Breaking the Cycle Legendary Environmental Science Teacher Calls It a Career
Byline: Jameel Naqvi firstname.lastname@example.org
Gary Swick wheels a cart down the empty halls of Dundee-Crown High School, collecting used bottles, discarded newspapers, crumpled love notes, aluminum cans -- all the things the teenage boys and girls need to last from the 7:40 a.m. bell until dismissal at 2:55 p.m.
Swick will be back in a week, wheeling a cart down the same hallways, collecting the same bottles, newspapers, notes, aluminum cans, aborted homework assignments. Maybe he's seen some of the things before in earlier incarnations -- a can of diet soda he drank last month, a copy of the Chicago Tribune he picked up at a gas station on Elgin's far West Side, a plastic baggie he used to wrap a sandwich he brought for lunch.
But soon, the cycle will be broken. Swick's easygoing demeanor; his folksy, self-effacing teaching style; the trademark Sam Elliott-style mustache and the smile it partially conceals; the rainbow belt that holds up his blue jeans; the conviction in his voice when he talks about the joy of discovery -- all of those things, familiar touchstones for 34 years at the Carpentersville high school, will soon be gone.
In about three months, Swick will retire. The moment came a few years ago when Swick looked around and saw former students who were now colleagues, teachers he had mentored who had gone on to become mentors themselves, new science labs, and a few more white hairs in that clump under his nose.
"I thought I was a new teacher for 25 years, then I looked around and I'm like, wow, you're an old guy," Swick said recently as he sat down to reflect on his career. At 56, he says, "My time is more valuable. I can spread my love in a lot of different places."
After almost three-and-a-half decades of standing before a chalkboard, muddying his tennis shoes in the swamps and fens of Dundee Township and pulling a paddle through the tranquil channels of the Fox River, it would be hard for Swick to mothball his sport coat of recycled newspaper. So he won't.
Instead, Swick will focus on things he neglected because of his career. He will lobby Springfield lawmakers for the Sierra Club, seek grant money for a water quality monitoring program he runs and perhaps apply for a teaching position at a community college.
"It means a freedom," Swick said of retirement. "I don't want to just turn around and get back on the same treadmill."
Swick ended up on that treadmill almost by accident. The future environmentalist first developed an appreciation for the outdoors while growing up next to a forest preserve in suburban Chicago.
"I just got a wonder and love for nature by being part of it," he says.
In 1972, Swick enrolled in the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point, intending to pursue a degree in political science. Later, he decided to study natural resource management instead.
The final piece of the puzzle -- teaching -- came a bit later.
"I went to school to be a forester, and I learned along the way I really enjoyed working with children," Swick says.
Still, Swick, who hadn't held a "real" job and barely did any student teaching, didn't think he'd land a teaching job after he graduated. He was staying at his friend's cabin in Eagle River, Wis., when he got a note to call Don Rich, associate superintendent for secondary education for Community Unit District 300, the Carpentersville-based school system that includes Dundee-Crown, then Irving Crown High School.
"I thought I was in trouble because I wasn't looking for a job at all," recalls Swick, who had worked a summer program for the district.
It was one week before the start of school, and Crown was in a tight spot after an unexpected departure left the school without a teacher for two new courses: forestry management and recreational animals (pets).
"They were desperate, so I got a job," Swick says. …