May 7 through 11 was Teacher Appreciation Week. Schoolteachers in Kentucky, West Virginia, Colorado and elsewhere may have been too busy to celebrate, however, demonstrating as they were for better pay and conditions.

Teacher pay calls to mind – baseball, specifically Yu Darvish. The 31-year-old Cubs pitcher was signed last winter to a six-year, $126 million contract. For the math-impaired, that comes to a stupefying $21 million for an eight-month season. All for the privilege of hurling a 5-ounce sphere 60½ feet past opposing batters.

Admittedly not many people can do that. And because here in Evanston we bleed Cubby blue, we’re rooting for Mr. Darvish to succeed. But still, is this a good deal—good for the Cubs and good for America?

Maybe not. As of this writing Mr. Darvish is winless in six starts and coming off 10 days on the disabled list. Surely as the season progresses he will wind up with a bunch of Ws. But that doesn’t change the basic problem: the huge disparity in pay and wealth between a privileged few and the teeming masses, which seems only to get worse.

Outlandishly overpaid athletes, CEOs and celebrities are a fact of life in America. We tend to shrug it off because there doesn’t seem to be an easy fix.

And yet we know it’s not right. There are a lot of underpaid people who do work that is vital to society. Police, paramedics, nurses and firefighters rank high in that category. But at the very top are teachers.

After parents, teachers are the single most important influence on a young person’s life. A good teacher can inspire a lifelong love of learning, guide a person to right behavior and the right career and help instill self-respect and confidence.

“Teachers,” said author and activist Helen Caldicott, “are the most responsible and important members of society because their professional efforts affect the fate of the earth.”

But for all the lip-service paid to their influence and importance, including their very own national week of appreciation, teachers are paid a fraction of their worth. Mr. Darvish, if he stays healthy, will throw roughly 3,300 pitches this season. That comes to more than $6,000 a pitch. In one school year a starting teacher in District 65 might earn nine or 10 of Mr. Darvish’s pitches. It will take him a minute or two; it will take her nine months.

The inequity seems cruel, irrational and perverse.

The enormous disparities in salaries and wealth that we see in America are complex and discouraging issues. We genuflect at the altar of free markets, and yet we would prefer a far more just and equitable system that rewards great schooling, not great strikeouts.

Maybe someone will figure out how to make that happen. That would be real appreciation.

Les Jacobson

Les is a longtime Evanstonian and RoundTable writer and editor. He won a Chicago Newspaper Guild best feature story award in 1975 for a story on elderly suicide and most recently three consecutive Northern...