It has never been questioned whose name belongs above classroom no. 7 at West Jefferson High School. Adorned by student artwork and a picture of Einstein, for 32 years that doorway has been the beginning for many incoming freshmen as they began their high school careers. For many students, Coach Mark Sawicki was the first teachers we saw as we walked the halls of West Jefferson for the first time. Often, Coach could be found on the bench outside his classroom visiting with students and greeting others as they passed by on their way to their lockers. He took it upon himself to make sure each student felt welcome, whether they were coming into the school or into his classroom. He wanted each one of his students to feel as comfortable as they could, while hopefully learning a bit of science in the meantime.
“It’s my belief, it’s a very firm belief of mine that if you are comfortable in a place, if you feel safe in a place, in you feel nurtured in a place, that there is going to be some learning taking place,” he told the audience May 30 during graduation.
Once we stepped into his classroom, we knew we would be learning something. Sitting at those black topped tables, the hum of that old projector filling the room, we started in the physical science class as freshmen, learning about the scientific method and how matter is the stuff of the universe. In anatomy and physiology, we studied the skeletal system and the mechanics of the muscular system, the function of our skin, and learned how to formulate technical answers to difficult questions.
Like many teachers, when Sawicki first started teaching he wanted to ensure that the students remembered the facts. Over time, he realized that while the facts are important and there was no replacing them, he wanted to teach his students more than anatomy and matter. He took it upon himself to relate the facts to lessons about life and skills that would hopefully make life a little easier, and us better people.
He encouraged us to help others by serving in any way we could. More than once students and wrestlers would be seen hurrying off to help teacher with heavy boxes after only a look or a word of encouragement from Coach.
Sawicki taught us how to be a part of the learning experience with the words, “Pencils down, eyes up.” That if we focused and listened to what was being said, we could gain a better understanding of the content while helping others understand as well. That if we applied that skill of listening to understand instead of to respond, we could decrease miscommunications and misunderstandings. Through the words “sense or nonsense?” we learned it was OK to ask questions when we didn’t understand. That is was not only OK, but was encouraged to have a voice in the learning process. Through formulating technical answers, we learned to follow through with difficult tasks and that hard work pays off. Through the caveman challenge—where students voluntarily went without soap or shampoo for a week—we learned that everyone is the same once you took off the mask and the adornments.
We learned that not only is the universe made up of matter, but we learned that every one of the estimated 1,600 freshman who passed through his door each fall into his physical science class mattered to him. Not only did we matter to him, but as he expressed in his This I believe speech he gave to the student body in 2013, he believed in us, the school district he called home and the teachers he worked with.
For Kristie Scott, Sawicki has been both a teacher through junior high and high school, and a colleague for 21 years as she took the English teaching job at West Jefferson High School. She said he showed her “to be a caring and thoughtful teacher. To not sweat the small stuff. To care deeply about where I’m at and what I’m doing.” Scott went on to explain how he had taught her to look at situations through a different perspective and to think before speaking.
“He has been a strong voice for good in education in our district … and a sense of stability,” Scott said.
Sawicki knew what West Jefferson stood for and its history and worked with Scott and other teachers to preserve and protect what it means to be a West Jefferson Panther.
Not only was Sawicki a teacher, but he was a coach. Having wrestled throughout his life, he had begun coaching right out of high school and as he took the wrestling position and worked to build and influenced the wrestlers. He said he wanted to teach the wrestlers to “win and lose with the same dignity” and to learn how to deal with life’s lessons appropriately through the struggles that comes with the sport.
As the wrestling team manager of three years, Clarynn Shuldberg got to see the effect that Sawicki had not only on the boys he coached but on the other teams. “(He) stressed sportsmanship in everything that he taught to the boys … turning every moment into a teaching one … at wresting tournaments he could often be found talking to coaches and wrestlers from other teams. He not only cared about his team but the entire wrestling community … in the end the boys want to be someone that Couch could be proud of.”
For her personally, Sawicki taught Shuldberg to love learning and to always push herself to do better. He taught her how to stay composed “and not lose your temper” from his example at matches.
“My dad was coach and taught by Coach Sawicki his first year at West Jefferson,” Shuldberg said. “And I was taught by Coach Sawicki his last year of West Jefferson. So, he is more like family than a teacher.”
Coach Sawicki has been a huge influence on hundreds of individuals at West Jefferson and in the Mud Lake community during his time as a teacher.
Eric Torgerson expressed at Sawicki’s retirement party, “Sawicki has a way of making everyone feel like they are his favorite.”
As Coach Sawicki’s time at West Jefferson comes to an end, we won’t see him sitting in the hallway greeting students; we won’t see his truck in the parking lot; we won’t see him on the floor coaching at a wrestling match; but most likely cheering from the stands. And though his name may be removed from above room no. 7, it will forever be known as Coach Sawicki’s room. Sawicki will forever be “a wrestler, a coach and a teacher.”
by Mayli Murdock