The first time I voted, I skipped down the ballot and voted for one person: my father, who was running for city council. He was unopposed, but it felt good because he is a great man and, well, he is my dad.
Along with my father, many of our close family friends were involved in city politics. Many nights I was regaled with stories about various city issues and personalities by my dad and his friends. In retrospect, this early exposure to politics was an unfair advantage in my high school civics teacher’s class. That was Mr. Nicola, the second person I voted for.
In the halls of San Marcos High School, Mr. Nicola’s reputation preceded him. Depending on which camp you were in, he was either an outstanding teacher who challenged you to work hard and think critically, or he was a boring teacher of a boring subject who made you work much too hard during your senior year — a year you were just supposed to enjoy. At first it was unclear which camp would claim my allegiance, but one thing was certain, I couldn’t straddle the fence on this important topic.
Each day, Mr. Nicola wrote a quote on the chalkboard from a famous historical figure or philosopher who had some relevance to current events. I took to writing them down in my notebook. They were thought-provoking and awoke in me a stronger interest in politics.
We had class debates in which we had to take a position and argue it with another student on the opposite side. In those debates Mr. Nicola emphasized civil discourse and respect for one another. After we debated one way, we had to take the opposite viewpoint and argue that as well. It put us in the uncomfortable but important position of understanding other perspectives. We were learning how to engage in civil dialogue and discourse.
During that time in my life, three events made a lasting impact on me. First, we had “Student Government Day” during which students ran for various city and county offices in a mock election, and then spent the day with that city leader shadowing them in their work. I was elected to be mayor in a landslide election. (Well, truth be told, I was late signing up and mayor was one of the few positions still unopposed.)
But as mayor for a day, we held a mock city council meeting and I got to talk with the actual mayor, San Marcos’ iconic Emmie Craddick, a crusty, highly respected public servant (and the first female mayor in the city’s history). I remember a debate with the other council members over whether to leave the river in its natural state or to create a business district like the River Walk in San Antonio. The experience made me realize that one person actually can have a long-lasting impact on others. I became fascinated by this and started attending city council meetings to learn more.
The second event was when Mr. Nicola himself decided to run for city office. He never mentioned this to us students, but when I found out, I approached him. He had a well-known opponent and had decided not to campaign given his small chance of winning and his limited time due to his teaching schedule. A friend and I decided to do some door-to-door campaigning for him without telling him. We spent many days knocking on doors and asking people to vote for him, sometimes using my broken Spanish. People must have felt amused or sorry for us, or more likely, Mr. Nicola’s strong reputation as a teacher and impact on the children in the community made the difference, because he won! I was at city hall that night and remember calling him on the payphone, an action that definitely dates me, to tell him he had won. He was quite surprised. Again, I learned what a difference one person could make.
The last, but not least, pivotal event occurred the following year during my finals in college. My parents called to tell me to come home to vote as there was a closely contested city council election. It was a very busy time with school, but I made the one-hour round-trip to do my civic duty and appease my parents. The result was that the candidate we liked won by one vote! My vote.
Although city politics is no longer my passion, the experiences with my teacher and parents imprinted on me the difference one person can make. That is what fueled me to be an educator teaching Government, Economics, and U.S. History. It was what “called” me to be an administrator and superintendent, and it is what energizes me today in support of public education at TASA.
How fortunate we are to live in a country where one vote does matter and where teachers like Mr. Nicola not only prepare generations of active citizens but also instill in them a love of our country, our democracy, our freedoms, and our responsibilities. While Mr. Nicola is likely discouraged by the lack of respectful civic discourse in our country today, he must be encouraged by the swell of voters who came out and did their civic duty during the 2020 General Election in record-breaking numbers.
As for me, I am trying to model what he taught. Engage in democracy, understand both sides, be civil in discourse, vote, and practice humility if my candidates win and graciousness if they lose. I encourage others to do the same.
To all the Mr. Nicolaes out there, thank you! We need you more than ever.
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