by Nat Frothingham
MONTPELIER — If you’ve seen school crossing guard Michelle Pitzner at her Montpelier corner location where Hubbard Street crosses East State Street, you won’t easily forget her. With her winning smile, personal warmth, safety yellow “magic cape,” eight-sided stop sign and orange traffic cone, Pitzner is a friendly and effective presence for the many schoolchildren and their parents, as well as any skateboarders, cyclists, motorists or pedestrians out for a walk.
On Fridays as a reminder that the week is ending, Pitzner dips a bubble wand into a soapy solution and blows big colorful bubbles across the intersection. “I want to lighten it up and let the week go,” she said. What’s unforgettable about Pitzner is the deep well of joy, love, optimism and genuine caring that she shares all day long.
Pitzner was born in Rhode Island. She is a 13th generation descendant of Roger Williams, the free-thinking renegade preacher and dissident who fled the suffocating Puritan strictures of Massachusetts to found the first white settlement, in what eventually became Rhode Island.
Pitzner spent her childhood in Connecticut and grew up attending a school that was largely modeled on the Goddard College idea of education. She and her family started visiting Vermont when she was around nine or 10 before finally moving here permanently.
Still, her Rhode Island roots run deep. “I love research, I love history and I’m a lifelong learner,” Pitzner told The Bridge. Way back in her family lineage, her great, great, great grandmother was a State of Rhode Island historian, so Pitzner comes by her fascination with history naturally.
During her time in Vermont, Pitzner has done a lot of different things in addition to being a crossing guard. For about 20 years, she worked in restaurants. She holds a Class B Commercial Driver’s License. She’s a qualified paralegal with an associates degree from Woodbury College and earned a Bachelor’s degree in psychology and holistic healing from Union Institute and University.
While she was living in southern Vermont, she worked for a time for C&S Wholesale Grocers in Brattleboro, where she injured her back.
“My son was starting school,” she said, “which brought me to Montpelier. He was four-and-a-half. With an injured back, there wasn’t much I could do. I started out as a crossing guard in front of Union Elementary School. The two of us had the same school hours.” Pitzner eventually became an instructional assistant at Montpelier High School; her son is now 22 years old.
In the intervening years, Pitzner held a number of different jobs within the schools. She’s been an interior painter at all the Montpelier schools, and even got school authorities at the high school to switch from a lifeless beige to the use of the school colors — green, white and gold. The halls are white with green stripes topped off with gold on the ceilings.
As if that weren’t enough for one person’s résumé, Pitzner also worked for a time as a mental health professional, and spent several years taking care of people with disabilities. These days she has two part-time jobs: in addition to crossing guard, Pitzner recently took a position at Another Way, a drop-in and recovery center on Barre Street.
But her work as a crossing guard has always been a constant. “Somehow it always works out,” she said. “It seems for some reason I’m supposed to do this.”
When Pitzner started work at Another Way, the director said she didn’t want Pitzner to give up her crossing guard job. “We want you there,” the director told her . “She’s got her kids in the school district,” Pitzner explained.
“I help the parents. I try to keep everyone’s spirits up. I try to be optimistic and positive in these trying times. I try to remind parents they do have these precious children and they need to be present with them. Most of my kids, I know them by name … most of the parents too. There are too many names to remember them all, but still I remember every face.”
“I’m the mom on the corner,” Pitzner continued. “If I see a kid that’s in trouble, I offer to help. Sometimes kids just need a hug. In the winter, I remind to pull their hoods up and zip up their coats.”
About her Hubbard and East State Street corner, she said, “I’m in a cool spot overlooking the beautiful State House. When I’m not there in the summer my life’s not quite the same. Montpelier is a generous community. People bring me coffee, or sometimes a gift certificate for a gelato. Someone brought me a box of hand-warmers. I really appreciate it.”
Pitzner realizes how important her crossing guard job is to the Montpelier community. “I only have two hours a day, five days a week, to make an impact,” she said. “I coordinate that intersection. It’s a total balancing act.”
“It’s not one person driving a vehicle,” Pitzner continued. “One person’s actions affect many other people. Things can go very wrong very fast. Children don’t even know about risks. They think they’re invincible. And sadly, we know they’re not.”
“I’m doing my best to keep our children, to keep everyone safe,” Pitzner said. “I’m working with everybody. If I had one thing to say to everyone it would be, ‘Slow down. Make room for others.”