with grace. In 1994, when my family moved to Vashon, I occasionally stayed overnight at Eleanor’s when I needed to be in Seattle early the next morning. Instead of fretting ferry traffic, I’d spend evenings in relaxed conversation with one of my favorite people learning, listening, playing … loving.

Eleanor was a quintessential mentor. I trusted her implicitly to want what was best for me. Her love was unconditional. Even though my personal style is significantly different than hers, I strive to emulate Eleanor’s optimism about people and enthusiasm for life. All my mentors, including my parents, taught me the importance of giving back. I made Eleanor proud when I became a Campfire Leader. She was absolutely delighted when I boasted that one girl called me her “fun goddess.” She understood from first-hand experience how I could learn volumes from the young people I mentor.

Eleanor has not stopped mentoring me. Just thinking about her loving ways puts me in her presence. I can still hear her saying “pass it on.”

While Gen. Colin Powell, Maya Angelou, Clint Eastwood and others campaign all month by way of public service announcements, Washington state’s Lt. Governor Brad Owen will host a celebration tomorrow in the Capital Rotunda in Olympia proclaiming Jan. 24 “Thank Your Mentor” Day.

I’ll be there sipping tea and thinking of dear Eleanor as I meet with legislators to advocate for programs that recruit volunteer mentors to help young people achieve their full potential.

— Wendy Gage, a management consultant, is a champion of mentoring.

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