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Heroes.

Twenty two years ago, I hated Dennis. I met him when I was ten years old. I was sitting alone in the middle of my bed, my bedroom door closed as I read quietly. No music, no television. Just me and written words. I knew my older brother, Scott, had a friend over. It was someone I never met, but whose name I heard before. Dennis Nappi. Scott and Dennis were hanging out in Scott’s room. We shared a wall. I could hear this new person’s voice from my room. “Oh, you have a sister?” That got my attention. I was curious now about my brother’s new friend.  The next thing I knew, this short, skinny kid exploded into my room. I remember short dark hair and wild, mischievous bright eyes. My brother followed. The next thing I knew, I was pinned to my bed while the boys quickly bound my hands and feet with judo belts. They flew out of the room, and I could hear that little imp cackling as he exited. I was indignant. I was enraged. I hated Dennis Nappi.

But as time continued, Dennis changed. So did I. He graduated from high school with plans to enlist in the military and study criminal law in college. As I prepared to leave high school, I wanted to become a journalist. In 1998, we both lost my brother. I don’t believe in a hierarchy when it comes to loss. I believe that my brother’s closest friends felt his death as I did. We were cheated. We were angry. We were lost. About a year and half after Scott’s death during a summer break from college, I was hanging out with Dennis and the guys outside on our friend’s patio. We goofed around at first and then the conversation turned serious. Dennis was very serious then. He and I were talking as he lounged on a lawn chair. We admitted that it was hard to be around each other. Dennis told me that I looked too much like Scott. I made the same faces. It was painful sometimes. I felt the same about Dennis and the guys. They had their own language and their own jokes that radiated my brother’s essence. I felt alone. I couldn’t even turn to the people who could comfort me most. There was Dennis, saying the same. I moved towards lawn chair where Dennis rested and curled up next to him. I missed my brother so badly. Here I was, next to this young man who reminded me so much of what I lost and what I missed. I would have crawled inside him if I could just to be closer to my brother. But Dennis understood. The hatred I had for Dennis dissolved a long time ago. I now cherished him.

Dennis grew from a smart-ass little gremlin into a man. He is a homeowner. He is a husband. He is a father. He is a veteran. He is an educator.  As a young man, Dennis committed himself to a life of service. Less than a month ago, he released a memoir documenting his path from the army to law enforcement, and finally to public education. I ordered Dennis’ book the day it was released and finished it a week ago. It was an emotional experience for me reading Dennis’ book. I knew him through all the parts of his life he shared, but I didn’t really know what his experiences meant for him. I knew he served in Bosnia and it was intense, but I didn’t know why. I knew he worked as a police office in Wilmington, Delaware, but I never realized how much danger he was in every day. When he changed careers and became a teacher in the Philadelphia public school system, I felt Dennis and I become allies. He’s seen in children what I see as a social worker in the adults whom I serve — how violence, neglect, and poverty thrive in broken systems and create broken people, and how hard it is to help these broken individuals see that they are capable, they are lovable, and they are human. Dennis has been on the front lines in our own country, fighting for our people in destructive systems which hinder our growth more than they help.

When I was growing up, all my heroes were  so far away from my own reality, they may as well have been imaginary. In my adulthood, my heroes are my peers and mentors. Dennis is among my heroes.  In his life and in his writing, he embodies service. He shows us what it takes to lead. He has beliefs. He takes action. He takes risks. Dennis is a fighter and a protector. He will never place himself above you; rather, he will work beside you. I admire his ability to confront fear and do the hard thing. As I grow as social worker and a person, I will continue to look to Dennis for strength and inspiration. I no longer feel alone as I did that summer night all those years ago.

If you are interested in Dennis’ book, “Service, A Soldier’s Journey: Counterintelligence, Law Enforcement, and the Violence of Urban Education,” you can check it out here.

If you are interested in Dennis’ movement for social change in our communities, you can learn more here:

http://www.serviceofchange.com 

https://www.facebook.com/ServiceOfChange

 

 

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  1. December 22, 2013 at 19:36

    Beautiful. I’m sorry for your loss.

    ~ Darling

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