06/03/2012 11:22 am ET Updated Aug 03, 2012

Retired Teachers Give Life Lessons

I was recently invited to a 50th reunion luncheon at a local university. The majority of attendees were retired elementary and high school teachers. Many were the first generation in their family to go to college; virtually all had what would be considered "average" lives. There were no heads of state, Nobel Prize winners, or heirs to great fortunes.

Nevertheless, when I grow up, this is who I want to be.

The reunion program, with its capsule biographies, told a beautiful story. Family was front and center: years of marriage, number of children and grandchildren. Several people expressed wonder at the way their families had evolved, e.g. "Our family includes three biological daughters, a bi-racial son and a Vietnamese son -- one daughter married to a Jamaican man, with four children including an adopted Chinese daughter." In all cases, the surprise was joyful.

Even more revealing was the section on "Unusual Life Experiences." When you look back on your life at the age of 72, what would you like to remember? In my opinion, you can't do better than this:

"Being part of a successful suit against the Federal Bureau of Investigation to defend students' academic freedom of inquiry."

"Driving a tractor-trailer cross-country with my wife as contract truckers, visiting 41 states in a year."

"Performing Mozart's Magic Flute in Varna, Bulgaria, at the age of 71."

"Landing a 42-pound striped bass."

"Diagnosed with cancer in 1986 and given less than five years to live -- obviously I am still here!"

Travel was a recurring theme, from Nile river cruises to trekking in Nepal. One alum "traveled to all seven continents and over 70 countries while observing more than two-thirds of the world's 10,000 species of birds."

But no matter how far they wandered, this group's "Greatest Honors" were close to home:

"Being named New Jersey Teacher of the Year."

"Serving as Mayor of our town."

"Running a Scout troop for special-needs kids."

"Hearing from former students that I changed their lives."

"Being a father."

Of the people I met, several had clearly done very well for themselves financially. Yet their biographies didn't contain a single reference to material wealth. To me, that was the best lesson of all: Success is measured, not by the things you've acquired, but by the choices you've made.

These teachers are doing it right.