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Michael L. SikorskiNovember 25, 1930 ~ March 31, 2017 (age 86)
Go as a pilgrim and seek out danger
far from the comfort
and the well-lit avenues of life.
Pit your every soul against the unknown
and seek stimulation in the comfort of the brave.
Experience cold, hunger, eat and thirst
and survive to see another challenge and another dawn.
Only then will you be at peace with yourself
and be able to know and say,
"I look down at the farthest side of the mountain,
fulfilled an understanding all,
and truly content that
I lived a full life and one
that was my own choice."
James Elroy Flecker from the poem play Hassan.
If there was a word that best described the long teaching career of Michael L. Sikorski, we might choose "remarkable." Of the thousands of young men he taught at West Catholic High School for Boys, and some young women from Bishop Shanahan and Bishop Conwell in later years, he had a demonstrable impact on many of their lives.
A post on Facebook regarding his declining health elicited a massive response among his former students, many of them now in their 40s and 50s. Their tributes were not only immediate but also heartfelt. A sampling:
"He was the most inspirational teacher at West Catholic. He had a life-long effect on me. I have told my kids about him."
"He was one of the teachers who shaped my world. I want to thank him for the large dictionary he gifted to me. I continue to hold on to it and use it." (In 1977 Mike gave this student a dictionary. The student posted a picture of it 40 years later to show Mike.)
"Of all the teachers, I remember Mr. Sikorski most fondly of all. He had a way of making a dreary classroom at 49th and Chestnut brighter and almost cosmopolitan for 40 minutes or so. If you paid attention, Mr. Sikorski was teaching things few bothered to teach, about doing careful work, striving for quality, being cheerful, and finding things to appreciate in kids who didn't get many 'attaboys.' By his example, I became a better writer and editor and a better person too."
"I can still remember him saying, 'Don't just eat the orange, experience it.' He was trying to open our minds to the fuller world around us. His words had a far-reaching effect on me. I have thought of him often and told my daughters about the orange, and the linguistic machine he had us build. I think of him to this very day, and always will."
It is no surprise that people would revere Mike as they did, for he epitomized what a good teacher should be, passionate about his craft, with the ability to bring that passion to his students. However, Mike encouraged not only his students, but also his fellow department members. Typically, he casually visited classes in the first week of school and would find aspects of his visit that would allow the teacher to feel value as a unique individual and as an educator. This positive aspect was also dominant in his classroom, allowing students to become aware that they could achieve and accomplish.
Likewise was his constant expression “to feel free,” suggesting that students and teachers should expand and explore. Under his innovative guidance, the English department offered courses like Poetry of Rock, Creative Writing- short stories, playwriting, and poetry, Linguistics, Film Appreciation, remarkable for the time, as well as the standard American, British, and World Literature.
Both in the classroom and in his personal life, Mike was imbued with culture and grace. He savored and supported the arts, had an encyclopedic knowledge of classical music and the opera, and was a life-long patron of both. Three of his remarkable trips in his life were attending the complete Wagner Ring Cycle twice, in Chicago and Copenhagen, and spending a month writing in a small pensione in Florence, his own "room with a view."
Mike never married and had no children, but he was a fixture in the lives of our families and our children, and remained in contact with several students over decades. A proud Army veteran and loving dog owner, he was devoted to veterans' causes and animal welfare.
Obviously, Mike loved literature. Two of his favorite passages were the concluding lines of two plays that capture his philosophy for life. In Our Town, Emily echoes about the swiftness of life. "It goes so fast. We don’t have time to look at one another. I didn’t realize all that was going on in my life and we never noticed. Oh, earth, you’re too wonderful for anyone to realize you. Do human beings ever realize every minute while they live it? That’s all human beings are. Just blind people."
Coupled to this are the lines Sonya speaks in Uncle Vanya: ”We shall enter on a bright and beautiful life. We shall rejoice …I have faith, fervent passionate faith. We shall rest. We shall hear the angels. We shall see heaven shining like a jewel…all our pain will disappear. Our life will be as peaceful and gentle and sweet as a caress. I have faith; I have faith….We shall rest. We shall rest. We shall rest.”
Mike would jokingly ask, especially on a challenging day, “Will you be coming back tomorrow?” Department members would respond enthusiastically,”Yes." Sadly, he will not be.
Following a long illness, Mike died on March 31 at 86. His intellect, kindness, and passion will be remembered by those he taught and worked with, a lasting testament to a remarkable life. The heart speaks and murmurs. Mike was not blind and realized everything that was occurring and appreciated it all. Now the heart shouts out, he shall rest, he shall rest, he shall rest.