I remember the first day in Dr. Sawyer’s AP English III–the room quietly buzzing with all of us juniors eagerly, and anxiously, wondering what it would be like to have a “proper” English teacher. Her welcome speech began at her podium–like the many years before–deliberately bombastic. I’m pretty sure she used every other vocabulary word we would learn that year before asking if any one of us could respond to what she had said. As all of us sat quietly for a moment, I think there was the silent satisfaction of a challenge. We knew we were going to learn that year.
Like all of the other students, I was greeted each morning as I walked in by warm a smile and a hello, but it wasn’t until several weeks into the semester that I actually approached Dr. Sawyer myself. I don’t even remember what my question was. I just remember that she was so excited over my interest in writing that she had me handing over a vey mushy example of my work (about a girl I had a crush on) the next morning. Later that day, she sent for me during third period and exclaimed that I had tremendous talent–that the story had touched her and everyone on the Echo Staff that she read it to…. Red-faced, I thanked her and returned to yearbook slightly embarrassed that my personal thoughts had been read to a room full of mostly girls, but more so, excited about writing for the first time in awhile.
Our chats after class turned into visits during third period and would continue almost everyday until I would graduate just under two years later. When our “Jazz Age” project surfaced weeks later, she approved my idea of shooting a silent film, and “That 20’s Show” would be the first “production” I would organize. I still have my rubric with a big 100 written on the top. Later as I applied to Governor’s School for the Arts, she would let me, along with several friends, leave her class to film scenes throughout the school. And, after I would finish a film, she would wheel out the projector, and we would take ten minutes to watch. Her class was not about the work. It was so much more than that. It was about us, the students. She was there to guide us through the things we needed to know, inspire us to want to know more than that, and challenge what we knew about ourselves. Her classroom was a place of growth, and she exemplified that through her own passion of literature. She lived what she taught everyday, and we, as students, were excited be a part of that.
My senior year, I had a creative writing class added, and Dr. Sawyer taught it at 7:00am every Friday morning. I was a student aid in her AP class, and if I had a video together, it would go in her lesson plans to show her new batch of juniors. When my high school career came to an end, she told me: “You stay in touch. I’m going to keep up with you.” And, she did. Three semesters later when I realized that college was not getting me any closer to my goal of working in motion picture, I found myself back in a high school desk. To my surprise, the teacher who professed college college college was telling me that I didn’t need it–that I had the discipline, motivation, and creativity to make things happen on my own. Even though that she believe passionately in formal education, it sunk in that she was believing in me more.
When I learned of her passing today, on her 69th birthday, of course I felt sad at first. I knew I would miss the emails and visits. But, I couldn’t help but smile at having the privilege to know someone who lived every day to the fullest. We all feel that ALS robbed her of us too quickly, but there is no doubt about the impact of her life written in the lives of those she encountered. I daresay, Dr. Sawyer, that you disturbed the universe, and we will never be the same.