Wherever they encountered her, in schools or the supermarket or while she was out to eat, generations of students past and present called out “Mrs. Pearlstein!”
Lillian Pearlstein spent six decades in classrooms, mostly at North Shore schools, and wrote in an unpublished 30-page memoir that teaching was all she ever wanted to do. Even when substituting for only a day, she walked into the school building with a lesson plan prepared.
“Being a teacher was her calling,” said her daughter Meryl of New York City. “She always had a special relationship with her students. And when you teach for 60 years, it makes an impact on so many lives.”
Mrs. Pearlstein, who retired in 1987, then kept working as a substitute teacher until two years ago, died Sept. 21 in the Kaplan Family Hospice House in Danvers. She was 90, lived in Swampscott, and had been diagnosed with aortic stenosis, a heart valve ailment.
“My mission on earth has been to help people, whether my own family, my students, or those who come to me for enlightenment,” she wrote in her memoir. “I hope I have made a difference in their lives.”
Born Lillian Swartz in Gloucester, she was in eighth grade during the Great Depression when a teacher asked if anyone in her class planned to attend college.
In her memoir, Mrs. Pearlstein wrote that although she aspired to become a teacher, she did not raise her hand because her family was among many facing financial hardships. Afterward, she recalled, her teacher found out and told her: “Lillian, you have to go.”
The Swartz family made sure she did. She wrote that her father, Morris Swartz, who had emigrated from Russia as a child, saved money by stuffing cardboard into his shoes to cover the holes in the soles. Her mother, the former Ida Shmukler, was a Lithuanian immigrant. A seamstress, she cared for everything in the home.
Mrs. Pearlstein, however, envisioned a different life. “I would rather read a book or do crossword puzzles,” she wrote, adding that those activities were “at times my salvation.”
She fostered a love for foreign languages at Malden High School, from which she graduated in 1939 as valedictorian. That September she went to Boston University and majored in French and minored in Latin and education.
As an undergraduate, she was involved with musical and language groups, while student teaching French and Latin at Malden High School. She graduated in 1943 and began working in Tewksbury, where she taught high school French, Latin, and math, and gave up a free period to teach Spanish.
In her very first class. she met Margaret Tompkins, a student with whom she became lifelong friends.
“As far as being a caring teacher, wanting her students to do well, and helping them along the way, there wasn’t anyone finer,” said Tompkins, who lives in Tewksbury. “I know that everyone who had her as a teacher in the class of 1949 appreciated her.”
Mrs. Pearlstein graduated from Boston University in 1948 with a master’s degree in Spanish. She left Tewksbury to teach at Beebe Junior High in Malden, where a few years later a student introduced her to his uncle, John Pearlstein.
They began dating and married in 1955. Buying a home in Swampscott, they had three daughters. Mrs. Pearlstein took time off while raising her children, but eventually returned to Hillel Academy in Marblehead, where she taught elementary French and math. In later years, she taught various language courses at Lynn English High School and Eastern Junior High in Lynn.
“She was a terrific teacher,” Meryl said. “She was always there to help.”
When Meryl graduated from college, she took her mother on a three-week tour of Europe. It was Mrs. Pearlstein’s first trip out of the country since her honeymoon in Cuba.
“She was very outgoing and talked to everybody,” Meryl said. “Plus we could speak the language, so we had great experiences. And she had a great sense of direction.”
When her husband became ill, Mrs. Pearlstein retired to care for him, but continued to work as a substitute teacher and tutor in Swampscott throughout his illness. During that time, she wrote some of her autobiography, along with poems, journals, and a draft of her own obituary. She hardly left her husband’s bedside until he died in 2001. They were married 46 years.
“A lot of people would have complained and been upset,” said Jim Wacht, Meryl’s husband. “She never complained. It wasn’t in her nature. She was happy to be alive. She was an incredibly devoted wife.”
A service has been held for Mrs. Pearlstein, who in addition to her daughter and son-in-law leaves two other daughters, Debra of Swampscott and Cara Massey of Swampscott; a brother, Philip Swartz of Peabody, and four grandsons.
Remaining independent after her husband’s death, Mrs. Pearlstein drove herself to school to continue her life’s work, even as heart problems arose, until she was too ill.
On Jan. 6, she achieved her last great goal, to make it to her 90th birthday, and was surrounded by family on her last outing to Anthony’s Pier 4 in Boston. Wacht said Mrs. Pearlstein had taught some members of the family that owns the restaurant.
“She was so happy to have us all together,” Wacht said. “Lillian lived an exemplary life.”
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