I had only been in Florida for a year when I walked into Professor Johnson’s American Literature course at Edison Community College, and started up a conversation with a young woman with long red hair named Patricia. Meeting twice a week and always being to class early, we got to know each other pretty well. She, too, wanted to become a teacher and she, too, had struggled with math. Edison instructors had helped her become proficient at math, and they would do the same for me. Patricia paved the way for me in that regard — we both had been fearful that our poor math skills would be the undoing of our dream to be teachers. She showed me it could be done.
It was fall of 2001, and we were together that fateful 9/11 morning. I remember Patricia saying over and over again that all she wanted to do was go pick up her kids at school. But we were good students, and missing our own classes was unthinkable. She breathed a sigh of relief when the professor showed up and canceled the class.
Patricia went on to the education program at Florida Gulf Coast University after that fall, and I only had minimal contact with her after that. I went on to finish my AA, and then went to FGCU myself. I was in the English program, so didn’t have any opportunities to run into Patricia on campus.
Fast forward to 2011. I was a finalist for the Golden Apple award that year. The last winner to be announced was Patricia Buitrago of Three Oaks Elementary. It wasn’t until the News-Press did the story on her and I read her children’s names that I realized that the woman I knew — Patricia Christman — was now Patricia Buitrago. I contacted her immediately and we re-established our friendship.
Sadly, after her big night she was diagnosed with cancer. I had lunch with her well after her treatments were done. She was determined to live and dedicated to putting her energy into her teaching career. She transferred to Heights Elementary school, where my nephews attended elementary. Yesterday after I received the news of her passing, I asked my students if any of them went to Heights. I had one girl say yes. I asked if she knew Mrs. Buitrago and her face lit up. “Yes, she was my favorite. She used to let us play fun games. We drop my sister off at Heights every day and I keep thinking I need to go in and say hi to her.”
The last time I saw Patricia was in her classroom during preschool open house at Heights. She had a corner of her classroom dedicated to her college days — her diploma, her gown, her medallions and honors. I remember standing there looking at these symbols of a dream she and I shared what seems like eons ago. The difference now is that my students still have me. Her students just have the memories.