Most of her students probably never met anyone quite like her. Mary Balazs understands that.
After all, how likely is it for the children of this small industrial town near Lexington to see a middle-aged woman stand before them, close her eyes and recite poetry with so much emotion?
Her eyelids quiver. Her voice caresses each word. She whispers some phrases, booms others. She makes faces, sways to the rhythms and at Kling Elementary School here, she ricocheted from one child to another, laughing throatily, giving encouragement all around.
Minutes earlier, Balazs, an expressive woman with little self-consciousness, had come careering into the classroom. She was hauling four tote bags full of books and papers for her classes and joked about how she looked like a bag lady.
She doesn't mind if the children consider her an oddball. She's about her business of helping them feel the power and pleasure of language.
Balazs participates in a program that has taught more than 20,000 schoolchildren through Virginia's Poets-in-the-Schools program, supported by local school systems and the Virginia Commission for the Arts. She usually sees her classes five to 10 times a semester.
Classroom teachers say Balazs has had a powerful influence on their students' writing and their feelings about themselves.
She's not necessarily out to make poets out of these children, Balzas said recently. "I'm trying to make them understand that using language is a skill, that it is a very respectable skill to have. I'm trying to show them that feelings are not something that always must be hid, to let them know they are not alone, feeling as they do."
About four years ago, she taught a class that included a girl who was unhappy and uncommunicative with other children. But in her poetry, the girl could write about her loneliness, her feelings of being unattractive, the pain of her parents' divorce and the idea that somehow she was hopelessly different.
"She was using her poetry to understand herself, to work through some of her feelings," Balazs said.
With the girl's permission, Balazs read her poetry to the class without identifying her. She has never forgotten "the look on her face that day, when someone raised his hand and said: 'I feel that way sometimes, too.' "
In the Kling Elementary class here, Balazs set the mood before the students began writing. She got them quiet first. "I want you to store up all your energy," she said. "I want you to be in your dreamy, thoughtful mood."
She called on them to use "strong, vigorous" words, not vague words like "nice" and "good."
Within minutes, all 20 children were enthusiastically writing poems.
"You can see why they ask, 'When is Dr. Balazs coming back?' " teacher Martha Gravatt said.
Balazs is a realist about her work. She knows that children -- and many of their parents and teachers -- have a negative attitude toward poetry. She is sympathetic and calls that the "poetry, yuck" syndrome.
Much of the poetry in children's books have boring "hobby horse" rhythms, she said, and tired, old-fashioned themes.
Before Balazs started with one class some time ago, the teacher warned her, "I don't want you to be offended, but these children just hate poetry, so don't take it personally."
Balazs was prepared. She introduces her pupils to what she calls "concrete" poems, ones she has found to be a surefire hit with children.
They are picture-poems of a word, phrase or clause -- the "u" in tulip is drawn as a flower; the "y" in "runaway" has fled the other letters; gaps separate the letters in "s p a c e s."
Balazs goes on from there to other kinds of poetry. There are "apology poems," in which the children apologize for something they're really glad they did; one pupil wrote about letting the family dog eat the dinner casserole. There are "secretly beautiful" poems, in which they write about some thing considered ugly by others, but which they find beautiful -- a worn-out teddy bear and the pleasures of burping.
"It's amazing how she gets this positive reaction from every child," said Betty Hawes, a seventh-grade English teacher at Parry McCluer Middle School in Buena Vista who has shared her students with Balazs for seven years.
"I think it definitely makes them have a greater appreciation not only for poetry but all literature."
Hawes also said the poetry classes enchance each child's self-image. "There's just no way a student can be a part of Mary's program without feeling good about himself," he said. "Mary finds worth in every student's writing."