“I was just an absolute nightmare to teach — so hyper and out-of-control, and such a brat and rebel,” recalls Wright, who has amassed 25 hit singles in Canada. “And I think about how my teachers had to deal with me, bless their hearts. Many of them have shown up at my concerts throughout the years. When I see them I put my arms around them and try to explain that my mom got divorced, and that I am so sorry.”
Kids who live through divorce deal with it in various ways. The young Wright was a typical case study in bottled-up frustration, unresolved emotion, ill-placed aggression and boundless energy — and she was going to burst if she didn’t find an appropriate outlet. So it may not be surprising that, of all her teachers, it was athletics coach Maurice “Mort” Giles who played the most important role in the life of Wright.
It wasn’t until Wright’s mother remarried and the new family moved to the small farming town of Merlin, in southwestern Ontario, that Wright felt as if she had a steady place she could call her own. Wright stayed there for eight years before going off to college, primarily attending Merlin Area PS and Merlin District HS. She has since lived in Nashville for the past 20 years.
Long before Wright became a singing sensation, she was the type of kid who needed athletics to work out her emotions and tension. It was coach Giles who taught Wright the all-important concept of finding your focus. “Maybe he recognized that I was struggling because of my hyperactivity, attention deficit and other issues that I had,” she says. “School was hard for me but athletics came easy. I could put out all my energy and really achieve something. If I wasn’t the best, I was pretty darn close.
He really encouraged me to be the best that I could be. And it worked.
“Through Mr. Giles, I started to learn how to feel a sense of accomplishment. I started to learn that, if you do certain things — like have a goal in mind and put the required steps in place — then it’s quite possible that you will achieve that goal. And it consistently has proved itself with me.”
Giles began his teaching career at Merlin District HS in 1965 and remained there until it closed in 1980. He subsequently taught at Blenheim District HS and Chatham’s John McGregor SS before retiring in 1998.
Giles coached his share of student athletes, but something stood out about Wright. “She was a fierce competitor,” he says. “I was a phys. ed. teacher, so I coached Michelle in volleyball, track and other sports. Everything we did athletically in the school, she did.
“She was definitely an unusual person but I think that came from her background — one of disruption as a young person. Her toughness came from her upbringing. So when she came to Merlin, she found more stability.”
And with more stability quickly came more confidence. “I have memories of her in phys. ed. class competing with guys and not feeling out of place,” Giles says. “She was determined.”
Even back then, Wright started to show signs of another type of determination — in music. “Whenever we’d have a talent show at school, she’d be on stage, with her cowboy boots and guitar, entertaining the students,” Giles recalls. “She always said that’s what she was going to do. When she was 14 or 15 years old, she said that she was going to be an entertainer and sing country and western. She certainly achieved it.”
Be it competing athletically or strumming a guitar, Wright has a basic approach to life and learning that was greatly influenced by Giles. And listening to him describe his teaching and coaching philosophies, it’s no mystery why tiny Merlin District HS — with only about 120 students — had disproportionate athletic success.
“Keep it simple,” Giles says. “As a coach I always felt that way. Keep it simple and focused on what you’re doing. And be prepared. I didn’t believe much in luck. I guess that’s the lesson I taught. Preparation was the key to many of the successes I had as a coach and teacher. I tried to prepare myself for every situation that might occur and it has worked well for me.”
It has worked well for Michelle Wright, too. “We were strong physical farm kids,” Wright says. “So here was a teacher who was dealing with high strength levels in individuals who also displayed athletic possibilities. To take these young, wild, raw individuals and try to coach them must have been challenging at times. But Mr. Giles took it seriously.”
Giles had a keen eye for skill and knew how to nurture it in young athletes. “I had a natural athletic ability, and he recognized that,” Wright says. “He really encouraged me to be the best that I could be. And it worked. It was that same focus that taught me the discipline I needed to be successful in my music career.”
Wright has seen her former teacher occasionally throughout the years, usually at one of her concerts. “I’ll look up from my autograph signing after a show and there he’ll be, standing in line, grinning from ear to ear,” she says. “I’ve always felt support from Mr. Giles and known just how proud he is of me.”