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.