By Sabrina Bartels – On Easter, I found out that my beloved Debate and Forensics coach, Sharon Sharko, unexpectedly passed away. As the news quickly circulated around Facebook, her friends, colleagues, and former students all began sharing their favorite memories. I couldn’t shake the idea of blogging about a teacher who had such an influence on my high school career, so if it is okay with readers here, I’m going to dedicate this blog post to Sharko.
We never called her Ms. Sharko. Okay, maybe I did the very first time I met her, but stopped after that. She was always just “Sharko.” It took away the formality that usually exists between teachers and students. That lack of formality led to Sharko creating close relationships with all of her students. We were able to walk into her office at any time, before, during, or after school, and we would be greeted with a smile and a witty comment. She would offer all kinds of advice for us as well, from what college would be best, to how to ask someone to prom. She was a wealth of knowledge on so many different things.
She also had a knack for knowing people. When I first joined her debate team, Sharko decided to pair me up with a quiet girl named Linsey. Linsey and I were debate partners for only a year, but we still talk to this day. In fact, she was a bridesmaid at my wedding. The next year, Sharko paired me up with a boy named Ken, who knew more about politics and government than I ever cared to learn. Somehow, our personalities meshed and we really clicked as debate partners. These two people that I believed had nothing in common with me have ended up being my lifelong friends. I am forever thankful to have them in my life. In fact, a lot of my core group of friends from high school were from the Debate and Forensics Team!
Sharko’s knowledge of who I was (even when I maybe didn’t know) extended to my forensics career. She placed me in a category called “Public Address,” which involves a speaker writing a speech around a controversial issue. Under Sharko’s guidance, I began to blossom as a public speaker. I learned how to use hand gestures and subtle movements to emphasize my points. I learned how to project and how to inflect emotion in my voice. A category that I had started out hating soon became my passion. I would go on to be conference champion my sophomore and senior years, and take home two silvers and a gold in state competitions.
One of my favorite memories with Sharko revolved around the first forensics meet of my senior year. I had been procrastinating (as usual) with writing my speech. The day before the meet, Sharko had asked if I wanted to practice my speech. I had to admit that I hadn’t written it yet. I remember she rolled her eyes at me (she was used to me waiting until the last minute for everything; she had, after all, had me in her AP Politics class and witnessed me crank out five-page papers two hours before class.). “Make sure you have one tomorrow,” she reminded me as I left for the day.
I went home, watched some TV, listened to music, finished my homework, and around midnight, decided it was a good time to start my speech. I wrote an 8-minute speech in an hour and practiced it twice. Okay, to be honest, I read it once to my mom that night, and once to my dad in the car as we drove to the meet.
I made it through my three rounds and then found out that I was able to go to the power round. A power round is when judges take the top five or so speakers and have them compete head-to-head. I remember Sharko wasn’t fazed in the slightest when she found out I was in the power round. She told me she had every faith in me that I would make it to that final round.
Once the power round was over, we all filed into the auditorium to get the final results. The emcee had the speakers from each category come to the stage and receive their awards. “Public Address” was called up, and I walked to the front with all of my fellow speakers. They announced the fifth place speaker, it wasn’t me. Fourth place, it wasn’t me. I remember Sharko was beaming at me for being in the top three. And then they announced third place, and it wasn’t me. That’s when Sharko and I exchanged looks of shock. At the end of the meet, as I clung to my second-place trophy, Sharko hugged me and said, “Imagine if you had written your speech a week before!” She then said she was proud of me, and that I represented our school well.
As I got older, my relationship with Sharko evolved from student-teacher to colleagues. When I decided to become a school counselor, she sent me the following message: “I think that your sense of what to say and do is going to be so helpful for kids at any age and I am very proud of your accomplishments. Counseling isn’t the easiest career, but as I said, you will be excellent.” We would talk about Forensics and the struggles educators are facing today. My last message from Sharko said, “I know teachers shouldn’t have favorites, but you were one of mine. And when you think about it, being a teacher is kind of like being a sculptor, you have to have good material to generate a work of art. And, you Sabrina, were really, really good material. Hope to talk to you soon!”
But my last memory of Sharko isn’t even my memory. It’s my husband’s.
Just last year, he and Sharko had jury duty together. The two had lunch together and reminisced about high school and Sharko’s career at Greendale. According to Rob, Sharko had talked about what a great counselor she imagined I was. I was so flattered that she told my husband this. I remember telling Rob that I should Facebook Sharko and ask her to have coffee with me, but work and life got busy. I never got around to it.
Sharon Sharko helped make me the person I am today. At her memorial, someone said that Sharko was the “patron saint of awkward teenagers.” And it’s true. When I was a shy, unsure, timid teenager, Sharko took me under her wing and helped me discover a confidence in my speaking abilities. She helped me foster a love of helping people and standing up for what I believe in. That’s what she always did. She loved and accepted every student that walked through her door, regardless of age, confidence, and beauty. She took you and made you a better person. A better speaker. A better advocate. She was always there for her students, both when we were in school and out in the real world, guiding us, supporting us unconditionally, and helping us become the wonderful, expressive adults we all are today.