“I have come to believe that a great teacher is a great artist and that there are as few as there are any other great artists. It might even be the greatest of arts since the medium is the human mind and spirit.”John Steinbeck
Steinbeck said it well, and I’ve come to believe that the most endearing of the great-artist teachers he speaks of (especially among children and teens in a public school environment) are those who communicate more than just facts and knowledge to their students. The best teachers recognize and seize opportunities to express warmth and compassion for individual souls.
I’m not talking about gushy emotionalism here, but of a truly caring humanity that connects with individual students on a personal level in small but meaningful ways. This often happens without the student (or even the teacher) fully realizing the positive impact they’re making at the time, or the long-term impact their actions may have in the lives they are touching.
With the best of these artists, all of this happens naturally and it is, at root, an expression of love. All of which brings me to my high school English teacher, Carmine Pennella. Forty-three years ago he was “Mr. Pennella ” to me. These days he is “Carm.”
Although Carm lives only a few miles from me, I have seen him only a few times since high school and our conversations were brief. That changed, however, a few days ago as you can see in the photo at the top of this blog post. The picture shows my wife, Marlene, with Carm on one side of the table (Marlene and I were in the same class in high school). Marlene’s nephew, Jeff, and I are on the other side. We are at the Glenside Diner in Moravia, NY. We had just finished a meal, and had a very nice visit. I asked the waitress (who also happens to be my daughter-in-law) to take our picture.
Carm is now 82 years old. His wife of 52 years, Josepha, also a teacher, passed away after a long illness in 2013.
It was Jeff who orchestrated our little reunion. Carm was his teacher too. Jeff was visiting from Colorado for a week, staying at Carm’s place and helping with some carpentry projects..
I posted the Diner photo to my 1976 class reunion Facebook group (46 members). There was lots of acknowledgement and a few comments. My old classmate, Bob Sovocool, wrote: “Carmine Pennella. The one guy who really helped me in school.” It is a comment I can relate to.
There were, of course, a few other teachers (two, to be precise) who took some interest in me and, in so doing, helped me. But it was Mr. Penella who seemed to see some latent qualities in me, and who was truly helpful . Perhaps it was that essay I wrote on composting privies. I’m not really sure.
In 11th grade, Mr. Pennella nominated me for Boy’s State. Only one boy from our school could go. As I recall, it was the teachers who decided who that boy would be. I didn’t even know what Boys State was at the time, and I didn’t know Carm nominated me until after Charlie Wright had been chosen. Charlie was probably the better choice (he went on to West Point) but he was also the obvious choice. Just knowing that Carm had nominated me was, in itself, an honor as far as I was concerned.
Another positive event was Project Advance. It was a new idea at the time. A pilot project, I suppose. A group of select high school students could earn college credits in English while still in high school. I was not an honor-society student but Carm wanted me in Project Advance. My parents came up with the money. It was a great experience.
I remember a couple of things in particular about Project Advance. First, we took field trips to several plays (and even went out to dinner at a nice restaurant after one of them). Second, I wrote my first book while in Project Advance. I am writing now with a smile on my face at the thought of that book, and of Mr. Pennella’s words to me after I turned the project in. It was a children’s book, which I illustrated. I will “publish” it in my next blog post (stay tuned).
The last story about how Mr. Pennella helped back in high school is the most endearing to me. It has to do with my desire to go to The Sterling School (now Sterling College) in Vermont after high school. I needed a letter of recommendation from a teacher. I asked Mr. Pennella if he would write the letter. He was glad to do it. But as the last days of my senior year in high school were drawing to a close, I had heard nothing from Sterling. I was getting concerned.
It was at the end of school one day when I told this to Mr. Pennella. He expressed surprise that I had not heard anything from Sterling. He told me me to wait while he went to the guidance office. He called Vermont. I waited.
Carm returned a short while later, with his thumb up and a big smile on his face. “You’re in.” he said. I’ll never forget it.
Mr. Pennella went to bat for me. He cared. He has always been a special person to me for doing that. It was a powerful relief at that time to know I had gotten into that school.
So, with those things in mind, you can imagine what a good visit we had with Carm over a meal at the diner. It turns out that he has kept track of me, so to speak, over the years. He knew about a lot of the things I’ve done since high school. And he doesn’t even have internet!
But that reunion at the diner is not the end of this story. Jeff and Carm invited Marlene and I over to Carm’s house for dinner two days later. Carm lives in a classic old farm house that he bought in the 1970s and has beautifully restored. It is a home like you might find in a living history museum, like Sturbridge Village.
The food was great (Marlene told me the next day that she considered it a 5-star meal) and so was the conversation. We had a chance to meet some of Carm’s family and we had a truly delightful time. Carm gave me a short ride in his vintage Jaguar. I got to know him like I never knew him in high school. That’s kind of special. And there is something else special in this reunion…
Carm alluded to it later in the evening, outdoors, with the fireflies blinking around us. Simply put, I am a conservative, while he is a liberal. I don’t know the depth of his liberal worldview and it really doesn’t matter to me. On a human level, I think it’s safe to say that we have a mutual respect and an appreciation for each other that transcends any political, cultural, and religious belief differences. I like that. A lot.
The day after our memorable meal I realized that I had left my hat at Carm’s house. I stopped over to pick it up. I didn’t intend to stay long, but I was there awhile. There was more good conversation. I asked Carm if he would mind if I blogged about all of this. It is, after all, a good story. He had no objections. Jeff took our picture…
As I reflect back on these recent dinners and discussions it occurs to me that Carm is still an example of the great-artist-teacher mentioned in John Steinbeck’s quote at the beginning of this essay, and I am still learning.
As a person prone to introversion, I am impressed with the kindness, the generosity, and the hospitality that I’ve seen and experienced in our recent meetings. I am not, mind you, surprised by such things. Those qualities were in Carm 43 years ago. It is just refreshing to see them now in a new and different light.
Carm would say our reunion is serendipity. I am more inclined to think it is providential. Whatever the case, I’m thankful for Carm Penella and the blessing he has been in my life.