By Nicole Hennessy
Judy Fitch pushes blond bangs out of her blue eyes, around which smile lines have formed, and looks out the window of a coffee shop a few blocks from her Lakewood home.
“Every teacher has stories,” she says, a copy of her recently published book, “Wildflowers: A Memoir of an Inner City High School Teacher,” lying in front of her.
More than nuances particular to her profession, Fitch’s stories are of struggle and resilience; of students serving time for murder in the downtown juvenile detention center, gang members, more often than not; pregnant girls raised in a culture that almost expects this from them; hopeless cases – victims of awful circumstances – and truly good kids not many adults took the time to reward with positivity.
Though a lot of the stories are tragedies, they are also glimpses of what remains wholesome and resilient inside these young adults despite their circumstances. Wildflowers, they are, grown alongside roads, unattended but lush and strong.
“Emanuel was an old soul,” Fitch writes in Chapter Nine, “The Story of Emanuel” – the longest chapter and the student to whom the book is dedicated.
“He never felt that he fit in. He always removed himself from the masses. He even chose, right from the start, to seat himself at my desk, instead of out in the classroom.”
After years of friends telling her to do so, Fitch began writing in February, not sure how much time she’d need to record more than 30 years’ worth of teaching.
Then, in March, soon after she’d gone to dinner with him, Emanuel was shot and killed, the result of him trying to break up a fight involving a family member.
“And I knew I had to write this for him,” she explains, remembering him smiling at the thought of her book, saying, “Girl, I better be in it!”
“Boy, you’re on page two,” she told him.
She gets quiet after retelling his story, a silence more warm than sorrowful, and goes on. There are others.
Mitchell, Clyde, Duran … the sections continue throughout her book. The names have been changed – all but Emanuel’s – but each of them leaves Fitch with a lesson, lessons on government checks, foster homes or the importance of regular and available lunches or the effectiveness of punishment tactics versus positive reinforcement.
Two months after self-publishing, she says she could have doubled the book’s length and that she thinks of new stories every day, “but it is what it is,” she figures.
Raised by parents she refers to as bigots, Fitch says she always knew they were wrong in their views, even at an early age. But her parents weren’t the only ones who doubted the path she chose in her career, seeking out the toughest schools, in search of “the love” she found there.
She’ll admit one has to be tough to work where she did, but encourages the teachers she now hopes to share her stories with to strengthen that toughness with daily hugs and a desire to be well-liked, explaining she’d never make a difference if her students hated her.
She remembers seeing teachers who tried the tough-with-no-love approach. From across the hall, she could see chairs flying and books going out windows. It wasn’t long before they were bringing in snacks and connecting to the students with other small gestures, resulting in a measurable difference in morale.
While, as mentioned, she intends to use this book to reach out to teachers, Fitch’s path led not to lessons learned or shared, but small glimpses into the lives of individuals who’d probably otherwise be overlooked. Her language isn’t flooded with useless decadence; rather, her sentences form straight and to the point. It is her metaphors that show her intentions.
“Leroy was shot but lived to tell about it,” she writes in a small section titled only as the student’s assumed name. “He was a well-dressed kid who loved his shoes.”
As he lay “swollen and unrecognizable” in the ICU, she stood there, staring down at him.
Within the space of a few paragraphs she considers his shoes, near his bedside, like his most prized possessions. She considers the meaning of this in the context of where he was raised and where she came home from every day, only to drive back in the morning, unafraid of the bullets all her friends assumed she was dodging every day.
Retired five years, Fitch was forced out of work after recurring allergies turned out to be a reaction to cockroach droppings. Worried the kids, too, are breathing the insect-infested air, and developing asthma and allergies, she tried to go to court; but her condition was determined to be pre-existing.
“I still have melancholy moments where I miss the stage, the attention, the love and the hugs,” Fitch writes. “I miss my sweet wildflowers.”
She sits in the coffee shop, sun shining through the window a few days before snow will cover the ground, bare trees shedding the last of their leaves.
“By now it was raining and the cars were lining up to proceed to the cemetery,” Fitch describes Emanuel’s funeral, leaving soon after this scene.
She adds, “I had seen and felt enough.”