June 26, 1985

The President. Class will come to order. [Laughter] Well, good afternoon, and welcome to the White House, if no one has said that to you yet.

First, let me congratulate you all. The fact that you've come this far in the selection process is testimony to your abilities and the respect of your colleagues. And I'm sure that you've made your schools and communities and your students very proud. I also want to tell you that your shuttle doesn't blast off for a while yet, so there's still time to back out. [Laughter]

I suppose that we all have a few special teachers that we remember with particular affection and gratitude. One such teacher for me was Esther Barton, back in Dixon, Illinois. I sometimes wonder what she would have made of our Teacher in Space Project. But I have a hunch, remembering some of my escapades, that if she were here today, she'd tell you this won't be the first time I've sent a teacher into orbit. [Laughter]

But I remember one story that she told us about how, when the British were marching toward Washington in the War of 1812, Dolly Madison had time only to save a few precious personal possessions and one portrait of George Washington. Right there. A few hours after she escaped by wagon, the British looted and burned the White House, destroying everything but that one portrait of the father of our country that Dolly Madison saved from the flames.

Well, in that same way, America's teachers are the preservers and protectors of our heritage. You save our past from being consumed by forgetfulness and our future from being engulfed in ignorance.

Every new class is a generation to whom you must transmit the treasures of our civilization. Every new year for the schoolteacher is like a new age of enlightenment in which young minds become awakened to the truths that we hold to be self-evident. You teach your students math and science and literature and history -- a variety of subjects. You give them many facts and much knowledge. But your task is greater than that because with the facts, you must impart the values that give them meaning and context -- our most sacred values of human dignity and the worth of the individual. You teach an understanding of liberty with respect for the law and help show the way of freedom under God while guiding our youth into the constructive paths of self-fulfillment.

In the hands of America's teachers rests the formidable responsibility of molding and inspiring tomorrow's heroes -- the medical scientists who will invent cures for disease, the businessmen who will found whole new industries, the writers, artists, doctors -- who knows, maybe even a politician or two. [Laughter]

All Americans who strive to excel, not because they are in competition with anyone else, but because they're in competition with their own imagination to be the very best possible in whatever job they have.

I have some warm memories of another teacher, too, in Dixon, Illinois -- this time at high school level -- B.J. Frazier. I remember one day, he not only taught English, but -- and I don't know whether principals still do this today or not -- but he taught English, but was also principal. And I was in his office -- [laughter] -- it wasn't exactly a social call -- [laughter] -- and I remember the conversation that he said to me that it didn't matter to him what I thought of him at that time, that what he was concerned about was what would I think of him 15 years from now.

And I must say, before he departed this Earth and 15 or more years had passed, I'm grateful that I had the opportunity to tell him what I thought of him, which was what he had meant to me, and as the years went by, I had come to realize how much he had meant.

A journalist named Clark Mollenhoff has written a poem about teachers and says it better than I can. The title of the poem is "Teacher.'' I don't know whether any of you are familiar with it or not. He was a White House correspondent for quite some time before I got here. But his poem reads:

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 100 lives, 1,000 lives.

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

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

Emerson said that men love to wonder, and that's the seed of our science. Well, it's also wonder that opens the doors of possibility to young minds, that leads to the avenues of hope and opportunity.

When one of you blasts off from Cape Kennedy next January, you will be representing that hope and opportunity and possibility -- you'll be the emissary to the next generation of American heroes. And your message will be that our progress, impressive as it is, is only just a beginning; that our achievements, as great as they are, are only a launching pad into the future. Flying up above the atmosphere, you'll be able to truly say that our horizons are not our limits, only new frontiers to be explored.

Speaking of limits, you might be interested that what you're about to do was not so long ago considered completely impossible by the best authorities on the subject. In 1955, about 2 years before sputnik, Dr. Wooley, Britain's royal astronomer, said conclusively, "Space travel is utterly bilge.'' [Laughter] Now, whichever one of you is chosen might also want to take under consideration the opinion of another expert, "The acceleration which must result from the use of rockets,'' he said, "inevitably would damage the brain.'' [Laughter] So, consider yourself forewarned. [Laughter]

But seriously, I wish you all the best of luck, and I hope your mission is as successful as the one that we've just completed. I'm glad it's not me who'll have to make the final selection of the first teacher astronaut because each one of you is eminently qualified. For the lucky one who does go up in the shuttle, I have only one assignment: Take notes. There will be a quiz after you land. [Laughter]

So, thank you, and God bless you all, and may I ask though, in their being here, is there a possibility that on the schedule is a view of that movie that we saw the other night? Well, then, to those of you who don't make it -- have you seen it yet?

Audience. Yes!

The President. Oh, well, then you know already what I was going to say. [Laughter] It's just about as close to being in space as I think you can be and still have your feet on the ground. I was really carried away with that. We never had anything like that in the horse cavalry when I was -- [laughter] -- --

But again, I say thank you, and God bless you all. And as I understand now, down at the other end of the hall in the dining room there are refreshments -- I can't join you there; I've got to get back to the Oval Office. [Laughter]

Thanks very much.

Note: The President spoke to the elementary and high school teachers at 2 p.m. in the East Room at the White House.