A Weekly Column
By Joseph Walker


I bumped into an old high school classmate the other day (of course, I use the word “old” selectively here.  He is old; I, however, am not).

As you might expect, we started talking about old (there’s that word again) friends and we tried to update each other on who was doing what where. I told him about the popular, fun-loving guy who now owns a couple of professional sports franchises. He told me about the athlete who is now his family’s dentist.  I mentioned the class officer who is making Donald Trump look small time on Wall Street (and no, we didn’t go to school with Rosie O’Donnell).

Then it occurred to me: I wasn’t sure what my friend was doing. So I asked.

“Me?” he responded, a tad uncomfortably. “Oh, I’m just a teacher.”

At the time I understood what he was trying to say.  After running through that litany of fiftysomething success stories, anyone might be a little intimidated. Some particularly insecure types might have even been tempted to exaggerate their own professional accomplishments (which reminds me: how long do you think it’ll take him to figure out that I’m not really writing a nationally syndicated humor column under the pen name “Dave Barry”?).

But the more I reflect on my friend’s response – and, quite frankly, my own – the more I realize that our perspective was shallow and limited.  It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that human worth is a dollars-and-cents proposition, or that fame and fortune is the stick with which we must ultimately take the measure of the individual.  Thankfully there is still room in our contemporary definition of “success” for those whose contributions are less widely known, and whose compensation is less grand.

I suppose there are some for whom being “just a teacher” is an apt description. Then I think of Mr. B, the high school speech and drama teacher whose skill, passion and caring literally turned my life around 36 years ago. Mr. B has moved on professionally to educational administration, but to hundreds of other students who, like me, trace an important part of our developmental evolution back to him, Mr. B will always be a teacher.

But never “just a teacher.”

Most of us have been positively influenced by teachers who cared enough to make a difference in our lives. Is that impact diminished by the fact that those teachers probably never lived in the posh part of town? To tell you the truth, I don’t know where Della Tuttle lived. All I know is she helped me feel good about myself when I was the new kid in her second grade class and I needed a friend.

“Just a teacher”? No way.

Nor, come to think of it, was the nurse who tenderly held my hand through a frighteningly serious operation when I was 19 “just a nurse.” Nor is the fire fighter who spear-headed a last-minute fund-raising drive for a family in our community who lost all of their presents in a Christmas Eve fire “just a fire fighter.” Nor is my daughter-in-law Jen “just a homemaker” or my nephews Bud and Mike “just cops.”

“There are no small roles,” Mr. B used to tell us, “only small actors.”

It’s that way with the roles we play in life, too. Even though we may never be profiled in People magazine and our contribution to the Gross National Product may be grossly insignificant, our contribution to society need not be. You don’t have to be Somebody to be somebody. All you have to do is care enough to help make the world a better, happier place. And you can do that – I know you can.

Even if you’re just a writer.

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— © Joseph Walker

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