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My Hero Before Hillary: Mrs. Nancy Wallace

October 26, 2016

I’ve been thinking a lot about heroes lately – what it means to be one, what it means to have one and who a few of mine have been.

Yes, it’s this endless election that triggered the thought. But it isn’t because a hero of mine is leaving the White House and another is very likely entering. It’s because a hero gave me my love of politics in the first place – Mrs. Nancy Wallace – my beloved high school teacher.

I spent my high school years as one of forty-some students in a magnet program called The International Studies Specialized Learning Center. Basically we took double the social studies classes. Specifically it was stuff like International Relations, Political Philosophy, and World Resources and Geography. And yeah, we were giant giant nerds. One time we participated in a mock Middle East peace process that literally ended four friendships.

Mrs. Wallace was one among the three matriarchs of this program (along with Mrs. Vaiti and Mrs. Murchio), but I always saw her as the Mamma Bear. With Mrs. Wallace it never felt like instruction; it felt like she had acquired some of the most fascinating information in the world and decided we got to know too.

I do not remember the details of Pol Pot’s reign over Cambodia under the Khmer Rogue, but I can see Mrs. Wallace getting so passionate about it that she starting lecturing on tip toe, leaning out into the first row of us students like she might crescendo with a little crowd surf. We would have caught her.

Bishop Desmond Tutu and Apartheid got the same tip toe treatment. In South African you pronounce it apart-hate, she told us, because it was institutionalized hate that tore the country apart. And did you know that the long-waring Hutus and Tutsis of Rwanda speak the same language and practice the same religion? One of the only differences between them is that the Tutsis are taller! Also one time Mrs. Wallace infiltrated the KKK in Mississippi and was pretty friendly with some Black Panthers.

“Wait, like the Black Panthers Black Panthers?” Anthony asked.

“Yes Anthony, like the Black Panthers Black Panthers,” Mrs. Wallace said.

And then she went back to holding court.

Mrs. Wallace’s lectures were epic. She gave each and every one holding a black leather folio containing a secret white pad that had notes written in her distinctly curvy penmanship.

We think.

We knew the handwriting from messages on our papers, but no one ever saw inside that folio. It’s possible the paper was blank and that Mrs. Wallace was just using it so we wouldn’t wonder whether or not she was actually animatronic. I might have argued for it – she could name every major 20thing century political dissident with perfect pronunciation (On-g Saang Sue Key) – but I’d seen her dance. You couldn’t program a robot to dance like that – her hip swinging, finger pointing, shoulder pumping jive that could turn a sea of self-involved 16-year-olds into a circle of screaming fans.

Mrs. Wallace had generations of fans, but none of them were as dedicated as the students of the Junior State of America chapter she supervised. That’s where she became my hero.

The Junior State of America, for those of you who didn’t want to be Madeline Albright for Halloween your sophomore year of high school, is a student run political organization that aims to “strengthen American democracy by educating and preparing high school students for life-long involvement and responsible leadership in a democratic society.”

I had to take that from the website because I was going to describe it as the most amazing club in the world and a totally life-defining experience for me and you organize these massive conventions where you debate real issues and I got to meet John Lewis and wear so many business suits and and and –

Mrs. Wallace loved JSA and JSA loved Mrs. Wallace. She gave countless hours of her life – evenings, weekends, summers – to our events. She listened and advised on all the ridiculous drama that we cooked up behind the scenes. When her name was announced with our chapter the entire room chanted (Wall-ace, Wall-ace!). When I lost my race for Vice Mayor in a surprise campaign staged by friends of the very Bergin Catholic boy I’d slowed danced with at the night before, she cried. She took this very involved game of pretend as seriously as if it was real American politics, and she taught us to do the same.

I couldn’t stop thinking about Mrs. Wallace when this election went from abnormal to insane. I wanted to ask her so many questions about so many policy issues. I wanted to hear her take on Trump’s relationship with Putin. I could just see her answering with a side eye that said it all.

My good friend Rachel and I discussed getting in touch. We knew Mrs. Wallace had retired on account of illness awhile back, but neither of us had been in communication for years. Why? I honestly don’t know.

I did some Googling but couldn’t find any connections. So instead we made a donation to the Junior State of America’s Nancy Wallace Society – a sponsorship created years ago to honor teacher advisors.  This was in early September.

On September 28th, Mrs. Wallace passed away. We learned via an obituary that went around on Facebook.

I never know what to think when life slaps you across the face like that. Did my sub-conscious start thinking about her because her life was nearing the end? Did her sub-conscious decide to pass on because her beloved democracy was a mess? Did she somehow know that a woman would finally make it to the White House and feel at peace leaving this world behind?

I know these are ridiculous questions, but, Mrs. Wallace was important enough to me for some pretty out-there thinking.

That’s how it is with our heroes.

I’m not big on regret, but I deeply regret losing touch with Mrs. Wallace.

If I could talk to her one more time I’d tell her that I sometimes channel her soft, slow, storytelling tone when I’m giving a TV pitch. I’d ask her the name of that great underground Italian restaurant she took us to in Philadelphia; god that place was so cool to 15-year-old me. I’d confess that I thought it was powerful that she let her hair go grey our senior year, even though Michael and I made fun of the 1/2 brown 1/2 grey phase. And I’d remind her that one time, when Rachel was crying in a hotel room because someone hurt her feelings, she said, “This is good. Better the hotel room have those tears than Rachel.” I think some version of that wise thought all the time.

In a line borrowed from my other hero, Hillary Clinton – Mrs. Wallace was great because she was good. Or, in my opinion, the best.

If there’s a place we go after we’re here I hope that Mrs. Wallace is there talking about the election with all her heroes and a few Black Panthers. And I hope she knows that I’m talking and thinking about her right here.

But the thing about true heroes is that they don’t rely on knowing that. They’re not doing anything or being anything for us. They’re just living exactly who they are, all the way down to a finger pointy jive.

I’d like to do more living that like in honor of my teacher and friend Mrs. Nancy Wallace. And even though they don’t need it, I’d like to thank my living heroes while I still have the chance.

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