Daniel Sharkovitz, beloved English teacher at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS), died on Sunday morning, Feb. 16. He was 68, and lived in West Tisbury.
“Shark” began teaching at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS) in the fall of 1979 and would go on to serve as chairman of the English department for 18 years. He was also a key advisor for the student staff of the High School View, the school’s newspaper published weekly by the MV Times. In a profile she wrote at his retirement in 2017, Island novelist (and Times columnist) Nicole Galland said that her first days at the high school paralleled his, and he would become a mentor to her, as he would to virtually hundreds of students in the decades to follow.
“Mr. Sharkovitz was, and is, hardwired to be a storyteller,” Galland wrote in her profile. “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,’ [Sharkovitz] 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.’”
Sharkovitz was always quick to give credit and thanks to his own mentors and coworkers at the high school, Galland wrote. “I think that for however many flaws I had,” Sharkovitz told her, “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 illustrated this with what seemed at first to Galland as 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, Galland wrote, “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.’”
When 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,” Galland said he told her. “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 he sold his car and got into a little college in Appalachia, and after a year, transferred to Northeastern. “Northeastern agreed to take most of his credits if he studied to become an English teacher,” Galland wrote. “He found he enjoyed it.”
After taking leaves from college now and then to work to support his education, he graduated in 1979. A few months later, Gregory Scotten hired him to teach at MVRHS, where he stayed until his retirement in 2017.
After his retirement, Shark worked on a collection of short fiction and published “A World of Good” in 2019. In a review for The Times in October 2019, contributor Jack Shea wrote, “Depending on your commitment to these stories, it will take you somewhere between one hour and the rest of your life to understand and take the value from what he’s done here. What we get are a series of internal thought progressions and projected conversations that could, and in most cases did, happen in real time between two people. But many also feel like the silent two-way conversations we have with ourselves, the conversations we practice for a conversation with a real person in real time — if we summon the courage or the articulation to have it.”
Shea wrote about Shark’s “delight in the existential”: “Being in situations, with people or just seeing a low-angled late afternoon sun he’s never seen in that way before.”
“With regard to reality,” Shark told him, “one of the small joys of writing fiction is that you don’t have to know everything, or sometimes anything, you are writing about. Being connected to the real world provides so many opportunities to explore reality and to render it in shapes that fascinate you and hopefully others.”
Several Times employees and former interns who’d been taught by Shark at MVRHS wrote on Sunday to share their grief.
“Shark ostensibly taught English,” Nathaniel Brooks Horwitz wrote. Horwitz served on the High School View staff and graduated in 2014. “What he really taught was integrity, vision, heart. He took the substrates of language, of literature, of poetry, and transformed them into lessons on how to live a good life. Lessons from a man who knew. He was a writer, a philosopher, a mentor and a friend. He was loved. May his memory be a blessing.”
Sophia McCarron also had classes with Shark, and served on the HSV, graduating in 2017. McCarron wrote: “Shark had a unique ability to see what every student needed to succeed and unending energy to commit to them. His humor was unabashedly eccentric and his teaching standards high. For him, it wasn’t just about teaching us how to write a good essay. He proofread opening emails to employers and college applications and kept an excessive supply of coffee on hand. He taught his students how to be good people by emphasizing the importance of responsibility and the value of our work. The Island is better because of his time here.”
“Shark was one of the most passionate and inspirational teachers I had at the high school,” Times reporter Lucas Thors said. “His role as an educator and mentor to student writers was driven by his love for his work. Never have I met someone besides Shark who made me want to exceed my own ambitions so badly. An eccentric and brilliant writer and storyteller, Shark gave me confidence in my own abilities as a poet and as a prose writer, because he pushed me to go beyond what I thought I was capable of. At times he was my harshest critic, and at other times he sang me immense praise. But he was never unfair, and always supportive.”
In a phone conversation with Times reporter Lucas Thors, Keith Dodge, a close friend of Shark’s, said of his fellow English teacher: “Teaching was the most important thing in Dan’s life. He was a brilliant teacher; it is very sad his life ended so soon after he retired, but he left a great legacy. There were so many hundreds of students that benefited from his teaching. I remember we took four or five groups of students to see Shakespeare with him in London; those were some of my fondest memories of him.”
Galland noted in her profile how much the high school had changed over the 37 years since she and Sharkovitz started out there: “Not only have there been two additions, but the spirit and culture of the place have shifted somewhat, too. [Shark] 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, he told her.
“Shark himself can take partial credit for a different kind of change,” she wrote. “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.
“As department chair,” Sharkovitz told Galland about his role as chairman of the English department, “my responsibility is to help all teachers find what their passions are. My responsibility is not so much to turn it into Dan Sharkovitz’s department, but to help everyone with good ideas. I’ve wanted to help others to become amazing.”
Dan Sharkovitz leaves four children: Kristen Sharkovitz of Boston and her partner Andrew McCourt, Matthew Sharkovitz and his wife Vanessa Czarnecki of Vineyard Haven; Marina Sharkovitz of Edgartown and her partner Steve Correll; and Christopher Aring of West Tisbury; as well as sister Barbara Kuczmiec and her husband Stanley of Medway; and numerous nieces, nephews, and extended family members.
A graveside service is being planned on Saturday, Feb. 22, at 1 pm at St. Joseph’s Cemetery, 58 Oakland Street, Medway, and a celebration of life will be held on-Island at a later date. In lieu of flowers, the family asks that you consider making a donation in his name to the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School Memorial Scholarship Fund. Checks should be made out to Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School, c/o Marylee Schroeder, treasurer, memo: “Daniel Sharkovitz,” and mailed to 4 Pine Street, Vineyard Haven, MA 02568.