By Bill Riccio, Jr.
It came with a phone call late last week, Merle Stevens passed away. It hit hard for me, as I am sure it hard for many who knew her. It goes without saying her family mourned her death, but literally thousands of former students, co-workers and friends are in mourning as well.
The last couple of years had not been good to Merle. A fire in her home in June of 2018 left her badly burned and required months of rehab. But, in the process, she suffered a stroke that incapacitated her as well. She fought the burns and the stroke, living out her days in Seaview on Ocean Avenue. Like many, I don’t want to remember that Merle. I want to remember the Merle who was dynamic, vivacious, quick-witted, and one of the best teachers ever to darken the door of West Haven High School.
It was in that capacity – as a teacher – Merle came into contact with thousands of people, and, invariably, left a mark. Quirky but smart, analytical but whimsical, she was a person who could brighten up a room and a conversation. She taught the same way. She could engage students as few could, and in the process, she was able to transcend any student’s perceived abilities and teach the subject matter well.
For Merle Stevens teaching was not a job. It was not even a profession. It was a vocation. She was called to teach, and she honed her skills and her abilities to make the teaching of English something special.
This writer first met her as a 14-year-old freshman in the spring of 1968. She was an interesting person back then. During my four years there we intersected. I wrote a couple of columns for the Rostrum, the school newspaper my senior year. For years she insisted I was the editor of the paper, and I had to keep reminding her that honor went to Don Altschuler. It was at Don’s request I wrote some of those columns.
After high school is when one can learn to know and appreciate a teacher and get to be a friend. No longer is one restricted by the necessary teacher-student separation. Over the next 40-plus years she became a trusted friend, a confidant, and a sounding board.
We got to know each other when I did a one-year stint with the Alternate School in 1977-78. It was there we got to know each other particularly well, talking about everything from sports to politics to religion to philosophy to the funny papers. I left the program and began writing for newspapers, but the friendship continued.
My work in town and with the high school over the years, and my avocation as a high school and college football official and baseball umpire gave us other things to talk about.
On and off during that time, Merle would call, or I would call her, and you had to make sure you were in for the long haul. There was no “short conversation” with Stevens. It might start on tone topic and meander for the next half-hour before returning to the topic at hand.
It was also during this time she asked me to come into her classroom to discuss the background of Dante’s Inferno. Merle wanted her kids of various religious and ethnic backgrounds to understand the culture that allowed such poetry and stories to be written. Dante, John Donne and others were part of a Christian culture that had to be understood in context to understand the literature. In college I focused on Colonial History, which meant understanding Calvinism. I would also try to explain the Catholic view of the world – not as theology, but understanding theology, and its influence on the writer.
You see, Merle believed the kids had to understand the culture to understand the writing. Make no mistake, she was unabashedly Catholic, and she wore it on her sleeve. But there was not proselytizing. It was just who she was. And in a way, she allowed non-Catholic students of various stripes to understand why things were written the way they were.
Merle was also a proud Thomist, and it really pervaded her teaching style. She had a devotion to St. Thomas Aquinas, calling him — as G.K. Chesterton did in his biography– “The Dumb Ox.” A product of Mount Sacred Heart Academy and Albertus Magnus (when it was really a Catholic college) she loved Aquinas.
The product of a first-generation American-Italian mother and first-generation American-Irish father, she wore these ethnicities with honor, sometimes regaling in some Italian, or pushing some Blarney. Family came first, and it was that way all her life. Next to family came West Haven. She divided the world into two categories: Westies, and non-Westies.
She was dogmatic in the belief that one could not understand West Haven without ever experiencing it as a resident. Those who came from the outside had no depth of understanding of the Westie mind, nor its compassion or pride.
But it was her students who came first. To be in Merle Stevens’s class was to be branded forever with her mark. She would remember your first name, middle name and surname, and that’s the way she would relate to you. She could also tell you what row and seat you had in class, and what classroom it was.
Later in her career she gave up honors classes and taught more mainstream kids. But her style really didn’t change. She hated talking down to someone, and she hated that some thought certain students couldn’t be taught. She asked for classes that were difficult. And she taught them.
In her later years, there was talk of replacing Shakespeare with more modern genres of literature, including graphic novels. She thought that a betrayal of the subject matter, and a betrayal of the students. A good teacher, she believed, could get through to anyone, regardless of ability.
This philosophy put her in the crosshairs of some of the lesser lights that were put in charge. Stevens was the head of the English Department, and clashed with upper echelon types who wanted to dumb down the curriculum.
She fought the good fight, but time and circumstances won the day. Her health forced her to retire, something she never wanted.
Merle Stevens was a character. She was also a damned good teacher. She had her faults as we all do. She made mistakes, as we all do. My hope is that she was given the comfort the Roman Church could offer. I plan on having a Mass said for the repose of her soul.
The world will be a little darker without Merle. But those of us who knew her will remember the happy times. And her students will remember a person who influenced them in ways they haven’t even discovered yet.