Perched above the commons at Eden Prairie High School is a cozy classroom that practically beckons one to enter. Adorned with oodles of photos, quotes, tchotchkes and ephemera, it’s visually stimulating and gloriously chaotic. Linda “Wally” Wallenberg acknowledges the madness of the space, but after 46 years at the school, this classroom has become a second home and is a reflection of a life well lived.
“Though this be madness, yet there is method in ‘t,” she said, quoting the Shakespearean play “Hamlet,” a production she has seen 33 times and has represented with various posters dotting her classroom walls.
Wallenberg’s method seems to center around a boundless enthusiasm for her subject and an innate ability to connect English literature with the modern world her students live in.
“I came into English, not because I love Oxford comma rules,” said Wallenberg, though her colleagues in the English Department have dubbed her “The Queen of Commas.” “I love narratives. I love to hear your story. I love to hear your differences.”
And so, it has come to be that Wallenberg’s signature AP Lit class is often referred to instead as AP Life because of her knack for incorporating life lessons as she teaches literary classics like “Jane Eyre,” “Romeo and Juliet” and “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
“It’s the joy of sharing what I learn myself,” she said. “I find ways to weave all these things together. This is what I was born to do.”
“She gives her whole self to the job,” said Rolf Olson, a now-retired English teacher who worked at EPHS with Wallenberg fresh out of college in 1981. “She goes to the limit of what anyone could do.”
“Linda is a whirlwind of energy, indefatigable and full of love and curiosity for and about her students and the world,” said Sara Stein, a fellow teacher in the English department at EPHS.
“Linda is, without hyperbole, the best teacher a student or parent could hope for.”
Something to prove
A spritely woman, Wallenberg, who turns 70 this month, has long been a ball of kinetic energy wrapped up in a diminutive package. “I was 4-foot-6-inches and 65 pounds as a freshman (in high school),” she recalled. “I always felt I had something to prove.”
Wallenberg grew up in Chicago and channeled much of that energy into gymnastics as a child. She attended Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, where she studied English and Swedish while competing on the gymnastics team. After graduation, Wallenberg landed her first job, teaching eighth grade English in Faribault in 1976.
A precarious time for new teachers, Wallenberg made herself a more attractive teaching candidate by earning certifications to teach English and Swedish, as well as coaching gymnastics. That was enough to get a 22-year-old Wallenberg the job at Eden Prairie, where she began teaching in the fall of 1977. Aside from when she had her two children, it’s been her home ever since.
Over her 46-years-and-counting tenure at the high school, in addition to teaching English throughout, Wallenberg also taught Swedish for two years and coached gymnastics for 17 years. She led the gymnastics team to a 150-7 record and two national titles. For her efforts, Wallenberg was twice named National Gymnastics Coach of the Year. She was inducted into the Minnesota Gymnastics Hall of Fame in 2005. (Wallenberg still coaches at TAGS Gymnastics in Eden Prairie.)
Teacher of the Year
The accolades bestowed upon Wallenberg are not limited to her time as a gymnastics coach. In 1988, she was awarded the Royal Order of the Polar Star from King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden for her work teaching Swedish with Concordia Language Villages. And in 2020, she received the Legacy Award for Teacher of the Year at EPHS.
“The quality of her heart and her love for students is second to none,” said Olson.
“Linda has high expectations of her students and the people around her because she has even higher expectations for herself,” said Stein. “I’ve never met a teacher who works harder than her or a teacher who cares more than her.”
From Wallenberg’s perspective, she is merely answering a calling to teach. It’s a call that came early and continues to ring out to this day, even though many of her contemporaries have since sailed off into retirement. “I’m still gaining something personally,” she explained. “It’s all about figuring out what fills you.”
It’s a lesson she tries to impart on her students throughout their time together. “I have really the honor, the blessing, to help nurture and figure out a place of belonging.
“I help build confidence to become who they want to be, not just what they want to do,” she continued. “Find a calling that is in sync with who they are.
“We have so many opportunities here to do this thing together, link arm in arm.”
She demonstrates how powerful that can be by showing up each day simply open to the possibilities. Wallenberg does plenty of talking, to be sure, but she also does her fair share of listening and contemplating. After four-and-a-half decades of teaching, Wallenberg knows that one thought-provoking comment from a student might change the trajectory of the entire class that day.
The teacher becomes the student
To best illustrate that notion, one need only look at Wallenberg’s copy of “Hamlet.” Tattered pages are held together by an industrial-strength rubber band while countless Post-it notes of every color peek out from between its pages. Each Post-it contains a fresh idea, a new perspective on the beloved 400-year-old text, all courtesy of her students. To make it into Wallenberg’s “Hamlet” is like graduating with honors.
“Anyone who makes it into Wally’s “Hamlet” book feels like a literary genius, and Wally remembers each of those students,” said Laurie Nebeker, who also works in the English department and has seen each of her own children strive to and ultimately earn a place in Wallenberg’s book.
“I think her copy of ‘Hamlet’ should go in the Smithsonian.”
Wallenberg may be the teacher, but she isn’t done learning herself. She strives to be open to new ideas and methods, whether they come from her students or her fellow educators.
“Linda is also constantly learning and looking for new ways to improve curriculum,” said Nebeker.
“Wally loves to fold in new material into her curriculum,” agreed Kari Beutz, another English teacher at EPHS. “Just this morning, she was showing me some books that are written from different points of view from classic fairy tales — for example, Mother Gothel’s point of view in “Rapunzel” — that she wants to use in her course as examples of how narratives can be reimagined.”
“New teachers remind me I don’t always have to do things the way we did,” said Wallenberg.
Embracing her heritage
While Wallenberg keeps herself open to new possibilities, she is also a big fan of tradition, as exemplified by her work with the Concordia Language Villages. Wallenberg recently celebrated 42 years with the organization, spending many of her summers teaching Swedish as well as traditional weaving, folk painting and music.
Her interest in the Swedish language started early on. When she was just 8 years old, Wallenberg left her home in Chicago and spent four months visiting family in Sweden with her grandmother.
“I came back bound and determined to learn the language,” she said.
That determination continued throughout her formative years. When it came time to pick a college, Gustavus’s Swedish program and its gymnastics team made it the ideal candidate for her ongoing studies.
While a student at Gustavus, Wallenberg was tapped to help develop the curriculum for Concordia’s fledgling Swedish language village, Sjölunden. She would go on to become the first person to be certified as a teacher of Swedish in Minnesota.
Wallenberg later served as the program’s director for 16 years, during which time she received the Royal Order of the Polar Star from the King of Sweden. The Royal Order of the Polar Star honors individuals for “devotion to duty, for science, literary, learned and useful works and for new and beneficial institutions.”
Wallenberg has since met King Carl two other times, once at a 2011 reception hosted by Gov. Mark Dayton, and again last year when she was invited to the palace for an event honoring the board of trustees for the American Swedish Institute.
One of Wallenberg’s favorite sayings is, “When the student is ready, the teacher appears.” She has been that teacher for many students, preparing them for college and life with her class. But, in many cases, the students have also served as her teacher, and she has learned to embrace those lessons when they come.
“There’s a story about Wally coaching gymnastics that I think exemplifies her philosophy about learning and life,” recalled Beutz. “For a little while, she got focused on calculating each individual’s scores to see how her team score would be affected after each individual event, and her team followed suit in keeping track of calculations. However, one time, one of her gymnasts got done with her event with a smile on her face and went to go get a congratulatory hug from her teammates, and instead, the team was busy working on their calculators. At that moment, Wally put the calculators away. Going forward, she had the girls keep a journal about their goals — in gymnastics and otherwise — and that was the focus instead of the numbers. Even during practice, there was oftentimes a journaling station mixed in with the floor, vault, bars and beam work. Once the team stopped keeping score and instead kept focused on doing their best and achieving their goals, they easily won state.
“Sometimes, we can get so focused on the destination that we forget to enjoy the journey,” Beutz continued. “Wally is all about the journey.”
And what a journey it’s been so far. Donning a shirt that reads “Carpe Diem” in honor of a lesson plan discussing “Dead Poet’s Society,” Wallenberg continually walks the walk, inspiring many of her students to do the same.
“Teaching has given me the opportunity to give life lessons,” she said.
As of now, Wallenberg has no immediate plans to stop teaching, but she remains open, as always, to all the possibilities, saying, “When something else calls me, I’ll know it’s time.”
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