Teacher Michelle Wheeler believes teens are capable of delivering high-quality work if it is demanded of them. (Amanda Komulainen)

Michelle Wheeler is known by her peers and students at Oxford Hills Chrisitan Academy as a teacher who inspires and expects excellence. Though her cast size and resources are few, her emphasis on building stage skills enables her school-based theater troupe’s performances to rival popular local troupes. Currently, she and Merely Players Community Theatre are busy preparing their performance of “The Little Prince,” based on the novella by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, scheduled for mid-May.

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I was born in Lewiston, Maine, where my mom and a couple of generations of her family are from. My dad is from Massachusetts. I’m the oldest of four with one younger sister and two younger brothers.

We lived in Lewiston until I was 4 and then we moved to Mexico, Maine. My dad wanted to make sure I went to a Christian school and there weren’t any in Lewiston or that area at that time.

There was a little Christian school in Mexico, so my dad changed jobs and moved the whole family. Looking back, I think the reason I’m so passionate about Christian education is because of what great lengths my dad went to make sure I had that opportunity as a kid. When I was 10, my dad got a new job. He was actually hired to help start an ambulance service, which became PACE Ambulance Service for Norway and South Paris.

My dad started PACE in 1990 and we changed schools at that time. We started going to Paris Christian Academy in South Paris, commuting between there and Mexico for a couple of years. We moved to South Paris in ’92. I’ve been living here since then, minus my college years.

I graduated from Paris Christian Academy in 1998. I went to Cedarville University, which is a Christian liberal arts university in Ohio. I studied multi-age Spanish education so I could become a Spanish teacher.

The funny thing was when I was a senior in college, I took an education class with a whole bunch of different education majors and at some point, the professor said, “Okay, remind me again what type of education you’re going into?”

I said Spanish, then he said, “Oh, really?” in a really weird way, like he was surprised. He told me, “I had you pegged as an English or a history teacher.”

I asked him why and he said, “Because you’re a pretty deep thinker. You like to go deep.”

Though it became a tiny red flag in my brain, I wasn’t about to restart anything since it was my senior year, so I dismissed it. I got my degree in 2002 and taught Spanish for a year in a public school in Ohio, which I really enjoyed. When I moved back to South Paris, I started teaching Spanish and history at Oxford Hills Christian Academy in 2004.

Introducing a new language is like teaching kindergarten. You teach the most basic elements and sounds without going much deeper than that. We couldn’t talk about the history, issues, and themes like I could with literature. Though I realized I loved everything about Hispanic culture, after teaching Spanish for a number of years, teaching it began to bore me.

The school eventually started looking for a new English teacher and I said I’d try that role. That’s obviously where I’m to be because I love it so much. It’s fascinating. That professor who didn’t really know me other than a few education classes had me so well pegged.

In 2006, my mom, sister, and I volunteered in the theater class where the students were performing the play “Puss N’ Boots.” We were asked to help build scenery sets and sit backstage during the play to make sure the kids went out on their cues.

That was really cool, but it became obvious during later practices that the kids didn’t have their lines memorized well at all. During the show, my sister and I were literally prompting the kids on their lines. I was appalled by how unprepared they were.

After that play, the theater teacher that year said she didn’t enjoy teaching theater and didn’t want to do it again. I didn’t have a lot of formal theater training other than drama ministry at church, but I studied a lot of books about directing plays and started winging it. I said, “I’ll do it.”

My goal has always been to produce a truly excellent product. Working at a small school where only a small fraction of the students might want to take theater, I couldn’t hold auditions where hundreds of students try for one part and I pick the best one. I would frequently pick scripts from the classics based on what would fit my cast because they already have such memorable lines. Each play season, I block ten weeks of intense rehearsals with a heavy focus on memorizing lines and learning how to deliver them.

Over the years, there have been a variety of plays where I opened my troupe to homeschoolers, alumni, and any adults in the community who wanted to join. Because of this, in 2017, I named it Merely Players Community Theatre based on a line from a play by Shakespeare that really represents what we do. It’s not just the Oxford Hills Christian Academy drama team. We’re all players.

Here at Oxford Hills Christian Academy, we don’t have a theater budge., I do the job of a set crew, and we borrow stage space from local churches for our performances.

However, my favorite feedback from audiences is, “I saw the same show performed by you guys, one of the other local high schools, and a state drama team, and your class’s performance was so much better! I was not expecting the level of quality your students delivered.” Former students have come up to me and expressed how much they enjoyed reading and performing these classic stories.

As a teacher, that’s when I know I’ve done my job well.