Vinny

As children, our parents are our superheroes. They’re invincible. Untouchable. Superhuman. But as we get older, we start to see the human sides of them. Most of the time, this doesn’t happen until we’re young adults ourselves. At ten years old, Vinny had to face harsh realities that most young children don’t have to face.

“When I was a little younger – probably in 4th grade – we moved here to get closer to my dad’s job. And my dad ultimately got fired like a month after. So my mom was kind of out of a job and my dad was out of a job and my mom didn’t know anything about this place… She would find this job, and that job didn’t work. So she would find this next one. And my dad was still actively trying to find one and he was finding jobs. But they only needed him for a little bit of time.”

When he was just in elementary school, Vinny’s family moved an hour away from where he grew up. Despite his age, he picked up on the enormous amount of stress consuming his parents as they struggled to find stable careers.

“Pretty much what happened was, after a couple months, my mom was still breaking her back. She was working like seven days a week from eleven at night to eight in the morning nursing and it just got to a point where she finally just snapped and she had a mental breakdown.”

This undoubtedly was a defining moment for Vinny: a day that changed the trajectory of his life permanently. The decline in his mother’s mental health made a significant impact on him.

“It ultimately made her kind of just a shell of herself and the effects it had on all of us were pretty detrimental. It’s definitely a reason I act the way I do now. I act real shitty sometimes. It’s just – it took a toll on all of us. It was a really tough thing to witness.”

This massive change, occurring over the course of a single day, was understandably shocking. He recalls how much he resented his mom’s strict parenting style as a young child. He didn’t realize how badly he needed the structure until she could no longer provide it.

“My mom was one of those ‘I’ll-beat-you-if-you-act-out’ type of parents. I remember if I did anything wrong she would just be that pushing force for me for everything. She would be the one that taught me right from wrong and everything. After that — I mean, I was only ten when she kind of just dipped — so I had to teach myself most of it, you know? I had to push myself in school ‘cause no one was doing that for me. No one was telling me to go get haircuts or anything. It was just me, really.”

Since this change in his family dynamic, Vinny has tried to be more mindful of who he is and who he wants to be. Without the right guidance, this can be difficult. He pays closer attention to and thinks more deeply about this than the average teenager.

“I have to really take into consideration everything I do because I need to figure out who I am as a person and how I can better myself because there’s always room for improvement.”

Other members of his family supported him during this difficult time. Along with the shifts he saw in his own mindset, he watched a shift occur in his family’s dynamic.

“[My dad] really stood up and my brother really shined because he was always making sure I was good. Same with my sister.”

Though her health has not declined since, Vinny has come to terms with the fact that his mom will never be the person she was before. He’s made the decision to accept her new life and do anything he can to make it easier. He helps out everyday by doing small things like driving his mom to doctors appointments.

“She’s not a broken human being but she’s never recovered. She’s still absolutely clinically depressed. She can’t go back to work. She gets stressed over the littlest things. Things with her and her current state haven’t gotten much better but they haven’t gotten worse by any means.”

Everyday life is different for Vinny’s family, but their love for each other is the same. If anything, it’s grown stronger. He’s inspired by his dad, who’s stood by his mom’s side through it all.

“My dad wouldn’t be with her if he didn’t love her. And I have all the more respect for him because I think he loves her more now than ever.”

He feels as though he’s missed out on little things in life like his parents coming to prom pictures or being friends with other parents. He also knows that he’s missed out on some important parental guidance. But he’s chosen not to feel sorry for himself; he’s continued to fight on even when it’s hard, frustrating, or lonely.

“She did a good job of keeping us all in line. And I mean I don’t think I’m doing a bad job myself. I’m learning slower than a normal person does when figuring out life. But I’m getting there and I know I’m getting there.”

Though a very important person in his life was not as present as he would have wanted, others helped him along the way. He’s thankful for his friends “for never really changing even when [he] changed.” “There have definitely been times when I’ve been terrible,” he says, “and they stayed.”

His brother was also a big role model for him, giving him some very simple advice that resonated deeply.

“One time, when I was like eleven, my brother told me that shit happens. That’s all he said. And, I mean, that’s not the best advice but when something really bad happens and it’s like a string of bad things, that’s all you can really say. Things happen. Things happen for a reason.”

Vinny dreams of a world where everyone can freely be themselves. He believes that people have too many opinions about the way others live their lives.

“Not everything needs a comment.”

On a smaller scale, he wants to live a comfortable, stable, happy life alongside his family.

He fears not being good enough or failing to meet the expectations people have for him. One of the things that has always stood out to me is Vinny’s confident, funny, unapologetic personality. But I was surprised to learn that he’s not as carefree as he seems.

“I see myself probably worse than anyone else does; I’m keeping that real. I know I established myself as being very confident and not caring but there are a lot of times that I care a lot. And there are things I do and say that literally seconds after I’m like ‘that was stupid, why did I say that?’”

He adheres firmly to the persona he’s created for himself in fear of disappointing those who only know him as this person.

“I kind of dug myself into that hole by establishing myself as such a big personality in school.”

However, as he gets older, he’s tried to worry less about what people think.

“I’ve prevented myself from doing so many fun things and cool things because I cared too much about other people, or seeing other people, or having to even have a conversation with them.”

Something that means a lot to him is getting called a role model by his teachers and friends.

“I don’t mind being looked at as that at all because I would never try to influence someone in a poor way. I definitely become more aware once someone has told me that. I try to watch what I say a little better.”

Interviewing Vinny taught me to work harder at getting to know the people around me. After interacting with him multiple times every day, I would’ve described him the same way everyone else would: a funny, carefree teenager. He’s one of the last people I would’ve expected to have insecurities and I never would have guessed what he was going through at home. Talking to Vinny has proven once again that conversation is key. Get to know those around you. Ask the real questions. Dig a little deeper. What you find just from scratching the surface will almost always surprise you.

For anyone who is in a similar situation, Vinny has a simple message:

“Never stop holding out hope. You’re not alone.”

Mr. Panarella

Mr. Panarella had a unique childhood for a couple of reasons. One, his mom was deaf. This forced him to take on certain responsibilities that many children don’t usually have to. He remembers being six years old and ordering from the backseat in the drive-thru, of course sneaking things in that he wasn’t supposed to have. Using and understanding sign language has had an impact on the way he communicates today.

“It’s interesting in the deaf culture — your tone or your accent is all facial expressions.”

He also stood out because of his love for words and language — something he discovered at a very early age.

“I started writing poetry in second grade, thinking that that might be the best way to woo a female. It never was.”

Despite his lack of success with girls, he continued writing. His third-grade teacher helped fuel his interests. He’s still thankful for that today.

“During silent reading, she let me write instead. And at the end of the year, she made me bind up my story, put a cover on it, put a cover art, and it was cool that someone took an interest in me writing. I just kept on writing.”

He’s also thankful for an English elective he took during his sophomore year.

“During my sophomore year of high school, I took a class called Shakespeare. And the teacher said I was good at it. And in school, there wasn’t a lot of things that I thought I was really good at. And being told I was good at something made me really interested in it. And a lot of the tests and quizzes were creative, and I saw that as a venue for me to really explain how my mind worked in a class like that.”

Because of his teachers and family, he made the decision to pursue a career in teaching.

“My whole family — we’re all teachers. My sister teaches here. My other sister works at an elementary school as a speech pathologist. My dad taught at a high school for thirty-four years, and my mom taught at an elementary school for about eight years. So I definitely was influenced by them to go into teaching.”

He was excited to teach the subject that he had so much love for. He finally felt comfortable expressing his passion for English.

“I think I shied away from being an English nerd ‘cause I wanted to be good at sports. So I kind of hid that part of me away. And even though it was bad to hide it away, I’m glad that it was finally able to come out because when it did, I was like ‘This is full-force who I am.’”

He started out teaching elementary school, but he worried that he wouldn’t be able to do the subject justice. He wondered “How could I ever express how much I love these words?” He decided to move on to teaching high school English — something he’s still doing successfully over a decade later. He immediately loved the connections and relationships he was able to develop with his students, who have since nicknamed him “Pan.”

“My favorite thing is hearing someone talk about something they’re passionate about. When you’re teaching, so many kids are passionate about different things. And it’s so exciting to hear that. My biggest fear is apathy with people. Care about something and you’ll be interesting forever.”

During one of his first years teaching, he taught a boy named Brandon.

“I taught Brandon in sophomore English and I got along with him really well. He was an over-sharer. You know — one of those kids who over-shares but he over-shares because he wants to always be a better person. And he struggled between being the person he wanted to be and being the person he was. I remember I was working a basketball game and afterward we were both waiting for him to get a ride. And he’s like ‘Hey Pan, I think I’m quitting cigarettes.’”

It was clear that Brandon had good intentions; it just took some more work for him to stay on the right path.

“He was a good kid. He meant well. But you could tell that staying on that straight, narrow path was effort. And sometimes he didn’t want to make the effort.”

One Friday, he got frustrated with Brandon in class — nothing out of the ordinary. By the end of the period, all was well and they said their goodbyes.

“On that Friday, he was in class and two cop cars pulled in — probably just resource officers. I’m teaching, and he gets up in the middle of class, walks from one side of the room to the window, and goes ‘Oh my God, they’re probably here for me.’ I was like ‘Brandon,’ and I was frustrated, ‘not everything that happens in this building is about you.’ I just wanted him not to stand up and walk, while I was talking, to the window. And I said goodbye after the period, and then found out that he passed over the weekend.”

It was the first and only time he’s ever had to deal with the death of a student. And not only was he a fairly new teacher, but he had a close relationship with Brandon. He’d never been taught how to deal with this type of tragedy.

“On the Monday after, a couple of things happened. Seeing an empty desk was hard. So I took the class and went to the library. We did our work up there for about a week. ‘Cause I could tell everyone was kind of distraught. And then a teacher came up to me and she said ‘I heard you yelled at Brandon on Friday. Are you okay?’”

He was taken aback by her question; he didn’t view his comments to Brandon as anything beyond his duty as a teacher. He wanted to ask her “Do you yell at kids because you don’t like them?”

“If I did yell at Brandon, I would yell at Brandon now. I would do the same thing. Because I cared about him enough to say ‘Hey listen, you’re doing something wrong. Be better.’ So I don’t think of that as something that would make me upset.”

He can still picture Brandon when he closes his eyes, even though he passed away years ago. He doesn’t regret what he said, but he does wish he had let Brandon know how much he cared about him.

“I still think about him a lot. I always think about what I would say if I could go back to that Friday. And it would be ‘I care about you. I want to see you on Monday.’ And Monday as in the future, not just Monday.”

He believes that you’ll have little to regret about your relationships if you are authentic in the way you treat others.

“Choose to be genuine in your actions and you never have to worry about the guilt. If I yelled at him, I yelled at him. I didn’t want to be a jerk. I was trying to be helpful. So, if your actions are genuine, you’ll be fine.”

Although it was a difficult experience, he learned some valuable lessons.

“I’ve always known going into it that I would invest myself emotionally into the students. They don’t teach you how to deal with the death of a student. But maybe it is nice that I grew from that because it gives everything more meaning.”

I’d never thought too much of it, but I have noticed that every single Friday as we leave the room Mr. Panarella says “Have a good weekend; I care about all of you!”

“On Fridays, I say ‘I care about you. I want to see you on Monday.’ Because, one, for Brandon. I want to make sure that I say it. I think it’s important that everyone hears it. You don’t know what anyone’s going through and sometimes hopefully just hearing that one person cares about you is enough. And it feels good to say it. And I mean it.”

It means a little bit more to me now that I know where it comes from. It’s not just something he says out of habit. He means it each and every time.

“That’s where that all comes from. It kind of stinks that it had to come from a tragedy. He’ll always be a part of me as a teacher.”

Something that helped him cope with Brandon’s death is the realization that nobody is truly unique. At first, it seems like a discouraging thing to hear. But once you understand that people have struggled through and made it out of the same ruts that you’re in, you’ll see that there is a way out.

“How great is it that you’re not unique.”

He’s always tried to teach this lesson in his classes. He knows that each student goes through their own struggles and thinks that this is important for them to hear.

“Think about your happiest moment — wouldn’t you want other people to feel the same way? Wish for everyone to have the same happiness that you have, and when you are sad, know that it’s not going to be forever. There’s more to everyone than you know. So be compassionate. Be understanding. And like I said, you’re not unique in that you can come back from the worst things that happen. The best things that happen — wish for everyone else to have.”

He often takes a minute to think about all the other people around him whether he’s driving on the highway, walking down the street, or sitting in a classroom. Everybody has a different end goal; everybody is dealing with something invisible.

“Letting go of that autonomy — that what you’re thinking is the most important thing — is kind of nice.”

Too often, we form preconceived ideas about others without a second thought. Mr. Panarella believes that a little compassion would go a long way.

“I hate how we judge each other instantly. We see differences before we see how we’re similar. The truth is we’re so, so similar. And we’re all just trying to get by, trying to be happy, and we forget that. We kind of isolate each other through our differences before compassionately saying ‘I am that person too.’”

He says that the most important thing is to genuinely love life.

“If you can love every day, every minute, even if you’re faking it ’til you make it, why else would you be here? Choose love. That’s the key to all of this.”

Everybody should be passionate about something, but not everything should be serious all of the time.

“Be passionate about your own life. And be compassionate. Be able to laugh at yourself, forgive yourself, and laugh with other people and forgive them.”

It’s important for him to make the most out of life and this shows every day in the classroom.

“I want people to say ‘I had fun when I was around him. He made things better.’”

Every day, Mr. Panarella comes to class with a smile (and even some dance moves every now and then). He’s proud of “finding a way to be, in life, legitimately happy all the time. Or at least trying to be.”

“I’ve always tried to be present in what I’m doing in my life and with other people.”

Everyone has their own opinions of what a teacher should be. Some would say it’s not a teacher’s responsibility to care about each person he teaches. But when you see the way Mr. Panarella’s students truly love to be around him, you see that he’s doing something right. In Mr. Panarella’s classroom, there’s never a moment wasted.

Mr. Donoghue

It’s one thing to be taught something, and another to listen to somebody talk about their actual experiences. For me, this is one of the many things that makes Mr. Donoghue a great teacher.

Because of his passion for seeing the world, he’s able to share personal stories with his history and world geography classes. He’s able to give his students insight and personal knowledge that would never be found in a textbook. He’s always planning his next big adventure. And while he tries to live in the moment, he lives for creating good memories and always having something to look forward to.

“It just opens up your eyes to what else is out there. ‘Cause you can be very close-minded and you don’t realize that there are seven and a half billion people out there who have completely different lives. So you get to see, just for a little bit, what it’s like to live where they live, and how they live. I think that’s really, really awesome. So I think everybody should experience that at some point.”

Because he travels so often, he’s able to see things from many different viewpoints.

“I think there are too many people who have extreme ideas one way or the other. I think whoever has an extreme idea — let’s just say in politics — people who are far right conservatives, people who are far left liberals, those people don’t understand someone else’s perspective. So they’re wrong, I think.”

This is an important belief for teachers to have. Every single class has so many different students from so many different backgrounds. To be accepting, kind, and understanding of students is key and it’s something that his students really appreciate.

“People are kind of blinded sometimes by their own beliefs and they hear the other side but they don’t actually accept that that’s a valid point of view. And again, not even just in politics. It could be for anything. I think people should just be accepting of other people’s views or beliefs. You should be able to see someone else’s point of view, and if you don’t agree with it, at least understand it.”

Mr. Donoghue makes sure that his classroom is a place where his students know they can comfortably share their thoughts and ideas.

“You should be able to see someone else’s point of view, and if you don’t agree with it, at least understand it. I think that’s something that I would really like to see more ‘cause I feel like too many people are just on opposite sides of things.”

He grew up in a small town with a happy family, a sister he’s very close with, and a close-knit group of friends he’s still in touch with today. In fact, he and his friends are going to Scotland next week.

Naturally, his dad was one of his biggest role models growing up.

“He was a teacher, a football coach, played sports growing up, eventually became an athletic director and a principal. I’m going back to school for my administrative certificate so I think he was probably number one. When you’re a young male, I feel like you just always really look up to your dad.”

He’s always been proud of his younger sister too.

“I’m always proud of my sister one way or another… She’s an architect. She does really, really cool stuff. And I obviously miss her now that she’s not around anymore and I kind of have to see what she’s doing through social media. And I know she’s super smart — probably even smarter than me — so I definitely take some inspiration from her. She’s really, really tough; she’s her own individual. And I definitely miss her.”

Like many high schoolers, he had a hard time imagining where he would end up after graduation. He just knew he was excited to move on to the next chapter and focus more on his schoolwork after a busy four years in high school. After a year of going to college at Rutgers, his first year not playing school sports, he decided to transfer to do what he loved — play football — while he was still able to.

He never imagined that he would end up teaching at Seneca, the place where he went to high school. He had done interviews at other schools when a position at Seneca opened up. He was unsure about returning since he was already known there — he had been a student there and his mom had worked there since the school opened.

“I already knew she had established herself as one of the ‘it’ people at Seneca.”

However, he knew that his mom played a huge role at the school which could work in his favor.

“I’ve grown up at Seneca, my mom works at Seneca. [I asked myself] do I really want to be at Seneca? And then after thinking about it a little bit, I was like ‘Alright, this is an easy decision. Let’s just do it. I can always leave if I want to.’ And now I never want to leave.”

Now, he can’t imagine his life any other way.

“I can be my own person, but kind of follow her lead. She set the example of what Seneca and ‘Seneca family’ really should be.”

Having his mom by his side was definitely an advantage, but it was also important to him to establish himself as his own person.

“I think it takes getting to know someone before anyone can actually see who you really are. Even when I started back at Seneca, people saw me as my mom’s son. They probably saw me as what I was in high school: a guy who liked to play sports. And maybe they didn’t know anything else about me. Maybe they didn’t know how much I really love school, how much I really love kids.”

He loves the path his life is going down.

“Every year, I think stuff just gets better. In high school, you think it’s the coolest thing, you’re with your friends. And then you go to college and you’re like ‘Wow college is so much cooler than what we just had in high school.’ And then you graduate college and you had a great time and then you go get a job. And then you have money and you can kind of do whatever you want, and you’re on your own. So I feel like things just keep getting better.”

Though many changes have happened in his life, his family’s support has been constant.

“It’s really cool when you have your family as your core group. Not everybody has that, so I always try not to take that for granted.”

This year is his mom’s last year before retirement. Of course, this change will be very new to him but he’s excited to help Seneca carry on her energy and spirit.

“Everybody’s gonna have to pick up the slack. So, if I’m one of those people, great. Let’s just keep moving this thing forward.”

Last year, his family hit a bump in the road. They had to face a possible reality that they never thought they would have to face.

“It was after she had a doctor’s appointment. So I just come up the steps and she was in my kitchen, kind of being weird, tears in her eyes. I’m like ‘what is going on?’ You just get that panicked feeling. And that’s when she told me she had breast cancer. You don’t expect it. My mom’s fairly young — fifty-six, turning fifty-seven. You’re expecting your mom to live on forever and then something like that happens. I think that’s the scariest moment, especially recently, that I can remember.”

Obviously, nobody deserves to hear this news. Especially not somebody like Mrs. Donoghue.

“My mom is definitely the most positive person that I know. And we’re gonna really miss her at Seneca, but I think that’s something that this school is gonna carry over too — just kind of embracing everyone. It doesn’t matter who you are — you could be the custodian, you could be the kid who sits in the corner, you could be the coolest kid in school — it doesn’t matter. She treats them all the same and makes them feel good.”

Moving forward, he will approach life a little differently because of this experience.

“Time runs out at some point but you just don’t expect it to be soon. I think it just makes you not take anything for granted. You then see your family — the life that you’ve had for so long — being challenged. That’s really scary. And then you realize, ‘I’m thirty years old, what’s to say that something like that couldn’t happen to me or someone else that I’m close with who’s even younger than that?’ I think it gives you a lot of perspective. It’s scary to think about but it’s just another challenge that you sort of have to battle through.”

Seeing something like this happen to such a prominent figure in his life was extremely difficult.

“She handled it well on the outside. To everyone else. So if you asked her about it, she’d be totally fine. But I know internally she was not fine. And I think it’s the little things, too. Stupid things, like ‘Am I gonna lose my hair?’ Does that really matter? No. But on the outside if somebody doesn’t really know you then they just pencil you in as ‘Oh, that person has cancer.” And you don’t want to be defined by any one thing. You want people to just know you for who you are.”

It’s always been important to him not to judge people, but this made it clear to him more than ever before.

“Most people — especially when you get to talk to them and take down their walls a little bit — you can have a legit personal connection instead of just what you see on the outside.”

I see this belief come through in class every day. It’s clear from Mr. Donoghue’s passion and enthusiasm that he genuinely loves teaching and working with his students. He shows interest in every single student and treats them with respect and kindness.

“I always liked being around kids, whether it was my little cousins or when I was in high school, I just felt like a school environment is where you really have a lot of impact on people. And it’s the little things that could send somebody on a path that leads them to really figuring stuff out. I think you see that in school a lot.”

Not only does he teach his students, but he listens to and learns from them every day.

“Every day I feel like you can learn something from kids. When kids open up to you, now you understand where they’re coming from: their background, their family life.”

From his current coworkers to his fifth-grade science teacher who chose him for a science award, many people have touched Mr. Donoghue’s career. His high-school history teacher had the biggest influence on the teacher he is today.

“She was just the best teacher that I ever had. She was really dedicated to the subject material, but she also was really great at connecting to kids.”

The little things like this made a big difference for him both as a person and as a teacher.

“I think teaching is an underrated profession. I think there are some people out there that don’t give teachers the respect that they deserve. I know how hard all these other people work at Seneca, so even if it’s not credit for me, credit for educators in general for the impact that they have on young people. I think that’s huge. I would really like to see teachers get recognized for all the hard work they put in. ‘Cause again, you’re not doing this for the money. You’re doing this because you want to have an impact on young people.”

The great thing about teachers is their passion for what they do. They teach because they want to, not because they have to.

“I think it’s a lot more fun and worthwhile to have a job that is impactful on other people.”

As long as he plays a small role in his students becoming passionate, kind people, he’s happy.

“That’s what [teachers] like to see — is that we have some kind of impact on making cool people for the world.”

The big picture is more important to Mr. Donoghue than the small inconveniences in life.

“Don’t stress out so much about all of the little things, because in the end, it’s the big things that really are going to matter. So just make the right decisions — the right decisions for you — but don’t stress out about the small things. It’s easy to look back and say ‘I regret this, I regret that,’ but I think you just have to keep rolling with the punches. There’s always a new opportunity for you to make something of yourself.”

He’s not worried about getting attention and being well-known; he just wants to be remembered by the people he loves.

“The people that are gonna know your legacy are the people that you’re closest to. So I think that’s the only thing that really matters — if they know that you were doing the right thing. But overall legacy-wise, if you think about it, you’re one in seven and a half billion people. So it’s so hard to have a legacy that’s going to be remembered except for those people who are close to you. So as long as they know I was a good person and did the right thing, that’s the only legacy that I want to have.”

Mr. Donoghue is the person he is because of his strong family values and the role models he’s had throughout his life. I know that I can walk into his class every day and learn from a teacher who is caring, energetic, and passionate about what he’s teaching. And as a high school student, these things can make all the difference.

Autumn (About me)

The following article was written by one of the most influential teachers I’ve ever had — Dr. Sean Cassel. Thank you so much for taking the time to interview me and write this amazing article. I wouldn’t be here without you!

Autumn Wells isn’t your typical teenager. Her long-term goal has a faint familiarity that many teenagers’ do, “to be happy and to be comfortable,” but the fabric that makes her unique lies in the avenue she plans to take to ultimately be happy.

“I’m going to Drexel so I’m going to be in college in the city. I’m going to try to do the same thing I’m doing with my blog, but I’ll be doing it in the city so I’ll have more people around to talk to and interview.”

One small step here. An even bigger step there. And before you know it, the scope and scale of Autumn’s plan begin to grow and the picture becomes clearer. She wants to be successful and defines it by being able to “change people’s lives using [her] platform.”

“I want to keep doing what I’m doing. I want to tell people’s stories. Meet more people. Once I’m older, I’ll have more ways to get around and travel.”

It all started with a typical teenage job at McDonald’s and an observation about the people that she worked and interacted with, but it quickly grew into a creative outlet for her writing and human curiosity.

“It started with my job at McDonald’s — one of the easiest, lowest paying jobs you can get. There are so many different kinds of people. It started with just wanting to interview them, but then it just expanded from there.”

Autumn was able to see the uniqueness of everybody, and not in a cliche, post-card or motivational poster kind of way. She was able to see that each person she encountered had a story to tell, but not everyone had the venue. So she created one. From there, Autumn’s blog — aptly titled (Extra)Ordinary People — became a place where she told people’s stories with the type of mature precision that even many seasoned journalists might not be able to accomplish.

So what now?

“I’m working with artists at Seneca and half the profit of the items we sell go to people in need. I’d like to keep doing that on a larger scale. I want to support local artists and also donate money to people who need it.”

Autumn’s love of writing isn’t completely atypical for a teenager, but her passion and long-term goals don’t end with writing a blog. She has greater aspirations to make a greater impact on the world.

“I kind of always liked writing because it’s easier for me to get across what I’m trying to say in writing, but I want to move towards film too where I have a different platform to share my message.”

In her own way, and in her own voice, Autumn’s inspiration comes from everywhere — from Ellen Degeneres to her brother to those she encounters on a daily basis.

“I really admire Ellen Degeneres because she uses her platform to help people. She gets people’s stories out there and helps them out by representing people who arent that famous. I also admire my brother because he manages his diabetes and never complains, is super polite, maybe the nicest kid you’ll ever meet.”

From her own lens, Autumn values the importance of listening to people. When she’s choosing who to interview, Autumn knows when there’s more than meets the eye.

“Sometimes I get a feeling that there’s more going on than they’re letting on, and other times I know there’s more to people. I get kind of curious.”

Her motivation is simple.

“It really helps me understand why people are the way they are.”

So in conducting this interview with Autumn, I wanted to show those reading this who she really is. When interviewing someone with more experience in the process, it can be a bit intimidating, but Autumn was open and honest — key traits she thinks make great writers. Great journalists are also able to read people and adapt, something Autumn also does extremely well.

“I adapt to different people — sense the energy in the room, who people are. That’s why some teachers get a different impression of me than others. One common thing they would all say is that I’m not scared to be myself, not worried too much about what other people think, generally compassionate.”

Because Autumn is not afraid to be herself, it allows others to be comfortable enough to be themselves. This is why she is able to get people to open up during interviews, and this is why her teachers, myself included, appreciate her as a student. She is willing to stick up for what she believes is right, own her mistakes when they occur, and appreciate those around her for what makes them who they are.

The interview ended with some sound advice:

“Listen to people. There’s so much going on and we tend to forget that everyone has a backstory. It’s easy to get annoyed and not be empathetic, but I want people to think about others.”

Not bad for a typical teenager. Heck, not bad for a wise adult. If we could all follow this advice then maybe, just maybe, the next encounter you have with an ordinary person just might be extraordinary.

Betsy

I first learned about Betsy through an Instagram post.

I decided to look her up and follow her. Upon looking at her account, I noticed all of the love and support she received from her followers and the positive messages she shared.

Not expecting much to come of it, I sent her a message asking about an interview. To my surprise, she answered very quickly and agreed to speak with me over Skype since she lives across the country. I’m so glad she gave me a chance to meet the person I had only known through social media.

Betsy grew up with her mother, a single parent, and grandmother in a small town in Iowa. They moved frequently and at one point she even moved in with her aunt and uncle in Pennsylvania.

As she got older, she worked in many jobs that allowed her to help others such as Soroptomist International, an organization that works to improve the lives of women and girls, and a company that helps families with fertility issues through surrogates and egg donors. She also worked in a nonprofit organization in Indiana called Aidserve where she worked with clients in the HIV and AIDS community.

“The stigma was ridiculous.”

She was extremely saddened by the poor treatment of those with the disease.

“They’d get home and they’d start putting the pills in their little counter and they were missing medications and the pharmacy is like, ‘Well they need to count them when they’re here in the pharmacy.’ And I’m like, ‘When they have hundreds of pills, not only are people gonna be staring at them, they don’t really have time to do that.’ And the pills are really expensive so when they’re short ten pills or something that’s a lot of money that the pharmacy’s getting paid for.”

Patients were treated carelessly in places that are supposed to be reliable. This was dangerous for the clients because they can become immune to the medication if it’s not taken properly.

Currently, her husband is an animator working in virtual reality. She and her husband go to many networking events and are very active in the art community. They even picketed down the street from the Oscars due to the little recognition received by artists who worked on Life of Pi.

Betsy has done many extraordinary things in her life to impact the lives of others, but it’s one of the more ordinary things she’s done that has gotten her the most recognition. She was shocked that she got so much attention from one small good deed.

“I just think I’m lucky that I got recognized but there’s so many people out there that do good deeds and don’t get recognized.”

She says that she found the wallet at the post office when she was running a work errand. She Googled the girl whose ID was in the wallet (she wasn’t hard to find because she’s a model) and reached out to her so they could meet in a safe location. A few months later, she was watching TV when her phone started getting hundreds of notifications. She received a message from Salem Mitchell, the model, saying that she shared the story and it was getting a lot of attention. Betsy quickly gained over twenty thousand Instagram followers.

“I’m still learning too, this is a new experience for me. I’m familiar with computers and everything like that; Instagram is a little bit different. I went from seventy-five followers to now I have over twenty-two thousand followers.” (She now has over twenty-four thousand)

Though she’s just posting on social media, she knows that behind every one of her followers is a real person. It’s important to her to use her platform to spread kind, uplifting messages.

“I’ve had quite a few people reach out to me telling me that they’re having a tough time and they started seeing my posts and it was making them feel better, so that kind of lifts me. I told someone at work ‘I can’t be in a bad mood. I can’t.’ I feel like I’m floating around on a cloud and I think I’m being Punk’d, honestly.”

She does her best to connect on a personal level with all of her followers.

“I try to respond to every comment, every message that I get.”

She now has followers from around the world. If they message her in another language, she uses Google Translate to reply.

Dozens of people have reached out to asking for her help in sharing their stories. She posts as many things as she can to Instagram and shares many things on Facebook.

“People don’t have to follow me. I have a public page, they can look at my page and see if it makes them feel good to follow me. It’d be nice to have more followers, because if I had more followers then companies can come to me and then I might be able to do more as far as helping other people.”

I asked about her ability to maintain such a positive outlook.

“I try to be positive all the time… but, I mean, I catch myself sometimes like when someone cuts me off in traffic… I just try to think of what the other person’s going through before I react. And I try to breathe before I react.”

She believes that attitude has a strong correlation to outcome.

“Try to be positive. Things can get really bad but they can be really good. I think your attitude has a lot to do with how things happen. I think if you are always looking in the rearview mirror and you’re not looking forward, you’re not going to get anywhere.”

One thing she wishes she could change about the world is the prejudice and hatred some people have for others

“I would really like to change the way people bully other people. I got bullied when I was young, I got bullied sometimes in high school, I saw people get bullied. I see it going on in the world now. And it infuriates me… I’ll never condone that and I always will stick up for people if I see it happening.”

She wishes people could let go of their fear of those who are different.

“We were at a restaurant one night and there was a lady with a small child and there was a homeless man in there. And he was smiling and making googly eyes and the little kid was just having such a good time and the mom just yanked him away… What was wrong with that? That child is seeing that person as a person… Obviously, you have to be protective of yourself but you also have to be willing to be open as well.”

She believes this experience has changed her as a person.

“I think this experience changed me. I think I was already a positive person but I think it really kind of opened something up.”

She’s grateful for the experiences she’s had and proud of the person she’s become.

“I don’t think I would change anything, honestly, because I think all the things that I’ve experienced have made me the person that I am today.”

I asked if she had any final advice for her readers:

“Be kind to others. And try to take care of the planet.”

Remember her advice next time somebody cuts you off in traffic or acts with hatred. If we could all try to be a little bit more like Betsy, the world would be a much more compassionate place.

Ms. O’Neil

Ms. O’Neil remembers her childhood fondly. She had a happy home life and was always very involved in school and athletics. She never imagined that she’d end up where she did.

“I never had experienced anything hard in my life.”

After high school, she was accepted to Princeton University – an amazing experience “academically, socially, athletically, everything. Just an amazing place to be.”

She became very interested in investments and stocks in college. When Lehman brothers began hiring captains of Ivy League sports teams, she was able to land a job in New York City. After she graduated, she moved to the city to pursue this new career.

“Moving to New York City was definitely a challenge and eye-opening but definitely one that I wanted to do.”

Though she was proud of herself for this new job, she had been thinking about becoming a teacher. In college, she worked at a Princeton track camp teaching aqua jogging to a boy who couldn’t swim. One of the teachers who worked at the camp told her that she would be a great teacher, something that she had never considered.

However, she decided to wait since she already had the job in the city lined up. She would wait to become a teacher until she felt that the time was right. It took a near-death experience to show her how valuable time really was.

The World Trade Center was bombed in 1993. Because she worked in the city, the possibility of danger was always in the back of her mind.

“I think working in that area, you walk past the memorial every day. You were very much aware that something could happen.”

September 11th, 2001 was just another day at work for Ms. O’Neil. She was sitting at her desk when the first tower was hit.

“Everyone’s initial reaction was that the World Trade Center had been bombed… Security was really really tight at the World Trade Center though too so I remember thinking ‘How could a bomb even get through?'”

She recalls the confusion she and her coworkers felt; nobody could imagine what could’ve made a noise like that.

When the first tower got hit, we didn’t know what it was. We didn’t know that it was a plane. I assumed it was a bomb. So, I hear this noise. And all these thoughts go through your head; your brain tries to make sense of things. So I hear this noise and my brain’s thinking, ‘Alright, what is that? Is it thunder? Is it an earthquake? Is it something falling?’ And then before I could even lift my head up to see what it was, I heard the girl that sat next to me start screaming ‘Oh my god! Oh my god!’ And I look up – and the window’s maybe five, six feet away – and outside the window was just chunks of concrete flying past like fireballs.”

Before anybody could process what had happened, they were being evacuated down a stairwell.

“As I’m coming down the stairs after the first tower was hit, not knowing what had happened, it occurred to me in that moment: this wasn’t what I wanted to die doing. I didn’t feel like I was doing a job that fulfilled me and that was worth sacrificing my life for. Teaching I think is different. And maybe it isn’t for everyone, but for me, if I died because of my teaching career I would still feel like it was worth it.”

As they hurried down the stairwell with no view of the outside world, she reflected on her life and past decisions, wondering if she would even make it to the bottom of the stairs.

“I promised myself but I also made a promise to God that if I got out alive I was going to leave and pursue a teaching career.”

This life-changing experience opened her eyes to how quickly you can lose everything. She vowed that if she made it out alive, she wouldn’t wait any longer. She would finally follow her dream of teaching.

“Sometimes teaching the lessons can get mundane, it can get boring. I love teaching but it’s more about connecting with the students, seeing them learn things, and even more than just the learning – just talking to the students and making those connections.”

She hopes that those who hear her story will be inspired to take a risk – to take a chance on something they love.

“The longer you wait, the more you’re going to get stuck in that rut and you’re going to feel like it doesn’t make sense to leave what you’re doing.”

She imagines how drastically different her life would be if she hadn’t been in New York that day.

“I hope I would’ve still, at some point, made the decision to leave. I think I definitely would’ve stayed longer though. And as I started making more money and being promoted and things it may have been hard to leave. I can’t imagine I would be the same person today though. I think about all of the interactions I’ve had with the thousands of kids over the past fifteen, sixteen years – the kids that I’ve coached, the kids that I’ve taught – those interactions have shaped me so much as a person that I wouldn’t be anywhere close to being the same person.”

She tries to imagine the person she would be if she had stayed.

“Maybe I would be this person that’s just focused on success and getting ahead and things like that.”

She’s so glad she took a chance on teaching. But at the same time, she’s thankful for her time in New York City.

“I’m so glad that I did that first because I don’t know that I would appreciate teaching as much as I do without having that comparison. I mean yes, there are days when you don’t want to get out of bed but for the most part I love what I do and I can’t imagine not having a job where I love what I do. It’s also impossible, I think, to be a teacher without being emotionally invested in it.”

Ms. O’Neil showed me how important it is to not take life for granted. Fortunately, she got the chance to change her mind: one that many people don’t get. Time is too precious to waste. Don’t wait for a sign. Chase your dreams relentlessly and don’t be afraid to take risks.

“Be willing to take a chance on something.”

Dust from WTC in apartment
View from Staten Island Ferry (before 9/11)
View from Staten Island Ferry (after 9/11)
View of World Financial Center from apartment
View of WTC wreckage from office building

Bruce

Bruce struggled with addiction for a large part of his life. Now, he is doing his part to stop others from falling victim to this disease.

Feel free to contact him with any questions regarding addiction and recovery.

Email: bdstewartjr@gmail.com

Phone: 609-417-9111

*This video was filmed and edited by Kacey Knapp.

Advice From my Grandparents

I asked my grandparents what advice they would give to someone younger than them. They delivered. I think their answers speak for themselves.

“Luck = preparation paired with opportunity. If you are not prepared, the opportunity will be irrelevant.”

“Respect and honor your family. Remember that sometimes your true family doesn’t grow up under the same roof.”

“I have wept in the night
At my shortness of sight
That to others’ needs made me blind;
But I never have yet
Had a twinge of regret
For being a little too kind.”

C.R. Gibson

“Losing is not the same as failing.”

Failing means not trying, and not trying means guaranteed failure.

“Possessions are nice but as you grow older you begin to realize that in the end your family and friends should be your most prized possessions.”

“Be honest above reproach.”

“An expensive gift will be forgotten over time. A gift from the heart will never lose its shine.”

“Remain true to yourself, even when it is hard or lonely.”

“Character is important. If tasked with a chore, do it like you were being watched even if you are alone.”

“Open your mind to art, music, literature, and people different than you and your experience.”

“Keep your word. If you say you will do something then, by all means, do it.”

“Bear ye one another’s burdens, and so shall you fulfill the law of Christ.”


Galatians 6:2

“The most important words that someone could ever say to anyone else are the words ‘I love you.’ They should be the last words out of your mouth as you tuck your child into bed at night, as you say goodbye to a family member or friend. Those three words are so powerful!”

“It is not always the smartest person in the room who is successful, but the one who is most persistent.”

Thank you Poppop, Grandma Nae, Grammy, Papa, Grandmom, Grandpop, Bill, and Mary for sharing your advice. I don’t know where I’d be without such awesome grandparents!

Mr. Jensen

Processed with VSCO with ka1 preset

Wake up. Go to school. Sit through six classes. Go home. Every part of every school day is, for the most part, predictable. Except one person.

It’s hard to put Mr. Jensen into words, as I truly don’t think I’ve met anybody with a comparable personality. And not only does he let his own personality come through, but he ensures that his class is somewhere students can do the same.

“A lot of kids don’t wanna be here necessarily, but I try not to take that personally. You know, you’re here for fifty-seven minutes. You have to be here. Let’s enjoy the time. But if it feels safe, like you can be yourself … that’s the kind of classroom I want.”

Mr. Jensen is someone who goes out of his way to make kids laugh (and not in an awkward teacher way). He’s actually funny in a way that makes his students look forward to class.

“I am more casual in class … I hope that people enjoy being in here because I add humor or insights, but I also hope that kids are getting something out of it.”

That’s the reason his class is so enjoyable. It’s not overly relaxed, but he acknowledges that there’s life outside of the classroom.

“Life happens while we’re teaching and I never want this to be a place where those things are not talked about.”

Because of the subjects he teaches (history and sociology), we discuss many controversial issues. Especially as juniors and seniors, we talk about more mature topics. And with a good teacher, this can be very valuable.

“The classroom isn’t my forum … I like talking politics with my friends, with my colleagues, and with my classes, but it’s not a place for me to interject my own personal thoughts. What I do try to do is get students to examine their own thinking, examine their own sources.”

It’s fun to have engaging classes like this. I know I can trust what Mr. Jensen says and that he respects our opinions as people. He doesn’t sugar-coat or shy away from anything.

“With everything that’s going on, it’s very easy to let your personal feelings come through about what’s going on in the country and in the world. But I feel confident in the fact that if I’m sticking to a very common idea of what is right – go with justice, go with human rights, go with kindness – I’m not steering anybody in the wrong direction.”

He says the most rewarding part of teaching is not just seeing kids get good grades. It’s helping his students grow and look at the world in new ways.

“You don’t always get to see the results of your work in teaching. I can assign something and a kid will give it to me and I’ll grade it, but in terms of helping somebody mature, helping somebody look at the world in a different way – a more adult way, you don’t always get to see that. So when it does come through, that’s rewarding.”

He appreciates the fact that he can give students a new perspective on life.

“For me, I feel like I can give them something here that maybe they’re not getting from the TV or social media or at home or from a church or something. I can give them a political, social context for what’s happening.”

He hopes to make a difference in students’ lives by making each day a little more interesting.

“I hope I’m somebody who brings a challenge to kids and lets them see a broader world. And I hope I’m somebody who comes in and is prepared and energetic and ready to give kids something new each day.”

It’s so important to have teachers who genuinely care about the role they play in students’ lives. I’ve had Mr. Jensen for four years – two as a coach and two as a teacher – and he’s definitely one of the most passionate and genuine educators I’ve met.

“Care about what you’re doing and what it means to the students …  teachers need to care about kids as people.”

I’ve been lucky enough to have so many amazing, dedicated teachers during my years as a student. But I’ve never had a teacher as interesting and entertaining as Mr. Jensen is. It’s impossible not to be engaged during his class.

Some classes are bland and straightforward, and that’s okay. Some people feel that that’s all school should be. But I can say firsthand that teachers like Mr. Jensen are the ones that make kids look forward to school – or at least not dread it. Teachers like Mr. Jensen make rolling out of bed at six-thirty in the morning a little bit easier.

Alex

Processed with VSCO with fr4 preset

When people look at Alex, they see boldness. He’s impossible to forget, constantly cracking jokes and telling wild stories to anyone who will listen. There is always something to laugh about; no topic is too extreme. His outrageous sense of humor and unapologetic attitude lend themselves to his air of confidence.

When people look at Alex, they don’t see the pain – the pain of rejection, the pain of insecurity, or the pain of loss.

“When they would argue, it would be in front of us and they would throw stuff at each other and it was violent. It wasn’t just an argument in the room; it was a violent outbreak.”

Growing up, Alex was very close with his twin sister. They endured many things together: their parents’ divorce, conflict between their mother and her boyfriend, and abuse by said boyfriend. But no matter how difficult things got at home, he always had his grandfather to turn to.

“Every summer from eighth grade to my junior year I would spend with my grandmother and my grandfather. My grandfather was a diabetic so one of my favorite things was giving him his insulin shots. Just because I always wanted to be a doctor and it was something you could do and actually get real-life experience with it. And me and him would go fishing all the time. He would let me drive when I didn’t have my license.”

The two of them were more like best friends; his grandfather was always his biggest supporter in everything he did.

As Alex neared high school, he started to realize that he was different than the boys around him.

“I knew I was gay when I was twelve years old. The reason why I knew was because I was dating girls and it never seemed right to me. It was never interesting – it was always boring. So then one day I saw this guy and I was like ‘Oh wow, he’s really cute.’ And I was like ‘Wait, this isn’t normal for guys to be staring at other guys and not staring at girls.’”

He came out to his extended family around the Thanksgiving dinner table.

“To my parents, I came out two weeks before. And my stepmom literally looks me in the eyes and goes ‘I knew it.’ And then my dad goes ‘Yeah, I know too. I love you. You’re my kid.’”

Through this entire process, his grandfather was a constant ally.

“My grandfather would ask me if I was talking to anyone, if I was dating anyone. My grandfather drove me and my boyfriend on our first date … He was not very open when he was younger, and he said that was one of his biggest regrets – not being more accepting. Because he had a real small circle and he was well-liked by a lot of people, but they were people who were “normal”. When I came out, it kind of changed his eyes because he was like ‘I’ve raised this kid for ten years’, ’cause he lived with us. He took us to school every day, he would cook for us, he would take us fishing, he would take us shopping – he would do everything with us and he never knew. So he was like ‘If for ten years I raised you, I was there with you every day…” … I wouldn’t say it forced him to change, but he was ready to change. So it definitely opened his eyes to being accepting more to other people.”

While his family accepted him without hesitation, he was met with a different reaction from his peers.

“I wasn’t friends with anyone. I couldn’t be friends with anyone. Guys knew I was different before I was ready to accept it, so they were like ‘This kid’s gonna try and f*** me’ or whatever they had in their head … So when I came out, I became friends with a bunch of the girls.”

He compared life as an openly gay male to life as a closeted male.

“When you come out, you start to realize that you’re different and everybody – some people view you differently out in public. If you look like a straight male, they just don’t look at you, they don’t judge you. But then when you go out there and you’re yourself and you’re gay, people look at you differently. That’s definitely one of the obstacles that I had to overcome, was being confident enough to go out in public and be myself. One of the biggest obstacles I had to overcome was just being comfortable with my weight, my sexuality, and just going out there not caring about what other people think about me and just being myself.”

Alex has always seemed to radiate confidence. I was shocked when he revealed his insecurities.

“I definitely have a lot of self-image issues … I don’t have confidence issues – I can go out and be myself and be happy – but I definitely don’t like looking in the mirror.”

We want to believe so badly that we know the people around us. But sometimes we only know the character they play.

“I put on a front everywhere I go that I’m this crazy, loud, outrageous person.”

Along with his self-image issues, Alex struggles with depression – a disease that runs in his family. He believes that he’s so successful in his job because working gives him something to focus on.

“One of the things that always distracted me from my depression was work. Because when you go to work, you’re not dealing with your life issues. You’re just there doing what you’re doing. So that’s why I work all the time. Because when I’m here, I’m not focusing on my outside-of-work issues; I’m always here, in the moment, doing what I’m doing.”

Alex’s grandfather obviously played a crucial role in his life. Along with teaching him his work ethic, he always gave Alex a safe place to turn. Sadly, his grandfather passed away a few years ago.

“Losing my grandfather was definitely like losing my best friend. He would always give me advice on real-life issues, no matter what I was going through. If it was guy drama, he would still listen to me. If it was about a boy, he would still listen to me.”

His grandfather was the most defining person in his life.

“He’s the person that I look up to with my work ethic … Every day I come to work and it’s like ‘How would he look at this situation? How would he handle this?’ because he owned his own business for thirty years. So every time I’m working, I live my life to his expectations. So he gave me this good outlook on my attitude with work and money and he taught me about investing, but it’s definitely changed me because now I don’t have that person to go to all the time. I don’t have that best friend that no matter what was going on, you could tell and he wouldn’t go behind your back and spread it around. You have best friends that are your age but they go around and they tell everyone and all that, but my grandfather didn’t. Everything we talked about was between us … it’s definitely like I lost a true best friend, the person I could go to every single day.”

He credits his grandfather for giving him the tools to reach his goals. It’s extremely important to Alex that he makes his grandfather proud every day.

“There’s days like ‘I really miss him’ and then there’s days like ‘I’m really making him proud.’”

He’s also learned many things from his job. He became a manager of the McDonald’s at which we work before even graduating high school. People can be quick to discredit “living wage” workers. However, there are some very valuable lessons to learn in simple places.

“There are good people in the world that care, even though they don’t know you by your name … there’s definitely better things to worry about than the little things in the world. We just had Shae pass away and we’re all worried about little things … there’s always bigger things to worry about than sweating the little things.”

Through his job, Alex has formed relationships with customers and coworkers and learned that hard work is important at every level.

“It’s definitely my strive to learn and to work that allowed me to shoot up.”

I’ve worked with Alex since he was hired and I see his commitment firsthand every day. He doesn’t see the adversity he’s faced as a setback, but as something to learn from. So many people don’t see the hard work he’s put in to get to where he is now. Alex is someone I look up to every day as living proof that committment and passion bring amazing results.