Remarks at the Presentation Ceremony for the Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching Awards

 

November 18, 1987

 

Well, I'm delighted to have all of you here in the Rose Garden today. [Laughter] No, we had to switch on account of we found out that none of you brought overshoes. [Laughter] With all that snow and the rain last night, we'd have all been ankle deep. But they always refer to this as part of the White House complex, so at least we're close to it. But I'm delighted you all could be here today.

 

You know, every time I see a gathering of teachers, something just gets into me. I was thinking on the way over here about a story I used to tell out on the campaign trail last year. I won't give you the context, because as you probably know, we've been negotiating with the Hill recently, and I don't want to do anything to upset the bipartisan budget settlement that we're trying to reach. But anyway, it's about this young fellow who walked into school and warned his teacher: ``Teacher, you better be careful, because my dad says that unless my math grades improve somebody's going to get spanked.'' [Laughter]

 

I guess you could say the young man was missing the point -- [laughter] -- but unlike him, you're here today because your fellow Americans have not missed the point. And that point is: your dedication to your profession and your service to others. John Erskine suggested once that a good teacher is so rare that the rumor of him or her spreads like a scandal. Well, Washington, after all, is a city that loves scandals -- [laughter] -- so it won't surprise you that the rumor of your work has been heard here. We've asked you to come to the White House, this complex I mentioned, so that I might, as President, on behalf of a grateful nation, extend to each of you our warmest thanks.

 

Now, I know that praise and thanks make most of you a little uncomfortable. It's no secret teachers don't get a lot of it in their day-to-day work, which frankly reminds me of another story -- [laughter] -- about a teacher I knew back in Dixon, Illinois, named B.J. Frazier. He not only taught English, but -- and I don't know whether principals still do this today or not -- he was also principal. And I remember one day I was in his office. It wasn't exactly a social visit. [Laughter] And I remember the conversation, because at one point, he said to me -- he probably saw the look on my face -- that it didn't matter to him what I thought of him at that time, that the only thing he was concerned about was what I might think of him 15 years from then. And I must say, after 15 or more years had passed and before he departed this Earth, I'm grateful that I had the opportunity to tell him what I thought of him and what he had meant to me. And as the years went by, I'd come to realize how much he did mean to me and to so many others.

 

So, I think this does illustrate my point: Anyone interested in immediate feedback or instant gratification doesn't belong in your profession. Henry Adams put it very well when he said a teacher affects eternity. He or she can never tell where his or her influence stops. And for most of you, knowing that 10 years or 15 years from now someone will remember you and be grateful is thanks enough. As someone else once put it: Teaching is the most responsible, the least advertised, the worst paid, and the most richly rewarded profession in the world.

 

Now, I haven't used this in a while, but it's really one of my favorite bits of poetry that says it all about your profession. It was written by Clark Mollenhoff, a former Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter with the Des Moines Register and now a member of the faculty at Washington and Lee. By the way, he wrote this before he became a teacher himself. So, my guess is that, after a tough day, maybe he occasionally has to get it out and reread it. The poem is just called ``Teacher.''

 

``You are the molders of their dreams -- the gods who build or crush their young beliefs in right or wrong.

 

You are the spark that sets aflame a poet's hand, or lights the flame in some great singer's song.

 

You are the gods of the young -- the very young.

 

You are their idols by profession set apart.

 

You are the guardians of a million dreams.

 

Your every smile or frown can heal or pierce a heart.

 

Yours are one hundred lives -- one thousand lives.

 

Yours is the pride of loving them, the sorrow too.

 

Your patient work, your touch, make you the god of hope that fills their souls with dreams and makes those dreams come true.''

 

He's right, of course. Whether you're Christa McAuliffe following her dream into the stars and into grateful memory of her countrymen or whether you're inspiring young people day after day, you too can be all the difference. You too can become a symbol of hope.

 

We've seen in the past few years a great new emphasis on education in this nation. We've seen the college board scores go up. We've seen an emphasis on basics. We've seen a new interest in math and science. We've seen 32 States increase their requirements in math and 26 States increase their requirements in science. And parents are more active and involved with local schools and their children's education.

 

We as a nation owe you our thanks for preparing our next generation. In order for our children to be able to compete in the next century, they must have the proper education, and an emphasis on math and science is critical. This is your special work and your dedication to ensuring our children's future, and we thank you. And the fact that you're here today is further proof that Americans care about their schools and care about their teachers. I urge you to continue your wonderful work, and if future historians say our time saw a renaissance of American education, you can be sure those of you here today are the ones who made it happen.

 

I can't stay for what's going to follow, on behalf of all of you. But my congratulations to you, and again, my thanks to all of you, and God bless all of you.

 

Note: The President spoke at 11:41 a.m. in Room 450 of the Old Executive Office Building.