At a recent awards banquet, Judie Vitiritti-Lynch was so engaged in talking to her former students that she didn’t hear the emcee announce her name. A colleague prompted her to walk up to the podium, because she had won the Italian Consulate in Chicago’s first-ever Midwest Award for Leadership in the Teaching of the Italian Language and Culture.
“I was stunned, because I was up against some very good people, and everyone was so deserving,” recalls Vitiritti-Lynch, who became Addison Trail High School’s first Italian language teacher in the early 1990s and pioneered the program.
In her first year, she instructed 150 kids, teaching five Italian 1 courses a day. By the second year, student interest had grown to the point that the school had to hire an additional Italian teacher, and it now employs three.
The Italian consulate created the award to honor teachers who have shown leadership and influenced students to continue studying Italian. Vitiritti-Lynch has racked up some significant numbers in that regard, as 10 of her former students went on to major in Italian in college, and six have now become Italian teachers themselves. That likely impressed the judges.
Those award-winning results had a humble beginning. The Vitiritti family immigrated to Chicago from Altomonte, a small town in Calabria, in 1968, when Judie was 2 years old. They went back and forth a few times, so that Judie started school in Italy, but then wound up in a first-grade classroom in Chicago when she was 6 and they settled here for good.
The whole family spoke the Calabrian dialect, but Judie’s mother, who had once harbored dreams of becoming a teacher, determined that the kids would not forget their Italian language. She ordered books from Italy, and a cousin sent elementary-level Italian-language texts. Every Saturday morning, Judie’s mother and all three kids hauled out the books and struggled to mesh the dialect they knew with the mainstream Italian they found on the pages.
Since her elementary and high schools didn’t offer Italian, that was the only formal Italian instruction she got until college, when she majored in Italian at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
She started working on a part-time basis for an Evanston translation service, and that led to a full-time translation job at Banca Commerciale Italiano in downtown Chicago, which has since closed.
Talking to her mom on the phone one day, Judie told her she liked the job, but craved something a little more challenging.
“Just go back to school and get a teaching degree,” her mother advised. After a phone call to Loyola University, Judie enrolled and earned a Master’s in Education in Curriculum and Instruction. Some time later, she earned a second M.Ed. in Supervision and Principalship.
She has applied all that education in her work at Addison Trail.
“Over the years, I’ve taught Italian 3 honors, Italian 4 honrs and AP Italian—I’ve been the only AP teacher,” she says.
Vitiritti-Lynch has traveled to Italy many times, both with her parents and also her husband and daughters Gabriella, 17, and Sofia, 14. But she enjoyed seeing the country through her students’ eyes when she took a class there a few years ago.
“One student saw the Colosseum for the first time, and said, ‘Miss V, it’s exactly how you said it would be,’” Vitiritti-Lynch recalls.
She got a feeling of reward from that, and also from listening to her advanced Italian students tackle in-class conversation in Italian on challenging subjects, such as sexual identity related to transgender issues, or the danger of getting concussions while playing sports.
“It’s not easy to discuss these issues in English, let alone a foreign language,” Vitiritti-Lynch says. “I told them, ‘You have no idea how moved I am by listening to your discussion. You’ve come full circle. Everything’s coming to fruition.”