Lauryn Hill and the Education of Nancy Hughes McCloskey

Jennifer Kathleen Gibbons
5 min readJul 25, 2022

It’s the last Monday of the month, it’s too darn hot, and it’s also…

Marland Monday!

Every Monday, I remember Douglas Marland, one of the GOATS of daytime television. Let’s go!

Mr. Marland had an amazing roster of performers. Julianne Moore and Ming-Na Wen immediately come to mind. One summer a runaway appeared at Duncan McKechnie’s doorstep. Her name was Kira. If you look very carefully-and if you ask her to sing “Killing Me Softly With His Song” you realize it’s Lauryn Hill.

Lauryn Hill has chocolate colored skin, her hair in dark braids and in an afro. She is wearing hoop earrings and mocha lipstick.
Lauryn Hill is killing us softly, with her songs.

Let’s backtrack. Duncan (Michael Swan) decided to open his home to runaways. I’m betting Mr. Marland did this to get more teenagers on the show, which made sense. The teens he originally wrote for (Lily, Dusty, Andy, Paul, etc.) were all in their twenties. It was time for new blood.

Kira’s hair is dark and of medium length. She is wearing a T-shirt and a backwards baseball hat. Duncan has graying dark hair and a salmon colored shirt.
Kira and Duncan hanging out

Enter Kira. She was trying to avoid someone trying to blackmail her. Duncan and his fiancé Jessica (Tamara Tunie) befriended Kira, but she was still wary of trusting anyone. She was also ashamed: she couldn’t read or write.

Yes, it’s a Very Special Storyline. Yes, they can be tiresome. And yes, Kira will learn how to read and write. How?

Ladies and gentlemen, Nancy Hughes McCloskey!

Nancy Hughes has on a pink dress. Her gray hair is cut in a bob, and she is wearing pearls. Behind her is a mantelpiece where there’s candles and flowers.
Nancy telling us something we need to know.

When Nancy (Helen Wagner played Nancy for 52 years, FYI) first appeared on the show in 1956, she was a busybody. As the years went on, Nancy mellowed out some. She started volunteering at Memorial Hospital, and at the runaway shelter. After her beloved Chris died in 1986, she fell in love again with Dan McCloskey, the crusty but lovable lieutenant of the Oakdale police force.

Before she married Chris, Nancy had taught at Oakdale High. When Kira told Nancy she couldn’t read or write, Nancy decided she was going to teach Kira how to read. It was picture books at first, but then Nancy came up with an idea: Kira loved rap music. Why not write out the lyrics to a rap song then Kira could connect the words with the music? Nancy even rapped with her. Yes, it’s delightful.

The song was written for the show — although I kind of wish Nancy could’ve written out the lyrics to other rap songs of the time like “It’s Tricky” by Run DMC, or “Rapper’s Delight” by The Sugar Hill Gang. No way could she do “Cop Killer” by Ice-T or “Fight the Power” by Public Enemy. We have to keep the show PG-13 rated, folks.

But watching it now in 2022, I feel uneasy. Not with Wagner and Hill, they’re fantastic and lovely. At the trope. What trope, you may ask? The White Savior trope.

The White Savior trope is when a privileged white person sees African-Americans in trouble, then rescues them. Two orphaned brothers in Harlem? Here comes Mr. Drummond, he will take them to his penthouse (That’s the premise of “Diff’rent Strokes”.)! “Do They Know It’s Christmas” has been accused of this, with the mostly white performers singing about how hard it is for children of Africa this Christmas, with Bono yelling “Well tonight thank God it’s them instead of you!” Thanks, Bono. The implication is only white people can save people of color from their circumstances.

I want to make this very clear: In no way do I think Mr. Marland was trying to be condescending here or giving off the White Savior message. He knew Hill was talented; in middle school, she sang the National Anthem so beautifully at a high school basketball game that her recorded version was played on a regular basis. He knew what she was capable of. He also knew that there was a literacy gap in America (Jet magazine once reported 50 percent of American adults lacked basic literacy skills) Nancy was a teacher, she could help Kira with reading. Also, heavy storylines were going on that summer (Margo’s rape, the long Carolyn Crawford mystery), and let’s face it, I chuckled when I saw Kira and Nancy rapping. It’s pretty funny.

So was Mr. Marland trying to make Nancy the White Savior? Intentionally, I don’t think so. Nor did he do it with Duncan, either. But seeing it with 2022 eyes, it’s clear that was the unintentional message. I know this is hard to talk about, much less write it. While I consider this series of essays as a Valentine to Mr. Marland, I also want it to be honest as well. It doesn’t make him a bad writer, it doesn’t make him a bad person. He just wrote the characters in a trope. All writers do this. We — the audience and fellow writers — have to recognize for what it is.

Hill wasn’t on the show for long; she was making an album with a group called The Fugees. They made an LP called Blunted on Reality and she went off and made Sister Act 2. When I saw Hill in the Fugees video for “Killing Me Softly” I thought “Oh, Kira! You made it!” In 1999, Hill won five Grammys for her album The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. I was so proud of her. Yes, I still thought of her as Kira. I still think of Julianne Moore as Frannie. But I also knew it was Lauryn Hill who won Album of the Year, and a jubilant Whitney Houston gave her the Grammy.

I watched it and I couldn’t help but think: that she came a long way from the runaway shelter in Oakdale.
Mr. Marland would’ve been proud.

Turn in next week…