On a Thursday evening during the summer of 1971, my dad and I went to Limestone Community High School in Bartonville, Illinois, to register me for the upcoming school year. I had graduated from St. Mark’s Catholic School in May, which was the end of what I considered an eight-year prison term.
I got off to a bad start at St. Mark’s. My first-grade teacher was Sister Lorken, a cruel and unforgiving religious sister who had no business teaching children. Because I had trouble learning how to read, Sister Lorken regularly singled me out for verbal abuse in front of my classmates. She also periodically physically abused me by grabbing my shoulders and shaking me while she yelled at me. At the end of the school year, Sister Lorken recommended to my parents that I be held back. My parents refused her request and insisted that I be allowed to advance to the second grade.
My second grade teacher was Sister Eduarda, who was also very abusive. Unlike today, the mindset of some of the teachers during the 1960s was that the only way to handle young boys who were not performing up to expectations was to ridicule them and, when necessary, use corporal punishment to force them to conform.
During my seventh and eighth grade years, classes were split up between two seventh grade teachers and two eighth grade teachers, one of whom was Sister Theogene. She was as bad as Sister Lorken and Sister Eduarda.
There was one memorable occasion that occurred during the first month of seventh grade. One day while I was walking in the hallway on my way to class, Sister Theogene attacked me from behind and started hitting me on the back of my head with an open hand. As she was hitting me, she yelled at me because my shirt was untucked in back. I was not aware that the back of my shirt had become untucked while I had been sitting in my previous class.
On numerous occasions, Sister Theogene repeatedly hit me on the back of my head or on my chest with a closed fist. In response to her abuse, I went into full revenge mode, and for the remaining time I was in school, I did everything I could to make her life miserable. As a consequence, I almost got kicked out of school in eighth grade.
By the time I graduated from St. Mark’s, I never wanted to see the school again. I remember telling myself that high school was going to be different because I had an opportunity to start fresh with a whole new set of teachers who had no knowledge of my bad reputation at St. Mark’s.
When my dad and I arrived at Limestone, we were introduced to a student counselor. The student counselor reviewed with us the curriculum for incoming freshmen and signed me up for the required first semester courses. For an elective course, I chose Beginning Shop, which included an introduction to the electrical, carpentry, auto mechanic, and sheet metal trades. I also chose to sign up for study hall as a substitute for another elective class.
When I told the counselor that I wanted to include study hall as part of my curriculum, he asked me if I was interested in music. I told him that I had taken piano lessons when I was a boy and had been a member of the Midnight Mass Boys Christmas Choir when I was in fourth grade. The counselor then went into sales mode and told me that study hall was a waste of time and that I wouldn’t be able to get any studying done because most of the students in study hall were disruptive and nobody was ever really able to focus on studying.
He then explained to me that Limestone had one of the top music teachers in Central Illinois and recommended that I sign up for Varsity Choir, which was the choir that all incoming boys were placed into. He assured me that choir would be the highlight of my day. I followed his advice and signed up for Varsity Choir instead of study hall. I found out later in the year that the counselor was good friends with the music teacher and had been asked to do his best to recruit as many boys into choir as possible.
The first day of school was uneventful except for one class — Varsity Choir. The teacher was James Michael Morris, a 25-year-old Bradley University graduate who had recently received his master’s degree in music. Mr. Morris told the class about how when he arrived at Limestone in 1969, the ceiling of the music practice room had several hundred coins embedded in the plaster. The coins came from students who had competed with each other to see who could throw a coin at the high ceiling at the correct angle so that the coin would pierce the plaster and stick into the ceiling.
He said that when he began teaching at Limestone, the first thing he did was bring a long pipe into the room and while holding one end of the pipe, used the other end to dislodge each coin from the ceiling. He warned us that if any of us ever threw a coin at the ceiling, we would immediately be kicked out of class. He found that particular behavior to be highly disrespectful toward a teacher. He laid out several other rules and guidelines for us to follow. He emphasized that we were required to show him respect at all times.
When I got home from school that day, my mom asked me how my first day of classes went. I responded, “All the teachers seem to be okay except for the music teacher. He’s a jerk.”
Over the next four years, I developed a great deal of respect for Mr. Morris — not because he demanded that I respect him, but because he earned my respect and the respect of all my classmates.
Mr. Morris had many admirable qualities. He was a gifted musician who was keenly aware of his surroundings. He had a unique ability to create an environment that touched all the senses of hearing, sight, touch, smell, and taste. Nowhere was this more evident than the annual Christmas Madrigal Dinner that he organized and put on at Limestone High School for 28 consecutive years. Like Walt Disney, he had the ability to create and deliver an experience that was out of this world.
One of Mr. Morris’s greatest attributes was his strong set of values, which he held himself to and insisted that his students live up to. Rather than bully and beat us into submission, he got us to live up to his high standards by convincing us that we weren’t living up to our full potential. He was genuinely warm, friendly, and optimistic, qualities that he used to cajole and persuade us to buy into his vision and adopt his strong values.
The most frustrating thing about Mr. Morris was that it was difficult to really get to know him on a personal level. It was hard to get him to talk about himself. It seemed as though he was always more interested in contributing to the well-being and happiness of others than he was in revealing details about himself. He would often use humor to change the subject and avoid talking about something that was too personal. To outsiders, he appeared to be light-hearted and carefree, but in reality, he was an action-oriented person who took life very seriously.
There’s a stanza in a song that was released in 1993 by Mariah Carey that reminds me of what Mr. Morris did for me during the four years that he was my teacher. The title of the song is “Hero.” Here’s the stanza: “And then a hero comes along; with the strength to carry on. And you cast your fears aside; and you know you can survive. So when you feel like hope is gone; look inside you and be strong. And you’ll finally see the truth; that a hero lies in you.”
A “hero” is defined as “a person who is admired or idealized for courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities.” To me, Mr. Morris was a hero who came into my life at the precise time that I needed him. He made learning fun. He built up my confidence. He helped me set aside certain fears I had concerning school and the classroom. He encouraged me to dig deep inside myself for strength. He made me feel as though I could be a hero.
On March 28, 2016, at the age of 71, James Michael Morris died from complications associated with lung cancer. His larger-than-life personality and values will remain with me forever. May he rest in peace.