There’s a natural tendency to look back at the past with rose-tinted glasses – a nostalgia which tends to cause the more vociferous pedants of the past to make declarations such as ‘they sure don’t make them like they used to!’.
And while this sort of sentimentality more often resembles romanticised fiction than fact, there are a few exceptions to the rule.
And Merrilyn Sheather is most definitely one of those.
I am indebted to my father for living, but to my teacher for living well.Alexander of Macedon
After an unheard of 38-year reign at Macksville High, the beloved pedagogue is now taking her leave.
“I never meant to stay here, but it’s just the way it went, and I wouldn’t change it. One of my nightmares was that they’d force transfer me somewhere else,” she said.
“People have this concept of Macksville being a little country town, but the drive and potential here is phenomenal.”
Merrilyn breathlessly extols the school’s virtues, pointing out the 15 ex-students who loved the school so much they never left the place, instead taking up teaching roles.
According to those teachers, however, Merrilyn should be the one afforded the credit.
“She’s largely the reason I became an English teacher,” Amanda Hill (nee Hicks) said.
“She was interested in me and really made me feel like she believed in me – it’s like she has this magical aura around her.”
After moulding the minds of two generations of locals she leaves behind her a legacy that is as long as her list of unique talents, which, by the by, include archery, painting and photography.
Merrilyn, or Mrs Sheather as she is known to half the Valley, began her tenure at Macksville High at the start of the eighties, when it was the high school for the whole of the Nambucca.
Her first year of teaching just so happened to also be her first year of marriage, and, coincidentally, the first year she shot a bow.
The six-times national champion learned archery from a “gentleman in Gumma who had Parkinson’s” and her dexterity and passion quickly filtered into her work.
“I don’t think there’d be a single kid who would have escaped here without having shot a bow – so that’s nice,” she said.
“If you’re passionate about a subject, that’s how you get the kids interested.”
And there was never a dearth of passion in her history classroom.
Merrilyn meticulously painted and decorated her teaching space with historical relics and artefacts in order to engage the empathic imaginations of her young scholars.
“It just made a difference to the kids to come into a space that was loved,” she said.
“And I wanted to share that sense of ownership you get for something when you’ve aligned yourself with a person or an event.”
The totems and trinkets may be gone, but her artistry remains – quite literally – inscribed onto the walls of the school.
“I got to a point where if I didn’t paint I was going to be sick,” she said.
“I’d work on my murals after school and the kids would come in and watch the process – they loved to be involved.”
And to prove there’s a lesson in everything, Merrilyn explains her philosophy in allowing kids to witness the whole creative process, even the working out, or “ugly side”, as she puts it.
The tendrils of her artistic legacy wind into every facet of the school: her mascot designs are proudly worn every time her beloved ‘Swampies’ run onto the field.
And it was those same union boys who formed a guard of honour and belted out their signature war cry as the mighty Merrilyn made her entrance into her retirement party at the end of last year.
“I think that really meant a lot to her – she used to go to all their games,” teacher Melissa Robertson (nee Buys) said, who organised the fittingly medieval-themed do in honour of her friend.
And there were more memorable surprises at the party when the Macksville High faculty surprised the guest of honour with a rendition of ‘piano man’ (appropriated by Amanda Hill to reflect Merrilyn’s story):
Merrilyn said she’ll miss her kids enormously, but she’s also looking forward to getting back into her art, the possibility of going over to America to shoot and learning to “exist without feeling guilty”.
“They do say, however, that having kids around keeps you young, so I’m a bit fearful,” she said.
And she has some final words of hope for her contemporaries:
“I hope these new structural changes come easily … there’s less emphasis on the classroom as a teaching space, but I believe the teacher and classroom is still of paramount importance. Your expertise as a trained professional has value. And as teachers, you can be a really powerful force for change in the community.”