By Eric Z. Lucas
Every citizen can feel a sense of mission, place and importance.
Every task can be considered an act of service to our nation.
Tim Knopf, an English teacher at Mariner High School, just retired after 38 years in the school district. In simple terms, what this means is that he was just starting in the district when Mariner High School’s first class was graduating. The year of his start was 1972, the year I graduated from Mariner High School. But what does this retirement mean? Can it only be best quantified in simple terms or is it best quantified in less simple terms?
Does it mean: “Those who can do and those who can’t teach?” This is what my down home farm relatives said to me when I told them that I had just earned my teaching certificate and they did not mean it as a joke. Is this an accurate view of what teaching is or does the task of teaching have a deeper more special significance?
Let’s start with a simple act of quantification. High school teachers, teach multiple classes in one day. Perhaps they see as many as 100 students a day. But let’s make it easier on us. Let’s assume that the High School Teacher’s class load is like that of an elementary school teacher. When I taught sixth grade I had 35 students for the year. If you take 35 and multiply it by 38 years you get 1,330. This means, at minimum, Mr. Knopf gave personal instruction to 1,330 different people. He gave instruction to 1, 330 people approximately 39 weeks of the year or 195 days. In terms of days, 195 over 38 years is 7,410 days. And when you think of it, each of those 1,330 people received 195 days or so of instruction for a total of 259,350 units of instructional contact – at minimum. So if those who can do and those who can’t teach, then those who can’t are partaking in a huge amount of nothing. But, deep down we know this isn’t true.
Deep inside we know that all of those instructional contacts are important. In fact, when it comes to teachers, we know that they are important both in quantity and in quality. Almost everyone I know has their own story – a story of how a teacher who inspired them or had faith in them changed their lives. My personal story is also about a Mariner High School Teacher. Her name is Ann Kashiwa. Briefly, when I was an injured high school athlete, whose future was diminishing because of the injury, she taught me to have faith in my mind. She taught me that I was more than my body. She taught me that I could rely on my mind.
Ann Kashiwa, my inspirational teacher, taught me to have faith in the investment I could make in my mind. I spent two years reinventing myself from athlete to scholar. And in the end this meant SAT testing; becoming a National Merit Scholar Semi-Finalist, undergraduate school at Stanford University and the University of Washington. I received my law degree from Harvard Law School and this led to my first law job as a Deputy Prosecuting Attorney in King County. As a baby lawyer, in my second year, I successfully prosecuted a mentally ill young man who stalked and planned to kill a doctor, his wife and his two daughters. The entire family was saved. He received a prison sentence of 20 years. The case was on National TV in 1988 before the days of Court TV. And this was just the beginning of my career. I am just one person. Think of all of the other 1,329 people who she, and teachers like Tim, have affected and who those they taught have affected others. Imagine all of the other benefits, large and small, this group of people has been able to bestow on society. Looking at it from this point of view couldn’t teaching be considered a public service?
We make a mistake when we assume some people are significant and others have no significance at all. Just the quantity of the contacts alone should reveal that even one high school teacher should not be considered insignificant. But when we add the potential quality of the contacts we can see just how far-reaching the work of any teacher can be. But these ideas do not apply only to teachers. They can apply to any work. I have had the good fortune to see the Cathedral at Notre Dame. Remember that stonemasons built this timeless structure, not rocket scientists, or billionaires, or doctors or lawyers.
Nobility also means dignity. Because of the possible beneficial effects, any work done well can lead to dignity. In our time every citizen can feel a sense of mission, place and importance. Every task can be considered an act of service to our nation when that task is done well. In this way every act can be an act of public service. And in this way every kind of work can be noble.