John R. Passarini

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Limited Only by Our Thoughts

If you set goals, love what you do, stay focused, and pursue your

dreams with passion and perseverance, your teachers will appear.

Igrew up in a bilingual home with lots of love, lots of support,

and good food, but few books. My mother, Dorina,

was born in Italy and only got through the third grade. My

father, Adolpho, was born with cerebral palsy and contracted

polio at age 6. He did not walk until he was 14 years old

and because of his physical and learning challenges, he did

not graduate from high school until he was 20. He never


My parents taught me how to be a good person and how

to love life, but my language and reading skills lagged behind.

When I was forced to repeat second grade in 1955, I was

disappointed and confused. Nobody ever explained why this

happened and for several years I was sad and self-conscious.

In May 2001, I received my doctorate in education from

Boston University. In 2003, I was named Disney’s Outstanding

Teacher of the Year. What happened? My strong athletic and

social skills carried me through elementary school. I was

embarrassed by my poor academic skills, but I had good

self-esteem, lots of friends, and a positive attitude. Most important,

I had clear goals and a strong desire to succeed.

My academic struggles continued in junior high school

until I met Warren E. Priest. Warren was an English and social

studies teacher who recognized my potential and appreciated

my desire to improve my academic skills. When I met

Warren I was “ready” to learn. Warren had me read aloud. He

Source: Printed with permission from John R. Passarini, Teacher,


gave me extra spelling tests. He gave me extra writing assignments,

which he generously marked up with his dreaded red

pen. Eventually, the sea of red dwindled to a few scattered

blotches. Now, although spelling remains a challenge, I love

to write.

At Newton South High School, my reading skills were still

not perfect. I had to read assignments three and four times to

understand them. Warren taught me study skills that helped

me break down and manage large amounts of information. I

continued to have Warren test me for spelling long after it

was required. I cannot imagine anyone loving high school as

much as I did.

With a clear mental picture of what I wanted to achieve, I

was able to stay focused and reach those goals. Sometimes, I

surpassed them. In addition to being elected to the National

Honor Society, I was the captain of three school sports teams.

At 5 feet 9 inches tall and 175 pounds, I was not an imposing

sports figure. I simply played sports with the same passion,

perseverance, and resolve that I had for my studies. I have a

strong kinesthetic intelligence. I love physical contact. I love

competition and good sportsmanship. As a result of my efforts,

I became a Boston Globe first-team All-Scholastic Fullback;

I won the New England wrestling championship in the

165-pound weight class; and I was invited to a tryout with the

New York Yankees.

At the University of Connecticut I met Dr. Hollis Fait, who

was the first recipient of the Joseph P. Kennedy Foundation

Grant. He was a prolific writer with many scholarly papers

and several books on the subject of adapted physical education.

Most important, he was passionate about children with

disabilities, especially children with mental retardation. He

was a beautiful blend of academics and love. I vividly remember

traveling with Dr. Fait to the Mansfield Training School,

an institution for individuals with mental retardation. When

Dr. Fait entered the children’s ward, he was tackled by nearly

20 excited and happy children. Even the children who were

blind found their way to Dr. Fait. They laughed, they kissed

him, he tickled them, he laughed, and I was in awe. I remember

thinking, “What a wonderful man. I want to be just like


It was because of Warren that I became a teacher. My

father’s condition and his struggle with it made me an adapted

physical educator. Dr. Fait taught me how to truly love and

enjoy teaching children with disabilities. Dr. Fait reached into

my soul and touched the very essence of my spirit.

My first semester at Connecticut, I achieved a 2.85 grade

point score and was awarded a scholarship. One of the happiest

moments of my life was telling my parents they did not

have to pay for my college education. My mother cried. The

goals I set, my ability to love what I do, and my ability to remain

focused, along with my innate desire to be successful,

and my passion and perseverance literally paid off at the University

of Connecticut. I played football and wrestled for all

four years at UConn. I achieved Dean’s List status my junior

and senior years and finished with a 2.95 quality point average.

It was now time to begin my career.

In 1970, I was hired to teach physical education at the

elementary and junior high school level in Waltham, Massachusetts.

I was also hired to start a wrestling program at

Waltham High School. My life changed forever in September

1988 when I began teaching in Wayland, Massachusetts, and

met Katie Lynch. Katie was born with a connective tissue disorder.

She was 28 inches tall and her arms were 7 inches long.

Although Katie was capable of walking short distances with

the assistance of a custom built “mini” walker, she used a

motorized wheelchair for mobility. In 1990, Katie and I worked

six months to prepare for her version of the Walk for Hunger.

She collected pledges that sponsored her by the foot instead

of by the mile. She walked 200 feet and raised $1,700.00. When

Katie graduated from Wayland High School she surprised her

parents by walking across the stage to receive her diploma.

We worked three months to prepare for that event. In April

2000, Katie walked the first 26.2 feet of the Boston Marathon

to raise $28,000.00 for Children’s Hospital in Boston. Katie

trained six months and sustained several injuries preparing

for this event. I was one of Katie’s coaches for her marathon

walk, and it was Katie who nominated me for the Disney

American Teaching Award. Katie survived 13 life-threatening

surgeries and was in constant pain before she died in October

2002. Katie was the epitome of mental toughness. Katie

taught me that we are limited only by our thoughts and that

the human spirit has unlimited potential. I bring this spirit to

every part of my life, including my teaching. Katie has helped

me to be patient, confident, and hopeful.

If you set goals, love what you do, stay focused, and pursue

your dreams with passion and perseverance, your teachers

will appear.