Final note: After 42 years, Philly music teacher steps away

Listen 3:42
 CAPA choral director Dorina Morrow leads a choir of students. (Avi Wolfman-Arent/WHYY)

CAPA choral director Dorina Morrow leads a choir of students. (Avi Wolfman-Arent/WHYY)

Dorina Morrow began her career as a public school music teacher in the fall of 1975. She still remembers what she wore her first day: stiletto heels and a black dress with red, blue, and yellow piping on the sleeves.

“I walked in and all the other veteran teachers had, like gym shorts on and flip flops on,” Morrow recalled.

The kids weren’t sure what to make of the young teacher in the runway duds. One child even spit on her.

“I had to almost prove to them that I was a teacher and I wanted to teach them and I had something to share with them,” she said.

Morrow was certain she had something to share.

Though the heels and dress might have seemed out of place, they spoke to a vocational commitment that would carry Morrow through 42 years in Philadelphia’s public schools. She always knew she’d be a teacher — a city teacher in particular. No amount of saliva or sartorial ridicule would change that.

“I knew this is what I wanted to do,” Morrow said.

Morrow’s career as the full-time choral director and head of the vocal music department at Philadelphia High School for the Creative and Performing Arts ended Wednesday. It’s a position she’s held since 1998. For 23 years before that, she taught at a smattering of South Philly schools — William Meredith, D. Newlin Fell, Girard Academic Music Program, and the since-closed Francis Reed School.

Morrow knew from childhood she was destined to teach. The nuns at her small Catholic grade school outside Pittsburgh told her so.

“[They] grabbed me, and they said you have been touched,” Morrow said.

Apparently, Morrow had been graced by the twin spirits of music and teaching. The nuns gave her music lessons and dispatched her to teach Sunday school.

“I would accompany the nuns, and they would say, ‘Oh, Dorina, take over teaching this,” she said. “I always knew that I was a teacher.”

Besides, her Italian immigrant parents forbade a career in the music industry. It was too seedy, they said.

Morrow brings the energy of a performer to her classroom.

During rehearsals, she moves at presto tempo, darting back and forth from the piano to make adjustments. Her voice cracks through even the loudest chorus swell. She’s loud without sounding authoritarian.

“She’s so incredible. She can look at a piece of sheet music in 30 seconds and play it on the piano,” said rising senior Eria Pikuli. “But she’s also someone who, I’m so comfortable around her, like she’s my own grandma or my mom.”

“She’ll give you the shirt off her back,” added fellow senior Cameren Sullivan.

Push in the right direction

Over two decades at the city’s premier arts magnet school, Morrow’s taught her fair share of talented vocalists. Her most famous pupil, though, passed through her classroom when she was teaching general music courses at Meredith School in Queen Village.

His name? Nathan Morris. And, when he was about to graduate eighth grade, he told Morrow he preferred South Philadelphia High School because of its football program.

“I was like, no, you’re not going there,” Morrow said. “Come here, I’m teaching you this audition piece. You’re going to CAPA.”

Morris indeed went to CAPA, where he formed the first iteration of a singing group that would become Boyz II Men.

Despite her parents’ wishes, Morrow also carved out a performing career as a backup singer for artists like Michael Bolton and Celine Dion when they rolled through town.

“Anyone who would pay me, I would sing,” Morrow said. “Just give me a dime! Or feed me! And I’ll sing.”

As she exits, she’ll have at least one more celebrity encounter. On Saturday, Morrow’s students are performing at a city ceremony to rename the part of Broad Street outside CAPA after — who else? —Boyz II Men. It’s an eerily fitting capstone on a remarkable teaching career.

Like most standout educators, Morrow could have probably gone into administration and made more money. But she couldn’t leave the kids.

“I have to be near them,” she said. “They give me life.”

If her last concert is any indication, the kids will never be far away.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.