affecting my future
by: Russ Lancaster
I'm sure most, if not all, of you that attended Hamlet High School in the 1950's remember Ms. Ballenberger and her Latin Classes. She had a reputation of being a strict but effective teacher. It didn't matter whether you actually took her Latin I and II classes, you knew to mind your Ps and Qs around her.
I took her Latin classes in 1955 and 1956 and found them to be the most boring classes I ever took. Yet, somehow those two years of her classes had an influence on my life that I still find unbelievable. Those classes affected my life every day between 1959 and 1963 in ways that it would take me years to understand. I'll get to that shortly.
The only thing I actually remember from her classes is that I had a reputation of being academically adept and found I could ride that reputation, that teachers have a way of passing along, to my advantage. In other words, the reputation I had earned with legitimacy in my younger school days allowed me to actually do less school work and still get good grades. That worked for a while, even with Ms. Ballenberger, but she was too sharp for me to get away with it for a full two years. She soon made me start earning my grades.
The first day of class she informed us that Latin was a "dead" language. I immediately thought I had made a mistake... why should I learn a dead language when I could have waited a year and taken French instead? But, I was stuck. So, I learned the basics of Latin. I learned how to conjugate verbs beginning with, "Amo, Amas, Amat" etc. I learned that phrases we often hear in our day to day lives are purely Latin, such as "Rara Avis" and "per diem". I also learned that many of our English words come from Latin and how to recognize them. Other than that, I learned not much more but completed both years of classes anyway wondering how in the world knowing what I had learned would be of any use to me in life. I considered it time wasted except for the credits I earned toward graduation.
Then, in 1959, three days after graduating Hamlet High School, I found myself in San Antonio, Texas, beginning basic training in the Air Force. My recruiter had told me that it didn't much matter what career I wanted in the Air Force, that the needs of the Air Force would come first. He said that they would give me extensive testing and determine based on both my ability and the needs of the Air Force, they would find me the perfect job. He turned out to be right.
We underwent many tests, both physical and mental, and I did well in both areas. My small size allowed me to beat my fellow squad members in most physical challenges by being quicker than they were. The mental tests were a breeze yet something was there to be discovered by the Air Force that would affect my life for not only the next four years, but forever.
A simple entry on a form asking if I had taken a foreign language in High School caused me to be picked to attend testing for the ability to learn another foreign language. I was taken to a testing area, given a written vocabulary of phonetically spelled Chinese words to remember. Shortly thereafter I was tested on my ability to remember those words and their meanings. I passed the test.
I was then given a chance to volunteer for an opportunity to attend College and learn a foreign language. It was explained that anyone who volunteered for this chance to go to College would not have a choice in the language they were to learn, nor even which College to attend. It was further explained that volunteering for such service would require me to serve overseas and that I would be eligible for hazardous duty pay and flight pay. I was also advised an FBI check on my background would be done.
I began receiving letters from family and friends back in Hamlet wanting to know why the FBI was investigating my background. I could not answer them but hoped they would understand I was in no trouble.
The Air Force then told me I had been selected to go to Syracuse University and would be required to take a four year course in Czechoslovakian in a period of one year. Syracuse sounded great to me, they had a great football team (National Championship) that year. Czechoslovakian was another matter.
When I arrived at Syracuse, I was given free tickets to all the home football games and tickets to eat at any of the school's many cafeterias. It was a great year to be at Syracuse University.
As a result of my education there, I was sent to Germany in late 1960 as a voice intercept processor and given the task of monitoring the aircraft and ground stations of the Czech National Air Force. I later earned a job as a transcriber and analyst. If not for Ms. Ballenberger, these things would not have happened.
But, Ms. Ballenberger's most important influence on me was yet to come. By virtue of being in Germany from 1960-1963, I met the woman who was to become my wife, Helga. She could speak no English, I could speak no German. Our first few dates were awkward but we got through them just fine. I knew from the moment I first saw her that she was meant for me. I quickly learned the German language (which I still know today) so we could communicate and so I could meet and be accepted into her family.
The Air Force was determined to keep us apart, they had invested a lot of money in my education, but true love was not to be denied. We broke down every barrier they put in our way. We married, moved back to Hamlet, had four children and an ever growing number of grandchildren. Helga learned English, applied for and was granted American citizenship and the rest is history. I could not imagine life without her by my side.
So, you see why I have this great memory of Ms. Ballenberger. I remember her boring classes and not understanding until many years later the way she would eventually affect the rest of my life. If not for her, I would not have found the perfect wife, my children and grandchildren would not be and I would be a lesser man.
Yes, I remember Ms. Ballenberger, conjugating verbs and being bored yet staying the course she laid out for me. Neither she nor I knew way back then how her teaching would influence me but she taught me as well as the others what she thought we should know. I may not have learned much Latin, but I learned that staying the course was the right thing to do. I learned that my past reputation for being a good student would carry me only so far. Ms. Ballenberger taught much more than Latin, she taught values that would last a lifetime.
So, I thank her, even though it is much too late to do so in person. I thank her in this short story that may one day be read by another she taught or a distant family member of hers. I thank her by sharing this with those readers who sometimes wander here that are still in High School looking to see how it was back then.
I thank her from the bottom of my heart and for letting me say one more time....
I remember Hamlet
This section is to honor the works of Russ Lancaster who started the “I Remember Hamlet” web site years ago. Without his pioneering the web at that time we might not have gathered all these memories of our Hamlet, NC. We thank you Russ for what you started in 1996, may you Rest in Peace. Russ was kind enough to let me download his web site before he took it down. Thank you Russ.
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