By Christian Randolph
“Nico, don’t swallow the magnet!” said the fourth grader to his friend on Halloween.
But of course, as a mischievous ten-year-old, Nico swallowed the magnet. For Diane Wallace, the boy’s teacher at Norfolk Academy, this was not a surprise – as she had pretty much seen it all.
“I didn’t have time to panic because I had dealt with similar situations like this before,” said Wallace.
After calling Poison Control, taking a trip to King’s Daughters Medical Center, and waiting hours for the magnet to pass through her student’s system, Wallace could finally catch her breath.
As a Kentucky native and University of Kentucky graduate in the early 1960’s, Wallace began at Norfolk Academy with her husband in 1967. The two taught at the school together for one year before Lieutenant (Junior Grade) Wallace died in the Vietnam War in 1968.
In light of this tragedy, Wallace had found her forever home. Classroom 4B, with a different group of fourth grade boys each year for 53 years.
At Norfolk Academy, students are split by gender until fifth grade. While this trademark policy of the school may seem a bit odd to outsiders, Wallace promised that there were more benefits than drawbacks, at least in her classroom.
Wallace loved handing out some tough love. As an avid Kentucky basketball fan, she often found herself arguing with her boys over who was the best team that year.
“Every day she would remind me that Michael Jordan was drafted third in the 1984 NBA draft – behind Kentucky graduate Sam Bowie,” remembers former 4B student Ranny Randolph.
While Wallace was certainly grateful that her boys could handle this tough love, she became even more grateful that she wasn’t dealing with fourth grade girls across the hallway. As any parent knows, elementary school girls are very sensitive.
“Oh, girls would start crying because their classmate looked at them the wrong way or because they have a freakin’ hangnail,” recalls Wallace.
Watching the many temper tantrums from afar made Wallace even more grateful for the 1,060 boys that came through her 4B classroom.
One might wonder how Wallace managed to keep 20 new boys entering her classroom each fall from wrestling with each other every day. Thankfully, she was able to rely on a few steadfast rules that stood as pillars of 4B for 53 years.
Friendship, forgiveness, and reading!
As she will note, reading became less prominent in education as the digital wave transformed classroom curriculum. As a result, Wallace insisted that her students participate in pleasure reading and writing every day – mainly reading fictional books and writing creatively.
“I remember free reading and writing time every day,” said Will Spivey, a former 4B student.
But it wasn’t just the reading and writing time that expanded the imaginary minds of the young boys. Wallace would often read aloud stories and books by her own favorite authors because she believed it was beneficial to listen to others.
Although not every boy in 4B thoroughly enjoyed their free reading and writing time, it is certain that everyone enjoyed the most unique part of the 4B classroom curriculum.
“You can’t forget about the extra recess time,” said Hunt Stockwell. “Recess was her mojo.”
Certainly intentional on her behalf, Wallace would allow her boys to spend extra time on the playground after the other classes had left. To them extra recess created more time for roughhousing and scraping on the fields and courts. But for Wallace, this extra time spent outside served a much greater purpose.
This was time for the boys to exhaust themselves. Rather than expending their extra energy in the classroom distracting one another, Wallace’s boys spent their extra energy chasing each other around the playground. So, when the time did come for the troops to rally back into 4B, everyone was wiped out and ready to quiet down.
“No wonder why free reading time was always right after recess,” recalls Mr. Spivey.
Not all fun and games
Although every 4B boy remembers the happiness that came from extra recess time, there were many memories that weren’t so positive.
Wallace still remembers the sadness of 9/11. She can still remember the day when Lee Wynne, one of her student’s younger brothers, passed away. And she can still remember the death of her student’s parents like it was yesterday.
But just like everything else that made the 4B boys so unique, there was something positive that came from tragic moments like these. “The boys let things go,” said Wallace.
In her mind, it wasn’t as if young boys move on from tragedy more quickly than other young children. It was that her fourth grade boys would come to school the next day looking for normalcy. As a result of the pillars Wallace preached about every day in 4B from the day she stepped onto campus in August of 1967 until the day she left in May of 2020, her boys were able to come to class and find that normalcy again.
She made sure that anyone who came through her classroom learned to treat one another with respect. Whether it meant including everyone in a game of tag, picking each other up off the playground mulch, or listening to a classmate read aloud their favorite poem, she wanted the boys of 4B to love each other.
From 53 years of experience, Wallace knew that her boys would not remember the weekly math times tables or the grammar quizzes, but they would remember the friendships forged in 4B. Up until the day she retired, fathers who were once students of Wallace found themselves returning to the same classroom only to see their own son learning to embrace the same values of friendship.
For Wallace, this was why she loved her job.
“Every day is different,” she said. “And when you are working with people who are always in a good mood, it’s easy to enjoy.”
While the faces and characters that came through 4B constantly changed, the pillars of her classroom never faulted. Those who were fortunate enough to be students of Wallace will always remember the time spent worrying about their classmate who had just swallowed a magnet, the time spent arguing with their teacher about who was the best college basketball team, and most importantly the extra time spent on the playground.
Edited by: Anna Blount