I like to think there will be a niche for my writing in the world and that, in a sense, I'm a serious writer. But I wish I was better at the nuts-and-bolts, grill-sources-and-sift-through-docs-and-find-the-wrongdoing reporting than I am.
Ledyard - Outgoing Gallup Hill Principal Stephen Panikoff's favorite job-related anecdote is about a sixth-grader who seemed beyond help, but who was listening to him.
He “gave me the roughest time in terms of behavior and constant discipline,” Panikoff, who was an elementary school principal in Ledyard for 33 years, said of the student.
When he graduated around 2000, Panikoff said, “he came back to thank me for believing in him, that he could be a student.” That student is now a third-grade teacher.
”That I could've never written a script for,” he said.
Panikoff, 61, was able to watch that student and countless others grow and thrive, across his three-decade career. Since 1975, Panikoff has worked as principal at all four of the town's elementary schools. Though retiring from Ledyard, he starts a new job at a Rhode Island charter school in July.
Current Gales Ferry-Juliet Long assistant principal Jennifer Byars will replace Panikoff at Gallup Hill with a new part-time assistant principal. Gallup Hill assistant principal Philip Genova will become assistant principal at Gales Ferry-Juliet Long Schools.
”Steve is like my family, and I'm really going to miss him,” said Mary Cherry, who has been Panikoff's assistant - and his voicemail - for all but six months of the last 17 years. Each said they can read the other's mind.
”He is a truly good man,” Cherry said, perched on a child-sized chair in the nurse's office, a quiet place to talk in the summer. “He is honest and compassionate, and there is nothing more important to him than people.”
Panikoff said he enjoys working with young children because he can make a sizeable positive impact on them.
“I get up on Monday morning, and I want to be at work,” he said.
”We try to catch kids being good,” he added.
He loved having little troublemakers call their parents from his office to tell them about something positive they did. The parents would be worried at first, hearing the child calling from the principal's office, but everyone would soon be smiling. Cherry said she was impressed by his ability to make it clear to students he was addressing their behavior, not their selves.
Panikoff taught in West Haven for five years before deciding to make the switch to administration. He had never been east of the New Haven area.
He applied to every school district in the state, he said, and Ledyard responded. He meant to leave after a few years but never did.
The sense of connection he feels to generations of Ledyard youth was clear in his response to a question about how many children he has.
”At the school?” he replied.
Panikoff - who has two kids in their twenties - lives with his wife in Groton Long Point, roller blades with a senior-citizen contingent, and keeps a desk drawer full of chocolate. He has a gentle demeanor and is a good listener. “We've all come across people in our professional lives,” Genova, his assistant principal, said. “They'll sit there and they'll nod their head, but they're not really getting it. Steve gets it."
And, number two:
New London - The bookshelves are stuffed with religious tomes, but the center table in Rabbi Carl Astor's study at Beth El Synagogue supports stacks of beginner Hebrew and Spanish text books, surrounding a nearly empty bottle of Manischewitz.
The wine stays closed Thursday mornings, but the books' contents are imbibed as Astor and the Rev. Daniel Martino of the First Hispanic Baptist Church give one another language lessons.
The two have been studying together since January, when Martino approached Astor at a New London Clergy Association meeting. The rest is history in the making.
One hour is set aside for Spanish, and the other for Biblical Hebrew. God and life, in three languages, sneak into the discussions of verbs and gender agreement.
Martino's church runs services in Spanish.
“I thought we were so different but, in essence, we're not,” said Martino of what he learned when he started to decode some Hebrew.
”Everything that you're learning is the same stuff that he learned,” said Astor, “he” being Jesus Christ.
Conjugating the Spanish verb meaning “to pray” at a recent session segued into a chat on different ways of speaking to God, and how different religions have distinct vocabularies - asking, begging, praising - for discussing prayer.
”This is a whole new world that's finally opening up to me,” said Astor, who has lived in New London for nearly 30 years but was never able to have in-depth conversations with Spanish-speaking neighbors. Martino said studying Hebrew has made him look at the Bible with a new, deeper perspective.
Astor was working on conjugating present-tense stem-changing verbs in Spanish, and Martino was conjugating Hebrew verbs in the past tense. Sitting side by side, the pair took turns quizzing one another, offering English phrases for translation.
When Martino had trouble with the Hebrew, Astor translated it into Spanish whenever he could. Sometimes, they bypassed English altogether, translating the sentence, “David ruled Jerusalem, and the people listened to David,” directly from Hebrew to Spanish.
It took Martino three months to learn to read the Hebrew alphabet, but he got it by Passover, when he read a passage at one of Astor's seders.
Astor may not have needed to learn to read a new alphabet, but Martino still asked him to pause during a passage to work on pronunciation.
”You read well, but too fast,” Martino chided.
”I know - it's hard for you Spanish speakers to keep up,” Astor replied with a grin.