I was deeply saddened yesterday to learn of the passing of my high school English teacher, Mr. Morris.
To say I was academically spoiled in high school would be a gross understatement. With the exception of 2-3 over the course of 4 years, I had some of the most incredible teachers, and Mr. Morris was one of those.
I first had him in 10th grade for Honors English. He had a very different teaching style from what I was used to; looking back he was more akin to a college professor than a high school teacher. He was very engaging and almost every class had us pulling our desks around into a giant circle for discussion. He respected our thoughts and opinions and I feel like he did an incredible job of treating his students as equals.
We read some incredible books that year, some that are still on my favorites list. He showed us the importance of buying your own copy of the book so you could underline passages and make notes in the margins. (Something I no longer practice, as I read 99% e-books, but a habit I still admire.)
If it wasn’t the 1st day of class, it was shortly after, when we discussed our shared Scandinavian heritage and from that moment forward, I was his Swedish sister. He would call me that in class, in the halls, and even mark up my papers that way. My friend Megan, who shared his last name, was simply “Sister.” A few other girls who also had “-son” names were his African sisters; although, I’m not entirely sure they were as enamored with their monikers as I was with mine.
Although I don’t believe even Mr. Morris had the power to make grammar interesting, the reading and the ensuing discussions were what made his class. Always a voracious reader, he did not instill in me a love of reading, but he nurtured it. He slowed me down, made me think about the choices authors made, whether it be of the language chosen or the plot device used or the overall meaning of the story, which allowed me to appreciate the authors and not just the stories.
I enjoyed 10th grade English so much, I made sure to sign up for his elective “Great Books” in 11th grade, which to this day remains one of my favorite classes I have ever taken. The name basically explains it all. He chose (great) books, we read (great) books, and we discussed (great) books. If you can believe it, it was not a wildly popular elective, so there were only 4-5 of us in my class which was perfect. A class small enough to allow time to fully explore the stories with enough people to have a variety of opinions made for great discussions. If there were tests or essays, I don’t remember them. I just remember reading.
In 12th grade, I was back in his classroom for AP Literature and Composition. As almost all of us had been in his class in 10th grade and many of us had also taken his elective, it made for a very comfortable and close-knit group with a man we all greatly respected.
He would often digress into anecdotes about his life including his time spent with the Peace Corps in Ethiopia including one shocking bit about how he had to kill chickens by hand complete with a demonstration.
He had kind words for all and he reminded me a bit of my dad, if my dad had been college educated, religious, and (mostly) bald.
One of my favorite memories is only tangentially related to him, but it wouldn’t have happened without him. For some reason, Senior year, there was a volleyball tournament for our grade (maybe the school? who knows.) and the teams were English classes. So we, the AP kids, formed “The Morris Machines” and like the other classes, made shirts. Except ours, instead of using our names and numbers on them, we used the names of our favorite writers and punctuation. I was cummings “!”, of course. No idea how we did in the tournament, but we had a blast, and I wish I still had that shirt.
My absolute favorite memory involving his class was when we had a unit on love and were tasked with writing a memoir. This was, hands down, my favorite writing assignment in all my years of high school. (Actually probably my favorite up until I wrote an Anthropology paper on online dating in one of my later years of college.) I can’t remember the parameters, but I wrote about a date that I had gone on with a guy I had met at a concert the previous summer.
This was possibly one of the only truly creative writing assignments we ever had, or at least the one with the least restrictions, and while my story was rooted in fact, I did take a little bit of creative license and fudged some details.
I was incredibly proud of the story in which I told of the date that including the guy trying to kiss me and me turning away. (Still slightly embarrassing to recount.)
I don’t remember the grade, but I remember it was something I was truly proud of, I believe it was the first time I found my voice. Needless to say, I was much more of an over-sharer back then and posted the story to my live journal.
Which just so happened to be linked in my AIM profile, and the fella in question still had me on his buddy list and read the whole thing. (Oh man, lj, aim, buddy list..takes me back.)
Talk about embarrassing. I believe I apologized and then promptly blocked him. I did use his real (first) name in the story, but do you know how many Matts are out there, Matt?
But back to the topic at hand, Mr. Morris was incredibly kind, incredibly smart and I believe he saw great things for all of us, so he pushed us. But he pushed us with a kind word, and a smile. And probably a Dylan song on his radio.
Every summer, he would invite his newly graduated seniors on a walking tour of Pittsburgh. I remember getting the handwritten invitation in the mail, but was unable to go, as we were going to Hellfest in Nee Jersey for a sort of “senior trip.” As I have exactly zero fond memories of that trip, I wish I would have gone on the walk instead.
Rest in peace, Mr. Morris. You were one of the shining stars of my academic career and I won’t soon forget the life* lessons you taught.
*(Sorry, most of the grammatical lessons have long since vacated my brain, if you couldn’t tell by reading this.)
And indeed there will be time
To wonder, “Do I dare?” and, “Do I dare?”
Time to turn back and descend the stair,
With a bald spot in the middle of my hair—
(They will say: “How his hair is growing thin!”)
My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin,
My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin—
(They will say: “But how his arms and legs are thin!”)
Do I dare
Disturb the universe?
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.
T.S. Elliot – The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock