“Out of the public schools grows the greatness of a nation.” — Mark Twain
“Upon the subject of education … I can only say that I view it as the most important subject which we as a people can be engaged in.” — Abraham Lincoln
I’m remembering a visit a few months ago to Washington, where I strolled with tourists along the National Mall and past the museums and monuments so many of us came to see.
At one point, I joined a mass of pilgrims and walked with them to the Korean War Veterans Memorial. A young boy posed with his grandfather next to one of the 19 larger-than-life-size stainless-steel soldier statues. I watched as the old man reached out to touch a metallic soldier’s face. To me, it seemed he needed to see and feel something tangible to appreciate the legacy of comrades gone, but not forgotten. The venerated objects scattered across our nation’s capital tell a story, and this elderly visitor was a part of it.
There is something in the human psyche that draws us to monuments and memorials, a yearning to visit physical tributes to the people, places, and ideas that have profoundly affected our lives and helped shape our national identity and cultural legacy. We are seemingly compelled to visit these stone and metal works lest what they stand for be diminished or forgotten by future generations.
This city of monuments, memorials, and museums is consecrated not by the politicians and bureaucrats who dominate its public image, but by the more than 200 monuments and memorials that form a beautiful collage embodying the greatest democracy the world has ever known. No other city can boast of so many eclectic artistic reminders of the story of a nascent nation struggling to assure freedom and liberty for so many diverse people.
But recalling my summer visit to Washington, I remember feeling something was amiss as I strolled past a statue dedicated to Samuel Hahnemann, the father of homeopathic medicine, and later arrived at Maine Avenue, where I noticed a statue honoring Maine lobstermen. And, I remember, I also walked toward Dupont Circle and stopped in front of an imposing bronze and granite monument dedicated to the Ukrainian poet and patriot Taras Shevchenko. I am not familiar with his work or how he contributed to our nation’s heritage, but President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the bill that authorized the creation of the artwork. Next, I rested at a small triangular park at Dupont Circle and learned that it was dedicated to deceased entertainer—and congressman—Sonny Bono.
I finished my walk in front of the Federal Reserve Annex, where I found a work of art called “Full Count,” a series of bronze pieces paying homage to the game of baseball. Its placement made me realize what was missing: There is not one monument in Washington dedicated to all of our nation’s teachers or public education. Not a single block of sculptured stone or metal to commemorate and honor the one profession that has had the greatest formative and lasting effect on all the people, places, and ideas enshrined throughout our nation’s capital city.
Why are there no monuments to America’s educator ranks when, as President Barack Obama correctly proclaimed in his 2011 State of the Union address, “If you want to make a difference in the life of a child, become a teacher”? Why is there no tribute to public education, the greatest institution for positive social change the world has ever known? And why is there no monument to the teacher, the single greatest instrument of social change? It is a bewildering question and a wrong that must be made right lest we diminish the fact that teachers and public education have provided the catalyst for ensuring democracy in our enduring nation.
“I think Teacher Appreciation Week needs an update,” U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in a speech and blog post last May. “Don’t get me wrong — teachers have earned every bagel breakfast, celebratory bulletin board, gift card, and thank-you note. … But we need to do something a bit more substantive and lasting than the bagel breakfast, too.”
The secretary of education is correct: Teachers do deserve something more substantive and lasting than a bagel or a gift card.
Teachers deserve a monument of remembrance and thanks for sowing the seeds and cultivating the intellectual landscape of our nation by promoting learning, knowledge, and the academic and technical skills necessary to develop and sustain a great nation.
The work of good teachers provided the priceless gifts of wisdom, intelligence, freedom of thought, creative expression, and the imagination needed for students to propel our nation to the center of the world stage.
America’s teachers inspired generations of students to become scientists, engineers, architects, doctors, entrepreneurs, inventors, artists, poets, and presidents. The guiding hands of a teacher once helped a young child tie a shoelace and later that same child set foot on the moon. And yet no monument exists to thank this teacher or the countless others who held the hands of children and led them to successful and productive lives. Our nation’s teachers have been responsible for espousing the belief that education is the foundation of a free people.
The time is long overdue for influential people and powerful organizations such as the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to use their political clout and philanthropy to thank America’s teachers by creating a National Teacher Monument in Washington.
I imagine a Norman Rockwell-like image of a teacher holding a child’s hand. The child is holding a stack of books and looking at the teacher. With his or her free hand, the teacher is pointing ahead to the future. But perhaps the details are best left to the imagination of an artist — a person once taught by a teacher.
Let the voices of America’s teachers be heard loud and clear: A National Teacher Monument would make Washington complete. Such a monument would tell a story, too — the story of our nation — and every good teacher would represent a chapter in this most remarkable story we call America.