A Lifelong Celebration of Teachers

Last week a friend reminded me that it was National Teachers Day. This struck me as a bit like celebrating National Sunrise Day, but I looked it up just to be sure. I could have asked my wife. She's a teacher. But even though it was six-thirty in the evening and she wasn't home yet. This wasn't unusual. It's pretty much the norm.

With no teacher to turn to, I turned to the internet (apologies to my own teachers). Turns out National Teachers Day falls within National Teachers Week. If they add a little more time to it, I believe they'll get it right.

I have known some remarkable teachers. If I were paid by the word I'd list them here and retire, maybe slip Warren Buffett a little pocket change. Even if I did list them, you wouldn't know their names. That's the way teaching is. Teachers do not reside on magazine covers or building-size billboards or under opening night lights. But I knew these teachers, and that has made all the difference in my life.

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If you think teachers are overpaid babysitters who get off work at two-thirty and have summers off, you should read no further. This is an unabashedly subjective column. I don't care. It's my column. If you'd paid more attention in English, you might have a column of your own. You could write a rebuttal. Look it up.

If there is a job description that strays wider, please let me know. Again, the list is far too long. I will only say that, in the hands and heart of a great teacher, the job never ends. I know teachers who work every weekend, who reach into their pocket to pay for a child's field trip, who mediate between parents (who sometimes act like children, and worse), who lay awake at night (no easy feat for a teacher) worrying about a child's life outside the classroom. One of these teachers I know very, very well. As you might imagine, handling all these matters is time consuming. Sometimes quitting time is two-thirty; when I come downstairs in the wee hours and gently nudge my wife, sleeping upright, papers on her lap.

A few years ago I spent several days at a local preschool. It was an enlightening experience on many fronts. I learned why we have two ears and one set of lips (Hint: Which is most important?). I learned what it means to be a family, and what to do if I do something wrong. I learned to see the astonishing in what many see as commonplace. I learned to be grateful. I learned the purpose for living (Love; unfair to make you wait). I learned from William that his mom has long blond hair and there's a lot of brown under it.

One morning two small crises flamed. In the first, someone pushed someone to the ground as they were standing on a box getting a drink from the water fountain. At almost the same instant two girls were in the bathroom, one urging the other to follow her lead, which she did, both of them plunking their hands in the toilet.

Immediately everyone was ushered on to the rug to discuss these matters.

The teacher sat in her chair.

"You have to treat others with respect," she said. "And you have to know how to make good choices. When somebody says something to you that you know in your brain is wrong, you need to make the right choice."

I wish our world leaders had been seated on the rug. For starters. Again the list of folks who would benefit from such a rug session is far too long to list.

One more thing. I did not witness the toilet plunking, but I did see the pushing. When it happened the teacher moved quickly to the pusher, reprimanding him in no uncertain terms. And then she gently took his hand.

I don't know if, for great teachers, this sort of thing is instinctual. This particular teacher taught our sons as preschoolers. Our sons are now 18 and 20. This teacher only just retired. Caring teachers have the half life of plutonium.

Often great teachers get their due, although not in the form of gargantuan contracts or splashy ceremonies, but quietly, in a fashion that matters.

Not long ago, I traveled to Curacao on a magazine assignment where I was paid to scuba dive in happy blue Caribbean waters (thank you, English teachers). Clarina Gomez was my guide for the week. Spend a week with someone and you learn a few things about them. What I learned about Clarina was that everywhere we went she was recognized. It's true, the island of Curacao isn't large (some 40 miles long) and Clarina has lived on the island her entire life, by my guess sixty-some years. But longevity and close proximity to one's neighbors did not explain what unfolded as Clarina went about her day, with me in tow.

In restaurants, people waved from tables; from doorways they nodded hellos; they got up from behind important desks, ducking their heads respectfully as they came forward. On the colorful streets of the Willemstad capital, they stopped her. At traffic lights, they rolled down their windows and leaned across the seat, unleashing a happy torrent of Papiamento. There were times when I was certain that, in their excitement, they were going to abandon their car at the intersection and, in their excitement, jump right into Clarina's lap. It was like being with Lady Gaga, but without all the self-obsession and weirdness. Of these people who waved and shouted and smiled and offered a deferential hand Clarina said, "Just to see them, it's a happy day."

Juffrouw Gomez, they all said.


Not long ago, a student from 30 years ago called Clarina and asked to see her. When they met this man hugged her and thanked her for a letter of encouragement she had written him.

"It was a very nice moment," Clarina told me. "I felt very satisfied."

This is my definition of a role model. Perhaps you know one.

These kinds of people, they reside in the places that last. In our character. In our choices. In our minds and our hearts.

Every day of the year until our years come to an end.

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