Because of some odd circumstances, I attended three high schools…in Midland, Wichita Falls, and Corpus Christi, Texas. I was in Wichita Falls for the longest–almost three years.
Wichita Falls is a very insular and rural town of 100,000. There is some oil money, and there is a lot of farming. It is scorching hot (to the point where it rivals the desert southwest). It is also the site of one of the worst tornado disasters in history.
I only remember the name of one teacher from my high school years. Her name was Linda Merrill, and she was my English teacher for only one semester of my junior year. 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 little bit crazy. To me, she was a savior.
In high school I was a relatively poor English student. Though I was a voracious reader, I saw little value in studying the classics, and so while my composition skills were good, I hardly knew what to do with them.
Mrs. Merrill recognized this, and to her credit she allowed me quite a bit of latitude when it came to writing projects. For instance, she allowed me to write a term theme about the Dallas Cowboys…but when I turned in a cheesy melodrama, she only awarded me a “C” on the paper. I wasn’t disappointed in my grade because I knew my work was substandard, but I was embarrassed that she had treated me like an adult and I had reacted like a child.
Though my family moved to Corpus Christi for my senior year, I kept in touch with Mrs. Merrill through the mail (yes, back then we really did handwrite and send actual letters.) She kept me up to date on the WFHS soap opera and praised my writing skills. In my family and group of friends, liberal arts weren’t held in very high regard, and my first forays into creative writing were tentative. Her belief in my ability fueled my confidence.
So imagine my delight in 2004, when I wrote to Mrs. Merrill and told her that my first novel was about to be published. My small book tour was planned to wind through Oklahoma and Texas, and the final stop would be Wichita Falls. I invited her to come, and on a stormy day in July of that year, I saw Mrs. 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 that many people came to the signing, but that was still one of my better days. To be able to stand in front of her as a published author was more than gratifying…for me and for her, I think. Or at least I hope.
Mrs. Merrill isn’t the only person who inspired my drive to be a writer, but she was certainly one of the most important. And so I was sad to hear that last Wednesday, while riding her Harley trike home after a tennis match, Mrs. Merrill suffered a brain aneurysm. She died two days later on Friday, June 15th. She was 63.
In reality the two of us were only acquaintances, touching each other’s lives for only a short time. I was only one of thousands of students she 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.