School’s out, and Shark has taught his last class

Longtime English teacher Dan Sharkovitz retires.

MVRHS teacher Dan Sharkovitz died on Sunday, Feb. 16. —MVT file photo by Stacey Rupolo

Dan Sharkovitz began his tenancy at the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School in the fall of 1979, along with my incoming high school class. Four years later, in 1983, my classmates and I were out of there. Shark, as he is affectionately known by nearly everyone, remained. And remained. And remained. For decades now, he has been teaching English and overseeing the highly esteemed high school newspaper (The High School View, published every school week as part of The MV Times).

Mr. Sharkovitz was, and is, hardwired to be a storyteller. Gregarious, generous, and cheerily self-deprecating, he instinctively shapes his narratives to honor other people, adding meaning and nuance to his anecdotes.

For example, there is a story behind the comfortable conference-room-style chairs that fill the high school newspaper’s dedicated office.

“We have [former principal] Greg Scotten to thank for those,” he says. “In 1995, he was walking by the room about 9:30 at night. I’m in here with about six students and the room was filled with wooden chairs. He stuck his head in, he said Hi, the students all greeted him like this — ” here he imitates somebody in physical pain — “and the next morning, Dr. Scotten called me into his office and said, ‘You have $400 a year from now on, and I want you to buy as many comfortable chairs as that will buy, every year.’”

That’s a nice little anecdote, but Shark isn’t finished yet. He points to a simple red cloth desk chair in the corner, out of place in its size and homeliness. “That’s the original chair, the first one we bought in 1995. It’s practically fallen apart, but we keep it here to remember where we came from. Our journey began here, and because a principal noticed something, we have what really is a professional journalism office. It’s a metaphor for what we do as journalists — we have to observe and notice things if we’re going to get information we need.”

Shark has great affection for Greg Scotten, and for the other allies of his first few years teaching English here. “I think that for however many flaws I had, I thank God that I had Greg Scotten, John Morelli, and Leroy Hazelton to help me — and Joe Didato, the guidance director. I think they saw something I didn’t even see in myself; they helped me, mentored me, they’d sit and talk with me, they’d always make me feel as if I had discovered, on my own, a better way. But it was a discovery that never would have occurred had they not listened to me, and observed me, and tried to help me kind of quietly.”

He is particularly appreciative of John Morelli, an adored English teacher, and chairman of the department when Shark began there. It was Mr. Morelli who sold Shark on the idea of getting his master’s degree at the Bread Loaf School of English in Vermont.

He liked Bread Loaf for its lack of agenda: “They don’t define a narrow teaching of pedagogical truth — they want you to think, deeply, about what you do, in the classroom, with students. They understand that how I approach teaching could be profoundly different from how the teacher down the hall approaches it, because so much of how we teach is linked to things about ourselves that are invisible. So I take that with me into the classroom. I listen to my students, I help them learn.”

He illustrates this with what seems at first a passing reference to Shakespeare’s play “King Lear,” commenting that various people like different characters in that play, and that “you like the Fool.” At first, I think he is using the word “you” in the general sense, as in “people like the Fool.”

Then I realize he is looking directly at me: He is recalling — accurately — that 37 years ago, when I was his student, my favorite character in King Lear was the Fool. As I blink in amazement at this feat of memory, he smiles and says, “One little example of why it’s important to shut up and listen to your students.”

Dan Sharkovitz, at about one year old in his hometown, Medway, MA, in his Easter best. —Courtesy Dan Sharkovitz

When Mr. Sharkovitz was a senior in high school in Medway, about 50 miles southwest of Boston, in 1970, he had no plans to go to college. He was raised single-handedly by his mother, a nurse. Money was tight. But he had a job he liked, the fastest car in town, and a girlfriend. What did he need college for?

His attitude changed during his final semester. “About two months before I graduated, all my friends were getting letters of acceptance [to colleges], and I thought, I’m going to be lonely this winter. So I went to the guidance counselor, who said, There’s a place with roll-in admissions called Cumberland College,” now University of the Cumberlands.

When he was accepted, his only asset was his car. He made a sign that read, “Buy this car and send a kid to college, $3,000,” and stuck it on the car. The next day, a neighbor came over and wrote a check. That covered tuition and general expenses, but he still needed money to fly from Boston to the Cincinnati airport (he would hitchhike the remaining 150 miles through Appalachia to get to the campus). Then he won a $200 scholarship for his work on the high school newspaper, and he used that money for a plane ticket and clothes. After a year at Cumberland, he transferred to Northeastern, to be closer to family in Boston. At Cumberland he had been encouraged to major in premed, but Northeastern agreed to take most of his credits if he studied to become an English teacher. He found he enjoyed it.

Dan Sharkovitz, second from left, at Stone Soup Gallery in Boston in 1976 teaching his poetry class, with Anna Warrock, right, and gallery owner, Jack Powers, middle. —Paul Wasnewsky

He graduated in 1979, because he needed to take time away from his studies to work full-time. A few months later, Gregory Scotten hired him to teach at MVRHS. In the years before that, however, before he had finished his B.A., he also taught a poetry workshop out of Jack Powers’ Stone Soup Gallery.

“‘Taught’ may not be the right word,” he insists. “I organized it and unlocked the door. There were people who were infinitely more accomplished than I was. But there were some people who came every Tuesday night the whole time I was there. Bob the bagman who lived in the dumpster behind the building, some doctors and lawyers. They didn’t come for Dan Sharkovitz, they came for the magic of collaborating with a core group of about 10 or 11, and together, we created a place where people felt comfortable sharing their poems.”

A year or two after Shark’s arrival on the Vineyard, Principal Scotten asked him to revive the former school newspaper. When Shark said yes, “he got us a couple of red Selectric typewriters, and because there was no space, he put the typewriters in front of my classroom, and said, That’s the best I can do.”

After a couple of years, Shark said they needed a devoted space to take the paper to the next level. They were given a small room (where the current English Department office is now), but after half a year, “Scotten says, ‘I have to take it away,’ and I said, ‘Fine, I quit [the newspaper].’ And I did. I was angry.”

There was no school newspaper until 1987, when student Josh Stafursky and some teacher-advisors set up an arrangement with The MV Times. At around 4 pm, the students would trek down to the Times offices and use all of the newspaper’s equipment, after hours, for free.

Dan Sharkovitz with the High School View staff, celebrating their place as the top student newspaper in Massachusetts. —Courtesy MVRHS

This arrangement lasted until 1995. That year, all of the advisers bowed out of continuing in their role, and, meanwhile, the school was building an addition. When asked by Assistant Principal Doug Herr, Shark warily agreed to return, provided the school paper could have a dedicated office space with computers and printers. The administration agreed, and for the past 22 years, The High School View has been written, edited, and pasted up (in analogue and later digital form) in this room. It is still printed weekly as part of The Times.

Half a dozen computer screens look out over a long, narrow room with a central table, around which the comfortable conference chairs all cluster. The overhead lights have rarely ever been turned on; the room is lit with eight table lamps, giving it an intimate and comfortable feel. There is a small refrigerator and a coffee station with a Keurig machine. There’s even a sign-up list for bringing snacks.

I remember typing at those red Selectric typewriters.

I’m not just marveling at the development of publishing technology, but at the resources the school is rightfully willing to give to the paper in response to its strengths. Shark tells me stories of past students whose dedication to the paper, and whose love of this room, have impressed and touched him over the years. He is tickled that his old student Molly Hitchings wrote for the paper when Shark returned to it in 1995, and her son Henry was on staff for Shark’s last year.

Dan ‘Shark’ Sharkovitz in the newspaper room. —Courtesy MVRHS

There have been perennial rumors that he was retiring, but until this year he always put it off. This was largely to protect the paper. “Not all principals see a newspaper as a positive thing; some see it as a thorn in their side, if they can’t control the truth being printed out by teenagers. I have had to go to war about this room; there have been principals who wanted to take it back. I am comfortable in the knowledge that the current principal [Sara Dingledy] understands that it’s a place where students can really write to real audiences about things that matter. Does it get any better than that? I would argue no.”

The newspaper is not Shark’s only long-term passion as a teacher. He’s equally passionate about Shakespeare.

Although I was delighted to write for the newspaper when he first revived it, my favorite memories of him are of how he taught us Shakespeare. In our sophomore English class, he allowed a number of us to perform monologues in front of the class as part of an assignment. We listened to the plays, and watched a video of Ian McKellen’s “Acting Shakespeare.” He had us read aloud most of “Julius Caesar,” which 37 years later, I still consider possibly the best play for introducing students to Shakespeare’s style.

Shark says, “For many years, I pretended to fall in love with Shakespeare.” Knowing that teaching Shakespeare was an unavoidable part of the curriculum, he had suffered through a bad Shakespeare teacher, and was grateful to find a better one, but it wasn’t until 1989 that he was truly smitten. He was studying at Oxford for one summer as part of his M.A. at Bread Loaf. “I’m sitting at the Barbican Theatre Complex. I was studying “Shakespeare Stage and Page” with Professor Robert Smallwood. From the second the lights went down until the second the show was over, I was riveted; I could feel my heart beating faster.” The play was “Hamlet,” starring Mark Rylance.

When he returned to teaching in the fall, his students were so taken with his enthusiasm that they spurred him to set up a class trip to England to see the show themselves — a trip that until recently was an annual event. “You sit in a theatre with high school kids, you’re watching the kids connecting to this play in a way that you’ve never seen, ever, and you know you are experiencing the miraculous. It is a sacred energy that is to be honored, listened to, felt and sustained for the next generation. There are kids who went on to college and majored in English because they fell in love with Shakespeare on that trip.” (Part of the attraction, he adds, might have been due to Mark Rylance.) Shark’s own love of “Hamlet” remains undiminished; last year, he led a session of “Islanders Read the Classics” with it.

The high school has changed over the past 37 years. Not only have there been two additions, but the spirit and culture of the place have shifted somewhat, too. He remembers years when some of his male students would disappear during hunting season or the Derby, and his perplexity that everyone else seemed to think this was par for the course. “My second year here, I saw three students walking up the front walk with shotguns; I ran and told Dr. Scotten. He looks out the window, and says, Oh, yeah, they’ve been out hunting, and they’re going to lock their guns in the school safe and go about their day, that way they don’t miss more school.”

That kind of thing doesn’t happen anymore.

Shark himself can take partial credit for a different kind of change. Noticing how many promising junior high school students went off-Island to high school, he and math teacher Lou Toscano brought AP-level courses to the high school for the first time. Over the course of five or six years, it became clear that more students were staying on the Island, and the AP offerings quickly increased.

About 14 years ago, Dan Sharkovitz became the chairman of the department. “My job is to do what I can to help you do your job better. As department chair, my responsibility is to help all teachers find what their passions are. My responsibility is not so much turn it into Dan Sharkovitz’s department, but to help everyone with good ideas. I’ve wanted to help others to become amazing.”

After 37 years of doing just that, Shark will finally be stepping down, as of this week. He has a bucket list, which includes climbing Mount Rainier, volunteering for Make-a-Wish Foundation, finishing a play and a book that he’s been writing, getting another master’s degree, in Shakespeare, from the University of Birmingham … and continuing to take trips with English students to Stratford-on-Avon and London.

Duncan Pickard, former student

“He exemplified all the best qualities of a teacher; he puts students first, and motivated me to push boundaries of my own capacity. He communicated his craft really well. His lessons were accessible and motivating.”

Kate Hennigan, colleague

“Our halls certainly will not be the same without him. We will miss his eloquent contributions at faculty meetings (not to mention the pierogis and galumpkis), his legendary anecdotes about his glory days as a champion on the softball field, his infectious laugh, his popular coffeehouses in the library each semester, and of course his sense of humor.”

Nathaniel Brooks Horowitz, former student

“​How could anyone forget a teacher who, holding the end of an electric cord like a leash, entered class dragging a toaster, as if it were a pet? A teacher who, partway through the lesson, without departing verbally from the subject, nor breaking eye contact with his students, destroyed it with a hammer?”

Corrine Kurtz, colleague

“My most memorable moment with Shark was a simple conversation in the cafeteria that altered the course of my life. I was midway through my third year of teaching, and we were discussing graduate programs. I was thinking about applying to a certain program (which shall remain nameless) because I had heard from others that it was quick, cheap, and easy. Dan listened (yes, believe it or not, he can be a great listener), allowed me to finish, then proceeded to give me some of the best advice I’ve ever received; he simply told me I should want a graduate degree, and the education accompanying it, that I could be proud of, and that “quick and easy” would not benefit me in the long run.

I took his advice that day (and most other days, but don’t tell him that). He told me about a graduate program he attended, and loved, and that I was a good fit and would immensely enjoy the program. This went on the be the understatement of a lifetime. The program was a game-changer for me, as it opened up a whole new universe of thought and experience.”

Christine Ferrone, colleague

“The thing is, all moments are memorable with Shark, or so he would like you to believe!”