Stephens retires from high school, looking forward to new chapter
By Darren Lum
Educators, musicians, singers, and friends of retired teacher Melissa Stephens filled McKecks Tap and Grill in Haliburton on Thursday, March 28 to tell stories and give thanks to the woman who has spent 20 years teaching everything from arts and math to science and drama with passion.
In the 40-plus years of living in Haliburton County it was the first time she has retired from anything, the notoriously busy Stephens said, “This is new ground for me.”
Her career began as a four-week maternity leave contract and ended up lasting two decades. Among her listed highlights in her two decade high school career: being a musical director on Grease; designing the renovation plans for the high school’s Room 15, which features the kitchen; accepting the catering job for an autumn wedding for 150; catering the Ontario Senior Winter Games twice; catering a cancer survivor dinner for 300 at Relay for Life; going on a trip with four students to a conference in Winnipeg; and other school trips to Ottawa and Niagara Falls.
Colleague and friend Jackie Mayhew, the school’s head secretary, told the audience about the advice Stephens gave her during a retirement speech she gave for Brenda Robinson 15 years ago.
“She said, ‘Picture your audience naked and you won’t be so nervous.’ It worked. I got through it just fine. But I’ve got to say, 15 years later folks ...” Mayhew said, waiting for the explosion of laughter to die down, “Melissa’s been imagining you all naked.”
“I love this woman. I mean we all do, right? Or we wouldn’t be here. My connections with her will not be the same as everyone else’s. She has so many pots in the fire I wonder how she is able to form and maintain relationships with so many people. She obviously does. Look at all the people that are here from different areas of her life.”
Mayhew said she got to know Stephens better when her children took music lessons years ago from Stephens. The friendship also grew from their time together at the high school and a “common love of the HHSS Scholarship Committee.”
“We all know how amazing Melissa is at everything she does. She’s a legend truly,” Mayhew said. “Did you know she is amazing with math skills, too? The first time I watched her add 10 columns of figures without a calculator for reimbursement comes to mind. I reverted to my adding machine after she left the office, [thinking] of course, sure, it would be wrong. No, it was perfect. That’s Melissa. And that’s the way it always went.”
Stephens was responsible for designing and maintaining Room 15, which included a kitchen. She kept inventory of all the utensils and assorted pieces from the room. As Mayhew spoke, a long line of people grew, snaking their way from the bar to the front table where they jokingly returned items. It took a few minutes and ended with teacher Dan Fockler, removing items from all of the pockets from his cargo pants.
“Always a good reason to wear cargo pants,” Fockler said.
Stephens’s skills include sewing, which she has used to help with mending and creating costumes for the theatre as well as adding the letter H to hockey jerseys for retiring staff from HHSS. Mayhew said instead of relying on her poor skills she had Sylvia Winder sew the H on Stephens’s jersey.
“Melissa, I will be in touch for the next retirement, though,” she said.
Mayhew summed up her thoughts by saying, “You are one of the most gifted, amazing people I have ever known and I wish you much joy and peace in the next phase of your journey.”
Long-time friend and teaching colleague Jennifer Paton spoke on behalf of the teachers at HHSS referencing the high standards Stephens set.
“We have loved working with you. All the things you do. Just the parts at HHSS make us feel tired and inadequate. But we have gotten used to that. We will miss your dedication, your commitment, your creativity, your attention to detail and your efficiency. You fed us. You made us laugh. You solved problems, especially the clothing. From a broken zipper on a toddler’s snowsuit to altering a grad gown ... your courses engage students, including some of the toughest ones. When that crew are happy and busy everything in our building goes better.”
Paton told stories from students, including one who said, “I was so scared at first, but now she is my best friend. She makes me laugh.”
Former HHSS principal and current Haliburton County school board trustee Gary Brohman provided a message from Florida through current HHSS principal Chris Boulay.
He said her career was “pure magic for all the students she taught, but more so moved intellectually, emotionally and [made] a difference in their lives that will last a lifetime.”
Brohman said Stephens brought that magic through in everything she taught.
“Melissa had a very diversified teaching career and [it] was handled by her better than any conductors, artists, scientists, chefs could possibly perform on their best days. She did all this with integrity, compassion, dedication and the betterment for her students. I truly admire your energy and talent,” he said.
Former music student and past HHSS colleague Sam Little sent a message from France: “You are one of the most gifted people I have had the privilege to work with. You are master multi-tasker that organizes and completes more in a week than most people do in a month. The amount you accomplish on weekends resembles a work week for some and you are still the only person I know who can mark tests, make a coat for your dog and watch a baseball game at the same time.”
Stephens thanked the Walkers, who own McKecks, for their service in hosting the event, and her colleagues and friends Chris Simpson, former HHSS principal Dan Marsden, Mayhew, Paton, Boulay and Little.
She offered the audience an insight into a new chapter of her life after the last Friday of school.
“Craig, when we got married our invitation said something about ‘We were the best of friends.’ Well, we still are, but maybe not after next week,” she joked, referring to the first week of retirement. “We’re starting a new journey in our life. You’ve been so supportive of me. Almost every morning he makes sure I get a good breakfast and when we only had one car he would drive me to school and then waited until I got in the door. I’m looking forward to our plans for the future, but I think I’m a little worried about the dog because I think he’s going to be very upset on Monday morning when I don’t go to work.”
Stephens said she hopes to takes some university courses, learn how to weave, go golfing, walk the dog, play the cello, develop her tech skills and catch up on some reading.
“I always knew from early on I wanted to be a teacher. So this is a quote [from Henry Adams] for the teachers: A teacher affects eternity. He can never tell where his influence stops,” she said. True to character, she not only ended her speech by thanking everyone, but also promised to have cinnabuns in the staff lounge for her colleagues on her last morning of work.