Because of unusual circumstances, I attended three high schools…in Midland, Wichita Falls, and Corpus Christi, Texas. But most of that time was spent at Wichita Falls High School–almost three of the four years.
Wichita Falls is an insular and somewhat rural town of 100,000. It gets scorching hot there in the summer and is the the site of one of the worst tornado disasters in history. It’s a difficult place for a teenager to be the new kid.
But it’s also the place where I met Linda Merrill. She was my English teacher for a only single semester but remains, by a wide margin, the best teacher I ever had. She was the first teacher I can ever remember who treated students like adults, and who thus expected adult-like results out of her students. She was very energetic and vocal in the community, and in a place like Wichita Falls, she was a vanguard. A lot of students thought she was a bit crazy. To me, she was a savior.
Even though I was a voracious reader, I wasn’t a very good high school English student. I unfortunately saw little value in studying the classics, and while my composition skills were solid, I hardly knew what to do with them.
Ms. Merrill recognized this and to her credit offered latitude when it came to writing projects. For instance, she approved the Dallas Cowboys as my term theme topic, but when I turned in a cheesy melodrama she saddled it with a “C.” I couldn’t exactly be disappointed when my work was substandard, but it was embarrassing that she treated me like an adult and I reacted like a child.
Before my senior year my dad moved us to Corpus Christi, but I kept in touch with Ms. Merrill through the mail (yes, back then we really did hand-write and send actual letters.) She passed along school news and praised my writing skills. The idea of actually publishing a book seemed like fantasy, far away and impossible, but her steadfast belief in my ability made it easier to believe.
So imagine my delight in 2004, when I wrote to Ms. Merrill and told her my first novel was about to be published. The regional book tour took me to various locations in Oklahoma and Texas, and the final stop was Wichita Falls. I invited her to come, and on a stormy day in July of that year, I saw Ms. Merrill for the first time in seventeen years. She was grayer and smaller than I remembered, but her energy was still off the charts.
Not many people came to the signing, but standing in front of Ms. Merrill as a published author remains one of my best days. I like to think she enjoyed it as well.
Though Ms. Merrill isn’t the only person who inspired my drive to be a writer, she was certainly one of the most important. Which is why I was sad to hear that last Wednesday, while riding her Harley trike home after a tennis match, Linda Merrill suffered a brain aneurysm. She died two days later on Friday, June 15th. She was 63.
In reality the two of us were little more than acquaintances, touching each other’s lives for only a short time. I was only one of thousands of students Ms. Merrill taught over the course of twenty-nine year career, and yet her influence on me was significant. It’s an important lesson for me that I thought I would share with you.
Below is an excerpt from a newspaper report about her death:
Linda Merrill, called “as famous as you can get in Wichita Falls,” died this morning from injuries she suffered in a Harley trike accident Wednesday, according to the Wichita Falls Police Department.
She was 63.
Merrill and her husband, Gene, shared their retirement years riding the Harleys, telling the newspaper when she left the school district in 2003 that she looked forward to the time she could spend on the three-wheeler motorcycle. She was not wearing a helmet when she started driving the short distance to her home from Weeks Park, where she’d just played tennis.
Friends wondered if she may have suffered a stroke or aneurysm, the Times Record News reported, causing her to drive it unusually slow and strike a curb, the jolt throwing her off the motorcycle. Jan Inman, a friend, told the Times Record News Merrill was “a Coyote through and through.” She spent 29 years at the high school, first teaching reading, English, government and history. She later became an assistant principal and the school’s magnet coordinator.
Funeral arrangements are not known at this time.