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Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Merrimack photography teacher gets No Bell award

MERRIMACK – Mike Cirelli is comfortable behind the camera. Heck, he’s made a living shooting photographs and teaching the art itself.

But being in the limelight? Not really his thing.

The exception came last week when Cirelli took center stage on awards night at Merrimack High School. There, Cirelli was presented Merrimack’s No Bell award, given to a teacher who senior members of the National Honor Society think is most deserving.

“I was blown away,” Cirelli said. “It’s a big honor to be chosen by your students. I was really taken aback.”

Cirelli, who has taught photography at the school for eight years, was given a $6,000 check courtesy of a Nashua couple who wish to remain anonymous.

Cirelli said he plans to use the money to buy a high-definition video camera, which he had plans to buy someday.

With it, he wants to produce some documentaries, starting with his octogenarian grandfather who immigrated from Italy.

“I wanted to sit down and talk to him about his life on camera, so he could share his stories first-hand,” Cirelli said.

Cirelli, 30, also hopes to shoot a documentary project on skateboarding – which, by extension, is how he got into photography in the first place.

Around age 12, Cirelli asked to borrow his dad’s camera to shoot his friends’ skateboard tricks, which were somewhat like urban legends.

“It’s like, ‘My friend did this on a skateboard,’ and no one ever believed you,” Cirelli said, laughing. “We wondered, ‘How do we prove this?’ ”

Along with borrowing the rig, Cirelli read a 250–page book on the basics of shooting. He loved it.

Cirelli also likes drawing and painting, and a few years later, he entered the Cleveland Institute of Art in Ohio, intending to study those disciplines. After he landed a job at a photo lab, he changed his major to photography, even studying for a year with various shooters at the prestigious Parsons School of Design in New York City.

Back in Cleveland, Cirelli also – by chance – took a brief substitute-teaching gig at a nearby private school.

“I had all this experience of working with different photographers and sharing it with the kids,” Cirelli said. “They were so interested, so excited, and they actually listened! That energy was just really awesome to be around.”

Cirelli taught for a second time the next year and finally decided to merge his passion for photography with teaching. He applied for the Merrimack post.

Principal Ken Johnson recalled interviewing Cirelli eight years ago.

“He had a sport jacket on three times too big that he no doubt borrowed for the interview,” Johnson said with a laugh.

Still, Johnson was impressed by his work and even more with his attitude.

“There was this humble quality about him where he gently spoke of his talent, but focused on a real passion to teach his talent to kids,” Johnson said.

“He is a teacher in the purest sense,” Johnson said.

Through teaching, Cirelli said he’s found that he can guide student interests, ideas and energy to get a “positive ball rolling.”

One of the major stories in Cirelli’s teaching career has been the school’s partnership with a school in Tianjin, China. For each of three student exchanges, Cirelli has tagged along to document the experiences, visiting the sister school, the Great Wall of China, Tianamen Square and other landmark locations.

In a letter to the No Bell couple, Johnson wrote that Cirelli “has become legendary at the Bin Hai Foreign Language School in Tianjin, China” and that he has “captured memories of a lifetime for our students and teachers as well the spirit of the Chinese people.”

To the couple making the award, Cirelli said, “In the past, it has gone to teachers who really inspire kids, so it’s awesome that I got it. I think it’s phenomenal that they support teachers in this kind of way.”

Karen Lovett can be reached at 594-6402 or klovett@nashuatelegraph.com.