Passarini wins Disney award

By Mark Benson / Tribune Correspondent
Tuesday, September 9, 2003

Before her death last year, Wayland's Katie Lynch wanted to make sure the man who trained her to walk 26.5 feet for a Boston Marathon was recognized for being an inspiration to her and others he taught.

The 28-inch tall Lynch, who struggled to walk at all, nominated Wayland educator John Passarini for the Disney Teacher Award, remembering the times he urged her to walk through hallways.

Yesterday, Passarini appeared before a national audience on "The Wayne Brady Show" as Disney's Teacher of the Year to tell the story of how Lynch inspired him, just as he had her.

"I am a better teacher, I am a better father, I am a better human being because I know Katie Lynch," Passarini wrote in his award-winning essay to the Disney selection committee.

Brady was visibly moved by Passarini, as was Passarini's wife, who wept joyfully in the studio audience.

"We're both kind of stunned," said his wife, Gloria Passarini. "His passion is to get kids to be able to learn and develop themselves and be creative people in their own right."

Passarini shared with Brady lessons he learned during his teaching career, especially from Lynch. Nearly 15 years ago, Passarini met Lynch for the first time, when she walked into his Wayland phys-ed class as a brand-new eighth-grader.

Passarini has never been the same since.

"I believe my students have benefited from my relationship with Katie Lynch," Passarini wrote in his award-winning essay to the Disney selection committee.

Lynch's life was a testament to the triumph of the human spirit. Born with a connective tissue disorder, she was in constant physical pain and bravely survived 13 separate life-threatening surgeries until her death last year.

According to Lynch, Pass gave her vital energy and knowledge necessary for her success.

"I, too, like the little engine that could, stopped," said Lynch in a motivational speech that she delivered in 2001. "It was a gradual process that began in the eighth grade. Academics became increasingly more challenging and my health worsened."

"Throughout it all my teachers made it possible for me to keep chugging," continued Lynch, whose mother, Joan, accepted Passarini's invitation to attend the show. "As I chugged and puffed along, I heard, 'We think you can, we think you can, we think you can! This mantra was contagious. I, too, thanks to my teachers could hear myself saying, 'I think I can, I think I can, I think I can!'"

Lynch was so inspired by her former teacher that she submitted his name for the Disney Teacher Award. According to Disney Award Coordinator Michelle Bergman, Passarini's deep connections with his students and their families was most impressive.

"John moved all of us by the amount of time he spends to help students and schools create a safe and welcoming environment for learning and growth," said Bergman, a former special education teacher. "John also strives to include children without physical limitations in his phys-ed classes, and that elevates the spirits of his phys-ed students and educates the other children about what unites us rather than divides us as human beings."

Lynch highlighted happy memories shared with Pass at Wayland High, up to and including her high school graduation in 1993. Indeed, Lynch's classmates will never forget how Lynch shocked them by walking across the stage under her own power to receive her Wayland High diploma.

That particular walk required three months of hard training by Lynch with Passarini's direction. Lynch also fondly recalled other walks with Pass during her high school years.

"My most memorable images of those years were the walks in the high school hallways -- I walked while he reminded me of the importance of lighting other people's candles," Lynch said.

"As I used to tell Katie, there are two types of people -- people who light other people's candles to make the world a better place, and those who snuff out other people's candles to make themselves appear brighter," Passarini said.

"Katie never forgot that -- when I completed my PhD at Boston University in 2001, she gave me a graduation card that read -- 'If you have knowledge, let others light their candles by it,'" Passarini said.

Passarini fueled the fire of Lynch's candle, so that Lynch could in turn light candles in the hearts and minds of those who heard her motivational speeches, or saw her walk by herself. And Passarini, by sharing Katie's story with everyone tuned into "The Wayne Brady Show," became a candlelighter once again.