When I ran into outgoing Tucson Mayor Bob Walkup recently at an art gallery, I felt a little like the narrator in Marcel Proust's novel "Remembrance of Things Past." The narrator bites into la petite madeleine cake and memories come flooding back to him.
In similar vein, upon recognizing the mayor, I remembered him speaking to my seventh-graders in social studies class years ago. He visited the class as part of my outreach program inviting interesting folks in our community to tell students their stories.
Walkup, who actually told no stories at all, turned out to be one of my most memorable guest speakers.
It's not easy to hold the attention of squirmy 12- and 13-year-olds, but Walkup got an A+ from me in his ability to keep the kids engaged for the entire period. He did it not by giving a dissertation on Rio Nuevo and other complex issues he was grappling with. Quite the contrary - the interest he took in the students kept them focused. He made them feel important by asking what they thought was needed to make Tucson a better place to live.
I vaguely remember suggestions for new skateboarding parks and more places for teens to hang out - suggestions students probably forgot soon afterward.
Hopefully what these young students remembered is that their opinions mattered to one of our most important local government officials.
Fast-forward to my recent conversation with our mayor at the art gallery. I reminded him of the difference he'd made in the lives of my middle-schoolers. Admiring works of art was temporarily put on hold as he recounted visits to other schools and the life lessons he hoped students had taken home with them.
The mayor often used the Socratic method to bring home the importance of education to elementary students. He would ask the students what they considered the biggest problem facing our city. Many replied, the downtown area. He then continued, "What do we need to fix downtown?"
Often the answer was helping the homeless get off the streets.
So, he queried, "How can we do that?"
Possibly drawing on the experience of their own families, students usually responded with the importance of folks having good jobs.
"Finally, I asked the $64,000 question," Walkup concluded. "How can folks secure these good jobs?"
The answer frequently came in chorus: get an education!
On another elementary school visit, this time to Carrillo in the heart of downtown, Walkup was among a group of candidates running for mayor in a mock student election.
"In my speech, I told the kids that if elected I would bring my dog Laddie to school the very day after the real election, to be held three weeks later," he recalled.
The mayor won the mock election. True to his word, the day following his victory in the real election, he went back to Carrillo with his four-legged pal, who was the hit of the assembly. This was Walkup's first campaign promise fulfilled.
Ten years later, Walkup was speaking to high school students at St. Augustine Catholic High School and a girl raised her hand. She had been a student at Carrillo the year of the mock election and vividly remembered the mayor bringing Laddie to school.
Walkup saved his most entertaining story for last. Some years ago he was speaking to a different elementary class. A student handed the mayor a letter he had written inviting him to dinner at his house.
"I told him the answer was yes!" Walkup said.
He called the boy's mother and she confirmed that the family would be thrilled to have the Walkups come to dinner; actually the mom was planning to invite the whole neighborhood for dinner!
Will the boy remember what they had for dinner that night, or what was talked about? Probably not. But he will know that one person of any age has the power to make great things happen, whether in his or her own life, in the political arena, or in countless other ways.
Walkup wraps up his third and final term as mayor of Tucson on Monday. However, the life lessons he leaves with the young people of our community will be remembered long after he turns out the light and closes his office door for the last time.
Barbara Russek is a former French and social studies teacher. She welcomes comments at Babette2@comcast.net