Teaching: The Most Noble Profession

On Saturday, January 5, Lillian Lulkin passed away in New York City at age 78. She retired in 2004, having taught for 35 years at the Calhoun School. There was no tribute in The New York Times, no outpouring of national or local grief or admiration for a life lived with nobility... only a small death notice in tiny type, buried deep in the paper.

This same week The New York Times more fully eulogized a technology activist, an Italian actress, a hokey television personality, a "trading card innovator," a former McDonald's executive, a football coach and the man who named the Kindle.

Teachers have always been taken for granted, despite doing the most important work in the world. In recent years it has gotten worse, as teachers have been absorbing the misplaced blame for the state of education in America.

There are many problems in public and private education, but teachers are not one of them. Any dispassionate view of the alleged decline of achievement in American schools would conclude that among the complex variables -- cultural shifts, economic and social inequity, inadequate funding, poor public policy, lousy parenting -- the only thing that has not changed is the dedication and skill of teachers.

A more apt characterization of teachers might be found in the tribute I wrote nine years ago on the occasion of Lil's retirement. I offer it again as a tribute to Lil and to all great teachers, then and now.

Dear Lil,

Thirty five years, 15 kids -- give or take -- to a class. That makes 525 kids you have loved and taught. You've spent about 50,400 hours teaching during those 35 years. That's enough time to visit Pluto and return, yet you have stayed in one place. Remarkable.

During this, your final year of teaching, rock stars have been idolized, athletes have signed multi-million dollar contracts before they are old enough to vote and business leaders have been convicted because of shabby ethics and practices. They have been in The New York Times and you have not. You have stayed in one place, teaching children while controversy swirled over the war in Vietnam, while the Hubble Telescope captured breathtaking pictures of the infant universe, and while the Dow Jones Industrial average went from 750 to 12,000. You have stayed in one place, teaching children, while Elvis died and reappeared in small towns everywhere, while the Berlin Wall fell, and while the nation enjoyed unprecedented prosperity and endured unspeakable terror.

A lot happened while you were just sitting around in one place teaching children!

There is no profession as important as teaching children and you have done it with rare grace, skill, good humor and abundant love. You should be the Times Magazine Woman of the Year. You should win multiple Oscars, Tonys and Emmys. You should be awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Niceness and the Nobel Prize for Dedication. But you won't. Teachers don't become household names unless they do something really awful and all you have done are really wonderful things.

Yes, you have taught long enough to visit Pluto and return, yet you have stayed in one place. Some people travel to far galaxies and other people prepare them for the trip. For 35 years you have been Calhoun's NASA. You have inspired and cajoled, taught and hugged. You have given your hundreds of kids a confident and unconditionally affirming start and sewn their flight jackets with threads of wisdom and joy. You've laughed at their 5-year old jokes and been gob-smacked by their insights. You've wiped their noses (and behinds) and put smiles back on their faces just when they needed it. And because of you, 525 kids believed they could travel to the stars or accomplish anything they wished. And they have. And they will.

There can be no life achievement greater than to have affected the lives of 525 humans in a profound and irreversible way. In any other context this statement might be trite, but in your case it is irrefutably true: You have changed the world for the better.