James Fitzpatrick teaches at Catonsville High School, where he graduated in the 1970s. His students find his teaching style engaging.
James Fitzpatrick teaches at Catonsville High School, where he graduated in the 1970s. His students find his teaching style engaging. (Kim Hairston, Baltimore Sun)

James Fitzpatrick leans back in a huge black office chair with wheels and points at a projection on a screen in the front of the classroom, not far from the Soccer Barbie dolls and a clock featuring the portrait of French writer Voltaire.

"Here is the question," he says in a deep, booming, intense voice. "Is postimpressionism a movement of art or artists?" ("Artists," of course, is the answer he elicits from a student.)

Fitz, as he is called by everyone, has been teaching for decades, the last 10 years at Catonsville High School. During National Teacher Appreciation Week, a teacher who is beloved by students is on a roll in his Advanced Placement European History class.

Giving his class a last-minute review on hundreds of years of art history to help them get through the big three-hour test scheduled on Friday, Fitz paces, spins in his chair and pretends to paint. His arms wave wildly through the air as he "throws" paint on canvas, imitating Jackson Pollock, or presses the point of his finger to a blackboard like a pointillist.

He is alternatively cracking jokes and dead serious, a mood that changes on a dime. His smart, quick students banter back and forth with him so quickly that there's no time for a mind to wander or grow weary.

When Vermeer's "Girl with a Pearl Earring" appears on the screen, he says: "It hurts to say this, but it speaks to us." "Ah," the class laughs. "We are so proud of you!" a student erupts from the back of the classroom, teasing Fitz for expressing emotion about the painting.

His class revels in his irreverence, which is akin to their own 18-year-old sensibility.

"He's sassy," says Christina Bassler.

"It's like going to a class where the teacher is a rational and emotive therapist," says Barrett Law.

In the back of the classroom sit two huge cookie jars, one for pretzels and another for animal crackers. The always-hungry teenagers take a handful on impulse, without asking.

In the middle of class, a girl wanders in from the hall and steals a cookie from the jar. "He's not even your teacher," a student chides her. "But I am so hungry!" she says, running out.

Fitz is unfazed.

Students in this class are such good learners, he says, that he can allow a bit of side conversation at times. When they know the most important material is in front of them, the class is completely silent; no squeaking desks, even. "They know when important things are happening," he says.

The slightly balding, slightly paunchy teacher with large metal-frame glasses loves Catonsville High School. He graduated from there, sent his children there and still lives in the community. "Once a Comet, always a Comet," he says. "The high school serves as an anchor for the community. It has a small-town feel to it. Even though we are just outside the city, we are a bit of an enclave."

He had been a business major when he entered college because "it seemed like making money was a good idea." But it was quickly clear that that would not work for him, so he decided to teach English or social studies. He decided on social studies, he says, because "I hate fiction."

But Baltimore County wouldn't hire him after he graduated from college, so he took a job teaching social studies in Frederick County and commuted for 21 years from Catonsville.

The job at Catonsville High happened through a chance discussion with a teacher there when his children were in school.

"The kids are engaged, they don't sign up for a course without wanting to know more. You can see the interest level that they have in the subject matter," he says. He has taught all levels, he says, but he tailors his approach to the class.

Students in the European history class say his psychology class is taught differently. They love both classes, though. They say he teaches them to think and challenges them in a way no other teacher will. "He will directly challenge you. He will tell you: 'No, you are wrong,'" says Drake Lentz.

They say they like the way he gives them respect, the way they can have a highly intellectual discussion with him, the way he will alter a due date when something else is due in one of their other AP classes. They even like the way he sometimes scares them with his loud voice. His intensity, they say, makes them remember the material.

He's also the girls soccer coach — hence the Barbie dolls.

Like many teachers, Fitz believes that too often these days, teachers are told to use a cookbook approach with classes. Anyone can follow a cookbook recipe, he says, but it doesn't make them a chef.

There's little left to do in this class filled with 19 seniors in the middle of May. The college decisions have been made, the AP test results will not determine their future, graduation is just a few weeks away.

But they are still engaged and happy to spend 80 minutes in his class at the end of the day.

Students say they will work hard on the test, not for themselves, but for Fitz. They would never want to disappoint him with a poor score.

"Fitz is a teacher you will remember for the rest of your life," says Amanda Tracy, who will be starting college in the fall.