For those who worked with Fatima Schmidt for the past 15 years, walking by her fourth-grade classroom of Public School 333 in the Hunt’s Point section of the Bronx, will never be the same. She died on April 13th from COVID-19. She was 57.
A curly short-haired woman, with light brown skin, and brown eyes that would shine through her rounded eyeglasses, Fatima Schmidt was a selfless genuine, kind, and motherly woman, according to those who knew her well. Her colleagues describe her not only as a teacher but as the most passionate soul that reminded all students to move forward and achieve their goals against all odds.
“She would always fight for the best of her students,” said Betty Gerassi, who worked with Fatima since 2009 and remembers how Schmidt would stand up to advocate on behalf of her students at Board of Education meetings. “She was very vocal about the books or resources our students needed.”
Jaime Barron another teacher who worked with Schmidt for 14 years, said she spent more time outside of work with Fatima than with her own family members. Schmidt and Barron planned lessons together and according to Barron, Schmidt volunteered for other classroom activities too. “She would go and buy pumpkins, dresses, or simply help out organizing for the 100-day celebration of kindergarten students, every year,” remembers Barron.
Both Borran and Gerassi recall the many times Schmidt would go around their classrooms during breaks to share snacks or the delicious desserts, she would bring from home.
“I liked her habichuelas con dulce,” said Barron, referring to a famous dessert from the Dominican Republic made of beans, sweet potato, raisins, and milk that Schmidt would bring every year during Lent.
Gerassi even remembered that thanks to Schmidt, she would eat foods that were better for her. “She would come and say, ‘Do you want a banana?’ I am not a fruit person, but she was so diligent looking out for me that I would say, yes,” said Gerassi.
Fatima also built a great relationship with her colleagues outside of work.
She would host a barbecue at her house for her colleagues during the summer and everyone would bring different dishes. She always wanted to be part of the important moments of her colleagues. Gerassi recalled that after a long day at work on her birthday in 2018, her colleagues, including Schmidt, improvised a get together at Jimmy’s restaurant in the Bronx. “She made it a priority to be at my 36th birthday full of laughter. It was the last time she sang ‘Happy birthday’ to me,” said Gerassi.
“I will never forget her big smile and her even bigger heart, full of gratitude,” said Gerassi who will extremely miss Schmidt, her teaching ideas, and her positivism once they go back to the classrooms.
Fatima Schmidt was the firstborn in the Castellanos-Peralta home, a modest family of farmers from the town of Tamboril in the city of Santiago, located in the center-north region of the Dominican Republic. When she was 7 years old, her family moved with her and her younger sisters to start a new life in the United States. They settled in Washington Heights, New York where her younger brother was born. Fatima was a very bright, energetic, and driven child who always looked for new ways to learn no matter the obstacles she faced, says her husband, John Schmidt, who met her when they were students at Inwood Junior High School 52 when she was 13 years old and he was 14.
“She got two bachelor and two master’s degrees,” said her husband, 58 who spent 44 years with Fatima and had two children: daughter Karin and son Johann, now young professional adults.
“She was always concerned about our kids’ education and was always there for them,” said her husband. He recalled how willing his wife was to drive to see their son during diving competitions while he was in college in Massachusetts. “ No matter the weather, she would go to the sports events sometimes twice a week, drive four hours, be there for two hours and drive four hours back the same day,” he said, adding that his son had told him that many times she would be the only parent there.
Schmidt also added that he admired his wife’s devotion going above and beyond for their children even though she had a full-time job. At the same time, she gave so much to her students in the Bronx, he said.
Laila Franco, 15 a former student of Schmidt says she will always remember the caring and very strict teacher who shaped her to become a great student. “She made us work hard, reading complex books, and taught us how to write excellent essays,” said Franco, who added that she kept in contact with Schmidt until recently. “She always asked me how I was doing and what I wanted to study in college.”
According to her husband, Schmidt had the opportunity to work in private schools or in the suburbs of Rockland County, where they moved 30 years ago but instead, she decided to work in the Bronx with kids who had similar learning experiences as she did as an immigrant and first-generation student. “She saw in every student, the struggles she went through,” he said.
She even joined a charity to help communities internationally provide a sound education for children.
For the past 12 years, the couple sponsored many kids in an educational program in Honduras, where John was originally from. She used to travel with her own kids to help the communities in need and share her teaching expertise.
Mr. Schmidt and his family have created an organization to look and provide learning resources for children in communities that need help most, just as she would have done.
“We want to honor her memory helping poor kids to empower themselves through education just as my wife did,” Mr. Schmidt said.
On April 13th before putting on a ventilator, Fatima was able to see her family through video, and John’s last words to her were to stay strong and that she was going to make it. In his view, the charity’s mission to help kids learn will ensure that her loving spirit will live on. By Angie Hernandez