UWhat James said is true, clutches do work by using slippage to transfer smoothly from different gears and from a stop. If your clutch gripped instantly from a stop, the tire would either jump straight to match the speed of the engine or the engine speed would drop straight to zero(both of which would cause massive stress on the car). Slippage is a key aspect of the way the clutch works.
That said, it is VERY easy to have excessive clutch slippage when learning to drive stick. One thing that most everyone knows will destroy a clutch in no time is 'riding the clutch'. This means modulation speed by using the clutch. Ex: letting the clutch partially out or pumping the clutch while in slow/ stop and go traffic. When you do this, the acceleration of the car is being controlled entirely by how much friction there is between the clutch plates as they slide past each other, which in turn produces stresses and heat which the clutch is not really designed to take long term. In turn, the clutch plate surface wears away much faster than is typical. This kind of driving produces wear in the realm of repetitively drag launching the car.
The shifting you described sounds to me like you are allowing/causing excessive amounts of slippage in an effort to shift smoothly. The key to shifting smoothly is not letting out the clutch partially or extremely slowly, it is matching the engines RPMs to the speed of the car as best as possible between shifts while releasing the clutch just slowly enough to not jerk the car. When starting out, I personally shift much differently than you described. I get all the way into first while reving the car only as much as is necessary to avoid stalling the car, increasing the amount of throttle while I let the clutch out so that the engine stays at 700-1000 rpm and doesn't stall. From there I try and get into each gear as quickly as possible without jerking the car. How high up you go in the rpm range is really up to you and how much good mileage is important to you. Personally I don't shift until atleast 2500-3000 rpm in each gear when I'm not in a hurry.
In simple terms, if your accelerating while the clutch is not fully engaged, every bit of the force that goes to the rear wheels is transmitted through the clutch via the friction of the clutch plates as they are sliding past each other, when the clutch is fully engaged these plates don't slide against each other. The less slippage, the less clutch wear. Shifting like you described is OK while learning, just try to move away from letting the clutch slip or accelerating while the clutch isn't fully engaged.
As for the difficulty getting into second, all I have to say is welcome to the club.
As far as feel goes, the transmission in my car is one of the notchiest noisiest transmissions I have ever encountered. I bought an mgw short shifter hopping to improve the feel, and now I just have less leverage to pass through the notch shift gates going into 2nd and 3rd. If I try and shift really quickly, it feels like trying to punch through a 2by4. :hihi: Honestly though, it doesn't bother me that much anymore, I just had to get used to muscling it into gear.
The only thing you really need to worry about in that area is grinding. If the transmission starts to grind randomly between shifts, then one of those little synchros might be about to call it quits.
Welcome to the V8, manual, RWD world. Personal, I don't think I will ever opt for another drivetrain setup. There is nothing like being able to throw the back end out in the middle of a turn with the wonderful powerband of a nice V8.
Oh yah, check out the stickies in this forum, there is a fully browseable online ford service manual for the s197.