This is Teacher Appreciation Week, with National Teacher Day being tomorrow, so I figured it’s time to finish this entry about a teacher of mine who’s been on my mind recently.
I wasn’t a very good fit for Tulane University. But no other college I applied to thought I was a good enough fit to accept me. So in the fall of 1987 off I went from Boston to New Orleans, the land of heat, humidity, booze, a high murder rate, conservative politics, and seafood, none of which agreed with me. (Okay, I came around on the booze, to some extent.)
Very much on-brand for me as a teenager, I had little idea how to get started in college. I took computer programming (they wouldn’t let me skip the intro class, even though I already knew everything in it and did well on the AP test), German (a year off from it in high school did nothing for my already shaky grasp of the language, and it was my last hurrah at trying to learn something other than English), studio art, and English.
Dr. Marvin Morillo was the teacher of that freshman English class. My recollection is that he was an older man of average height (which is to say, several inches shorter than I was), with white hair and a goatee. I now know that he turned 61 at the start of the semester.
My memories of college are at the point where they’re fading and merging together, and so are no longer very trustworthy. I recall the classrooms in the English department building were often small – holding maybe 16 people – arranged around a large table, with soft lighting and a lot of wood decor.I don’t really remember any of the other students in the class, and I don’t clearly remember the books we read anymore either, but I know there were four, of which two were Hiroshima by John Hersey, and Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift. I thought one was called The Infinite Journey, but I can’t find a book with that title which matches my memory of it. I think the fourth had something to do with space. Only 4 books across 12ish weeks of classes, but that meant we could get into them in depth. I had been generally uninspired by my high school English classes, and I didn’t have the learning skills to know how to get value out of them. This started changing in this class.
In particular Hiroshima is an extremely powerful chronicle of the aftermath of the dropping of the atomic bomb on that city, and Dr. Morillo did a fine job of taking us through the events of the book, and reinforcing the book’s point that this must never be allowed to happen again. Honestly he started the class with the best stuff, and the later books felt weak by comparison.
I’d like to say that I have keen memories of lively debates about the books in the class, but I don’t. That’s what I’ve got left, 36 years later. But I felt like I connected strongly with Dr. Morillo, and I started swinging by his office from time to time over the next few years. He had a small office which I remember being lined by books in bookcases, with a desk at one end by the window, and a lounge chair for visitors. I don’t remember what we talked about any longer, but I know I always enjoyed visiting, and he was always open to my visits if he wasn’t busy.
In hindsight, in my late teens and twenties I befriended several older men who I learned from. Three of them were friends I met through Amateur Press Associations, and all of them were generalists, with a variety of interests, often with connections among those interests. The impression in my memory of Dr. Morillo is that he also had a breadth of interests, and that we’d end up talking about nothing in particular whenever I’d visit.
But he was also a Shakespeare professor as his main focus. By senior year I was deep in my major in computer science, and was looking at a year of nothing but programming and related topics. Figuring I should have a little bit of variety, I signed up for Dr. Morillo’s senior Shakespeare class in the fall, and enjoyed it so much that I signed up again in the spring.
In contrast to the freshman class, this was a lot of reading – more than a play a week (and it focused on the plays, with only a little time spent on the poems). This was more than I could get through, especially when we got to the long plays (Hamlet, King Lear and Richard III), so I concentrated on the ones I knew we’d be discussing in class or had to write a short paper on. Nonetheless, I had a great time. I had by this point been heavily involved in criticizing Star Trek: The Next Generation on the USENET newsgroups, which might have helped me hone my critical literary skills that I could deploy in these classes.
I have two enduring memories of these classes. The first was of being cornered by a group of women who asked me who I was having showed up in these senior English classes when they hadn’t seen me before as they’d been going through their major. I told them that I was a CS major and that I was taking these classes for fun, which I think annoyed them somewhat (I guess the classes had a reputation for being hard).
The second was of sitting outside the English department in mid-December (New Orleans, remember? I may have even been in shorts), when Dr. Morillo walked up and asked what I was doing. I said, “I’m trying to get through the plays I wasn’t able to read during the semester, before the final.” He replied, “Well, I’m not sure if I should applaud you for trying to finish all the reading, or upbraid you for not finishing it when it was assigned.” Chuckles all around at that one.
And yes, I got A’s both semesters. I’m pretty sure I didn’t get an A in the freshman class, but I’d learned a lot in three years. Mostly about how to study.
My favorite Shakespeare play is Richard II. “Don’t you mean Richard the Third?” people ask when I say this, but no, I actually think III is pretty tedious to read. I appreciate in Richard II the inevitable downfall of, well, everyone involved: Richard is a bad king, and he’s overthrown because he’s a bad king, but the Divine Right of Kings dictates that England will be in a bad way because of his overthrow, culminating in the detestable Richard III. So it’s a bad situation with no good solution (within the parameters of Shakespeare’s setting), and its events lead to 7 more plays of troubles until things are finally resolved. It appeals to both the structure wonk in me.
I’ve never seen the play performed, and maybe it’s just no good on stage, but it really captured me in class.
I think I went by to say goodbye to Dr. Morillo when I graduated. I have a dim memory of doing so, but at this point maybe it’s more of a memory of intending to do so. I hope that I did.
Recently I was curious to find out what happened to him. He retired just a couple of years after I graduated, in his mid-60s, and moved to Washington state, where he lived until he passed away in 2015. It sounds like he had a good life after Tulane (as, to be honest, have I). I regret not thinking of trying to reconnect when I had the chance, and that my memories of him aren’t clearer but I’m glad to have known him.