Advice from Papa Bill

  • Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Kevin Morrissey encourages eighth graders Lauren Fix, Isabella Bryan and Michelle Cuylits (left to right) while they work on their drawings in class. MICHAEL QUIRK/JOURNAL SCENE

Kevin Morrissey has always been drawn to art. It wasn’t a conscious decision nor forced upon him by his parents, it’s just something he’s always been gifted at. Art was his passion but he did not know how he could make it into a career. That all changed in high school when he met his mentor and eventual boss, Larry Barnfield.
“There was a group of us at Summerville (High School) who had a passion for art,” Morrissey said. “When we met Larry he became like a mentor to us and told us that there are real jobs in art.”
Then a teacher at Summerville, Barnfield is now the fine arts director for Dorchester District II. He inspired Morrissey and his friends to pursue arts in college. The group heeded his advice and moved on to Winthrop University.
Morrissey knew he wanted to be an artist but he also wanted to be practical so he would never be considered a “struggling artist.” He majored in arts education with the intention of becoming an art teacher. While student teaching his junior year, an event happened that changed his life’s plans: the terrorist attacks of Sept.11.
“I have always had profound respect for those in the military and I always thought about enlisting,” he said. “My grandfather, Papa Bill, was in the Navy and he always had that quiet grandpa wisdom that you listen closely for.”
Sparked by the attacks, an admiration for the armed forces turned into a drive to fight for his country. Proud of his decision, he went to his grandfather to tell them of the good news and like most grandfathers, Papa Bill had some yard work for Morrissey to do when he arrived.
“We were turning over a garden and I told him, ‘Papa Bill, I’m going to enlist,’” he told him.
A veteran of World War II, Papa Bill looked to Morrissey and gave him an answer he wasn’t expecting.
“That isn’t what I want for you. I fought so that you wouldn’t have to, I fought so that it would be your choice, not your duty.”
“But Papa Bill, this would be my choice. Our country is under attack and I think that is worth fighting for,” Morrissey replied.
He was expecting to hear encouragement, not a rebuttal. The conversation was supposed to be about carrying on a legacy rather than trying to carry on a conversation about why he should fight.
“I have no doubt that you would be a successful soldier, but the war on terror won’t be won with tanks or bombs. You have to kill the idea of hatred. You have to counter that hatred with love. Your battlefield is the classroom and you can do more with a paint brush than with a gun.”
It all became clear to Morrissey after that. Instead of fighting the war on terror overseas, he needed to do it domestically by helping in the classroom.
After graduating from Winthrop he was convinced by his mother, a Newington Elementary School fourth-grade and special education teacher for three decades, to apply at Rollings Middle School of the Arts. Following his mother’s advice, he interviewed with the school and to his surprise he was offered the job.
“Teaching at Rollings is great because every one of these kids is gifted and talented,” he said. “I love this age group because people overlook them. They are much more mature and intelligent than a lot of people give them credit for.”
The 2012 Rollings Teacher of the Year said that to get the most out of his students, he first had to treat them with trust and respect. The classes do a lot of group work and are allowed to talk freely. Each student is also responsible for cleaning up their table and putting away their materials. One of the most critical elements is patience according to him.
“Everyone comes to class with their own attitude and their own baggage,” he said. “I tell them every day that today is a chance to start fresh, to start new.”
He also subscribes to the belief that no child is bad and that each has his or her own good qualities.
“I have taught about 1500 kids and they all have something good about them. Every one of them has a redeeming quality and I try to praise that to develop a rapport with the student.”
In addition to teaching he is still pursuing his dreams as an artist. He has had art shows in Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco among others.
As a teacher he has helped each student with his or her artistic creativity, but little did he know how much he or she would end up helping him too.
One evening he was doodling in the classroom and left the picture out when he left for the night. After students saw his work in the morning they began bouncing around ideas with their teacher. Since then the classroom has changed into a studio environment.
“It is laid back, easy going and more respectful than controlling,” he said. “The higher you set your expectations for the kids and the more support you give them, their potential is absolutely limitless.”
Each day, each class, each student, Morrissey is simply doing his best to win on the battlefield with love and a paint brush.

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