Student For a Day: Eleni Balourdos

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Student For a Day: Eleni Balourdos

By Duaa Israr

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Dr. Jason Ness laughs loudly in the corner of the German room, a small group of students surrounding him as they scan his phone. Glancing up to look at the projector, Ness and the students see another team across the room is catching up, and they quickly return to their phones, furiously tapping away. Suddenly, the chatter-filled room turns into groans and yelling as one team sits smugly, boasting its win in Quizlet Live. Ness looks around confusedly for a moment before another round is enacted. When the all-too-familiar noise arises once more, Ness yells out, “their wifi is better than ours,” pointing at the winning group. Mrs. Caroline Adducci reprimands him, “nur Deutsch (German only).”

Whether it be on a personal level or through his crazy antics at pep assemblies, almost everyone at Niles West knows principal Ness and his ability to easily engage with students. And while many people might try to avoid their principal at all costs, that is simply not the case in these halls. Wherever he goes, Ness is greeted with a wave or a fist bump, with some students stopping to carry a conversation, talk about the latest Cubs win, or even trying to convince him to buy baked goods. Although Ness tries his best to connect with students, this year, he took it a step further by deciding to shadow a student for an entire day, each month, in an attempt to see what life as a student is really like.  

“I think it’s important to be able to view things through a student’s lens, through their experiences, and so if we’re making programmatic decision and coming up with ideas — at the end of the day it’s about the students and what their experiences are,” Ness said. “I sometimes think we forget how busy and demanding and long days can be, and this will really reconnect me back to the classroom and kind of see things from a students’s eyes.”

It all started out on a seemingly normal day at Niles West as Ness walked in through the front lobby at 7:45 a.m. Dressed in West athletic wear and jeans with a cup of coffee in one hand and a schedule in another, nothing looked too out of the ordinary — if it weren’t for the black backpack slung over his shoulder. Suddenly, students began to pile into the lobby, each one trying to make their way through the crowd. In those crowd of students was senior and volleyball captain Eleni Balourdos, already expecting him as she lugged around a large Nike bag filled with volleyball gear.

Balourdos has been on the Niles West girls varsity volleyball team since her freshman year, and captain since sophomore year. This weekend, she led her team to its first super sectional win in school history, cementing a spot in the state tournament. Her immense dedication to not only her sport but her classes as well stuck out and made her a contender for Ness to shadow.

“We were thinking of students for this, and Eleni came up because she’s a great example of what a student athlete looks like here at West,” Ness said. “She’s well-liked, well-connected to the school, and there’s a sense that this will give us a good look to start off the series of student for a day for the school year.”

After a quick greeting, Ness and Balourdos made their way to first period: AP German. Standing outside of the classroom along with several other students, Ness made small talk, joking and even telling the class of seniors about how he stole his eight-year-old son’s backpack this morning. As Adducci opened the door to the classroom, Balourdos led Ness to his seat, conversing with her friend, fellow senior Kelly Williams, as she explained what a usual day in Adducci’s classroom ensued. 

Starting the day with a foreign language wasn’t easy, especially as many students began to speak in nearly perfect German, but with the support of all the seniors, who even gave Ness his own German name ‘Wolfe,’ the nervousness that might’ve been there easily disappeared. Balourdos and Ness, along with Williams and few other students, paired up for Quizlet live, followed by a video about Germany in the 1930’s. The room was loud and boisterous as students looked past Ness as an administrator and wholeheartedly included him in every way possible. Before we even knew it, we were off to second period. 

Confidently, Ness walked into second period PreCalc, already gaining insight on what the average student’s day is like.

“The main thing is that our students know that we are listening and we want to learn.We want to learn about what their day is like here, and we want to make things better and create a better experience for them,” Ness said. “The things I experience today and learn from shadowing and talking to students are going to be beneficial for everybody.”

Worksheet after worksheet, Ness sat by quietly, observing Balourdos and her group take lead, occasionally contributing to the conics unit despite not having taken a math class since the 90’s. The quiet math period was in stark contrast to third period college prep with Mr. Andrew Jeter.

As we walked in, we were surprised to discover a substitute taking attendance who quickly interrogated Ness. Many students watched, amused, as Ness pointed at Balourdos, saying “I’m with her.”

“Yeah, but who are you?” he asked.

“He’s the principal,” a few students chimed.

“The principal of what?”

“The school,” we told him, holding back laughter.

The period continued, and students logged onto the computers as Balourdos told Ness about her 30-page research paper on a single word. Students spoke all around him, talking about their topics, asking whether he’s ever written such a long paper (he hasn’t), and if he could do anything about changing the requirements (he can’t).

Senior Jackie Bajric conversed with Ness and Balourdos, talking about her paper and the word  she chose to write about — blood. Like many students tend to do, the conversation drifted from Bajric’s topic to talking about a vampire that appeared on Oprah. It felt almost surreal as Ness sat back and watched everyone write their papers while speaking about his experience writing, taking advice from students, and joking around.

After a quick trip outside due to the fire drill, Ness and Balourdos returned to classes, specifically, Anatomy with Mrs. Tina Schmidt. It started off as a quiet period as Schmidt introduced the students to their new lab. Balourdos and Ness sat quietly in the back, whispering over a packet. Suddenly, the quiet class turned into loud chatter as everyone got into their lab groups, large bones crowding the tables.

“What are you learning today, Dr. Ness?” we asked as he skimmed through his packet, glancing over at another student’s work.

“The structures of bones using qualitative and quantitative data,” he said, pointing to the skeleton figures on the table.

When lunch rolled around, Ness excitedly walked into cafeteria and rushed to the nacho line, admitting that when Organic Life was first introduced, he bought lunch from school nearly every day. As the lunch ladies called him up before other students, he protested, insisting that he “wait in line like a kid.”

Taking a seat in between seniors Greg Leftakes and Johnny Pabst, Ness was surrounded by the rest of Balourdos’s friends, including senior and co-captain of the volleyball team Kaila Johanson. Just like that, it was as if Ness had been eating lunch with them since freshman year. They spoke of defense strategies for the final game, leg takes, and various plays, and before we even knew it, the lunch period was over and the hardest part had just begun: VPE.

As we walked into VPE, the familiar voice of athletic trainer Mr. Fernando Perez boomed throughout the weight room as kids began to pile in. Among those kids was Ness, and much to everyone’s surprise and amusement, he walked in wearing the standard grey short-sleeved shirt and bright red shorts. After a few minutes of laughing and joking around, Perez’s loud voice demanded we all get to work. Johanson and Balourdos began to pick up weights together as Ness observed before trying it out himself. Although it took a bit of work, demonstrations from both girls as well as senior Don Asuncion, and nearly breaking his back in the process, Ness began to lift weights in proper form.

Just when he thought he was done, we moved on to the next station, which involved leg and core workouts with instructor Jason Macejak. Students, now a bit familiar with Ness among them, began to tease him and encourage him to work out alongside them, despite his need to sit out every few minutes. He began to joke around, saying he didn’t want to “hurt their feelings” for being able to do their exercises with 100-pound weights. They laughed and handed him a pair of dumbbells, posing for a picture.

As an easy ending to a long day, we headed to Balourdos’s last class with law teacher Mrs. Dana Kanwischer. As students argued a murder case in class, both Balourdos and Ness had a little bit of time to reflect on the day. In many schools, students often feel isolated from the administrators and feel as if they don’t have a voice or someone who really knows what they are going through. This project is meant to tackle that issue, and Balourdos definitely feels that it has been done justice.

“I was excited, but a little nervous because I was having people come around me all day. It wasn’t like that at all, Dr. Ness was actually super cool and I think this is going to be a good thing for Niles West and it’s a good new experience,” Balourdos said. “It’s a good way to show people what being a student athlete is really like and how hard it is sometimes to focus on all your classes and still hang out with your friend and have games and everything.”