Today’s Southern Voice: Liza Graves
The last time I was outside, so fully aware of the birds singing and of the breeze that flowed through the magnolia leaves was at this same location, but for an entirely different circumstance.
Nine months ago, our oldest daughter graduated from Harpeth Hall, an all-girls preparatory school in Nashville, TN. Our family sat on white chairs on Souby Lawn and listened to the music. As the moment came near for the graduates to enter, there was a pause in the music and the crowd was hushed. It was cloudy, enough to consider that it just might rain. The breeze rustled the leaves and birds sang. I remember specifically wondering when was the last time I listened so intently to the birds singing as I wanted to soak up every second of this graduation ceremony. We spent the next hour laughing, crying and cheering on our daughters as their Head of School, Dr. Stephanie Balmer, praised and hugged each one as they accepted their diplomas. Her pride in them was evident and was only matched by their parents. These girls were ready to fly, wings held out, and it was clear that Dr. Balmer knew they were ready. Her belief in them somehow eased our collective pain that these girls would soon be leaving home.
I stood on that same lawn just days ago, acutely aware of the birds singing once again, of the similar cloud cover, a familiar breeze blowing through those same magnolia trees. This time, the only other sound was of the lone violinist, from the senior class, who had everyone’s rapt attention. Birds singing. Silence. The violin. Silence. The breeze. The damp grass on which each of us stood. This night, we were gathered to honor Dr. Balmer, our Stephanie. Just four nights prior, as a community, we had learned that her breast cancer had come back, after 14 year years, and was now in her liver. It was incurable. Two nights later we were all notified that she had passed away. It was that sudden; two emails delivered 48 hours apart. Our beautiful leader, who shined in the rare way that only some can, was gone. She was just 50 years old.
Stephanie was so much more than “just” our head of school. Her daughter is a sophomore at Harpeth Hall, the same grade as my middle daughter. Thus, Stephanie was our mom friend. While she showed up at many athletic events to cheer the girls on, she was also her daughter’s mom, cheering loudly from the sidelines. You see, she had been head of school for just three-and-a-half years, but we all expected that she would be there for 20 more. We expected her to still be Head of School when our grandchildren started at Harpeth Hall. She had that seamlessly become a part of the school.
I remember the first day I introduced myself to her. It was as my middle daughter was getting into the car after seventh-grade cross country practice, just days after school had started with her as our new Head. I just wanted to welcome her to Nashville, to tell her my daughter was enjoying getting to know her daughter, and really just say hi. I remember driving away thinking, “One day, she will be my good friend. She’s fabulous.” That is how everyone felt after talking with her … she just had that effect.
When she came to Harpeth Hall, a few changes were made fairly quickly, which immediately bonded her to the students. Namely, on casual days, they would now be permitted to wear leggings and on any day, they could wear sneakers with their plaid skirt uniforms. These two changes bonded the girls to her with passion. Stephanie was savvy that way, keenly being aware of small changes that made big differences. The fact that within weeks she knew every girls’ name, almost every parent’s name and even the names of siblings, just cemented that she cared deeply for the entire community — and that she had a memory and intellect for which we were all envious. She hugged the girls on campus, made them know she believed in them, and made a point to hug parents or grab their hands. She was a touchy-feely person, and it worked for her. When she grabbed your hand, your day was better. It just was. And, that was the magic of Stephanie, making each person, student or adult, feel special, feel heard and feel important. Her joy came not from telling others what she was doing, it came from listening to others and knowing all the people who made up this community. She led from that place of trust.
Stephanie went from being “Mrs. Balmer” to “Dr. Balmer” during her first year at Harpeth Hall. The girls were thus all able to witness that learning never stops. Reaching for your dreams doesn’t stop in your 20s, it is a life goal to never stop working for. She was not only able to say that, she lived it. Her belief in education and community was evident.
And, oh, her grey hair! She single-handedly must have eased the schedules at hair salons across town as to see Stephanie’s grey hair was to seriously reconsider any hair coloring one was doing! It was gorgeous and radiant, just like she was.
You see, I could go on and on. Her passing has simply whiplashed this community, and the ripples have spread far and wide.
So, as we stood on Souby Lawn this past Monday night, President’s Day, and listened to the birds sing, and felt the energy, sadness and love of the community there, I couldn’t help but envision Stephanie right there on those same steps, cheering our girls on, just as she had months before. Those same birds singing. Those same leaves moving in the breeze. The same cloud cover. The same smell of rain.
But, this time, we weren’t sending our girls off with their wings spread out. We were joining together to light candles, at a vigil to celebrate Stephanie’s life, to listen to the music, to hear a poem, to see the light spread, and to know that her wings had spread. It was impossible that she was gone, but she was.
To live a life that is remembered for your sincere interest in others, your smile that lights up a room, your attention to details and your desire to educate girls … your joy in your daughter, your husband, your friends … that is a life well-lived. While our dear Dr. Stephanie Balmer may no longer walk among us, it is clear that her life profoundly affected many. It is clear that she was one in a million, but that we can all strive to let her light live on with the choices we make daily. Listen more. Love more. Hug more. Cheer loudly. Walk into a room, look people in the eye and smile. Take the time to make others feel important because you listen to them.
May we all be as blessed to take just some of the things she was known for and make a point to lead in the same way.
Thank you, Stephanie. Your leadership for our girls and for our community will have lasting effects on us all. We all loved you and you made it clear that you loved us.
Today’s Southern Voice, Liza Graves, is a Cofounder of StyleBlueprint. Southern Voices was started in 2018 as a place for people across the South to opine on events and give voice to what is going on around them or contribute a short story.
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See past contributions to Southern Voices HERE.