John Morelli died Wednesday at his home in Chilmark, just a few short miles from the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School where he taught English for nearly half his life.
He loved the drive to work each morning, past the West Tisbury Congregational Church, Alley’s General Store and the Mill Pond, especially during this time of year. The cold, clear fall air — mixed with a cup or two of coffee — energized him for another day of teaching, inspiring and being inspired by his students.
He taught literature and writing and journalism to thousands of Islanders. He would arrive at the high school early and stay late. He was a large, bear of a man who would somehow stuff himself into one of those ancient, one-piece desks from which he would conduct his conferences with student writers. He seemed to be perpetually surrounded by kids eager to hear what he had to say about their essays and stories and poems. And whether it was the first writing conference of the day, or the last happening late after school, students always knew that Mr. Morelli had the deepest respect for their ideas and their words.
John was not a man to hide from his friends or his students. When a student needed to talk about family chaos, a broken heart, or homework-eating dogs, John listened.
And when his young daughter died in 1990, he shared his grief with his students. His openness about his own life — its great sadnesses and its great joys — inspired his students, in turn, to dig deeply into the mysteries of their own lives and explore them honestly in their poems and essays and stories.
While his students did well on standardized tests, he never taught to the test. By the ever-changing expressions on his face — from his patented Ninja look of surprise as he cut the air in front of him with a swoop of his arm, to the wrinkled up contortion of his quirky mustache that seemed to cling for dear life to the large nose above — we all knew great literature was not about life. It was life.
His own home is filled with vestiges of many of the novels he loved to teach. Photographs of Anthony Quinn from the movie version Kazantzakis’s Zorba the Greek occupy one side of his living room.
It was impossible to travel anyplace on the Vineyard with John and not bump into someone who knew him. Whether you were searching for a new book at the Bunch of Grapes, eating a pancake at Linda Jean’s, or studying the push and pull of waves from the Cliffs at Aquinnah, you would inevitably hear, “Hey, Mr. Mo. How you doing!”
One of his former students wrote in an essay about a teacher who inspired her: “Teachers are the people who can, at times, make or break your high school career. Not only do you need them to educate you, but more importantly, you need them for support. As I look back . . . I realize that Mr. Morelli was the one who taught me to be myself, never doubt my abilities, and to never give up on a dream.”
Once upon a time John Morelli taught stories hard and loved them even harder. Then he died and became one.
Dan Sharkovitz teaches English and journalism at the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School.