Saturday, January 04, 2014

Standing In and Standing Out

"Miz O" circa 1980, in her element
I learned this morning that Alice Ortega passed away.

Alice taught English at Catholic High for over forty years. For nineteen of those years, I was privileged to be her “boss” as principal or president of the school. 

“Boss,” however, isn’t quite the right term.  I was only twenty-seven when I became principal of the school in 1989, and by then, “Miz O” (so called by her students) had been teaching at Catholic for over twenty years. I was smart enough to realize that teachers like she, “Mr. Frye” (Math, 20+) and “Coach Arban” (History, 20+) were the real leaders of the place. They were kind enough to let me have the title of “principal” as long as I didn’t mess things up.

Alice was a true pillar of Catholic High—quick of mind, with a prodigious work ethic, and passionate in her love of Shakespeare, poetry, plays and good literature.  Her “Freshman Comp” class was a wake-up call for students with lackadaisical academic commitments.  The expectations of that class were the same for over a quarter of a century:  Write 12 paragraphs per quarter, the first ten of which would be graded  “pass or fail,” the final two of which would be given a letter grade.

BUT, each of those paragraphs had to be structurally and grammatically perfect. They could only be written in Mrs. Ortega’s presence (to prevent a student from getting unauthorized "help"). And if a student didn’t complete all twelve by the end of the quarter, he or she failed—no exceptions.  Some students would write and re-write the same paragraph as many as 10-15 times, and when the quarter drew near to a close, it was very common to see as many as 25 freshmen in her room after school, writing feverishly, desperately trying to meet the deadline.  That meant, of course, they were learning to write, and generations of alumni have Mrs. Ortega to thank for their writing competency as a result. 

It also meant that Mrs. Ortega had to grade thousands of paragraphs each quarter—the same ones, over and over! I am guessing that over a forty-year career she graded well over fifty thousand paragraphs.   My enduring memory of her will always be carrying around a stack of them, which she’d grade  at any available opportunity--at lunch, before and after school, during faculty meetings in which she judged I had nothing important to say (we talked about that), on weekends and during holidays.  I’m not sure anyone in our school ever worked as hard as Alice, but I know that no one graded as much.

She also had a way of inspiring our brightest students. She taught “Honors Brit Lit” for well over thirty years—a pretense, I told her, that allowed her to study Shakespeare and get paid for it. Kids loved that class. Then she'd offer Shakespeare as an elective, and our best students would quickly register for it.  Mark Crowley, who now teaches English at my school in Nashville, told me that because of Mrs. Ortega, he had “four years of Shakespeare in high school. How many kids can say that?” My daughter Cynthia, a Notre Dame grad now in her third year of law school, told me “I began to love poetry under Miz O--if you tried to B.S. your way through an interpretation, she’d call you out in front of your classmates. Interpreting literature was a serious discipline, and she made you accountable to the author's intent--I loved and respected her for that."

We had our spats, she and I. As the school’s drama teacher, she was a pack rat, and never wanted to discard the furniture, props and costumes that had accumulated over the decades. Frequently, I'd tell her to meet with our custodian and tell him what to throw away, and she'd scowl at me and say "I'll get to it.” Of course, as the years went by, she never did, so one summer I met with the custodian and discarded about 50% of it without her knowledge.  She was so angry with me she could barely speak, but over (a long) time, she forgave me.  I told her that her classroom was "next", but she told me if I touched anything, she’d quit on the spot--that she would only forgive me once. Stubborn as she was, I believed her, and left well enough alone!

She had the enormous respect of her peers. If I wanted to introduce a new initiative to the faculty, the first person I’d talk to, privately, was Alice, for I knew if she agreed, the rest of the faculty would follow. She was extraordinarily generous, volunteering to “man the office” during her lunch break every day for over twenty years so the secretary could get some down time. She came in most of the summer, on her own dime, to put together a master schedule for the fall and to help students register for classes. She had a devilish sense of humor—once, early on, she and David Tokarz were told by Dr. Doyle to do a cross-curricular project with the Fine Arts teacher, and they named it the “F. Arts” initiative in protest.

I wrote a blog article in 2006 (here) reflecting on the legacy of the sisters in Catholic education in this country, asking who would "stand in next", now that the sisters were no longer with our schools. For over forty years, Alice Ortega "stood in" for Montgomery Catholic High School. We owe her an enormous debt.  

Rest in peace, good friend.


Peggy Jones said...

Very nice tribute to a wonderful lady. Peggy Jones, CHS class of 1978

Tony Dean said...

Thank you for this amazing epitaph. It is a daunting task to capture the enormous impact Miz O had on so many generations, but you did a great job. I was struggling just a few days ago with a writing assignment in my Ph.D. program and I turned to my wife and said thank goodness for Miz O. She taught me the writing skills I have used throughout my life. I now teach criminal justice writing and have adopted some of Miz O’s techniques. Her legacy has impacted so many and will be felt for generations to come.
Tony Dean

Anonymous said...

Absolutely beautiful. Well spoken. Thank you for sharing this with us.

Ava Porter said...

Hi, Mr. Weber! Yes, I heard this morning, as well, and she is one of the people I always shall have fond memories of at Catholic, along with you and Diane and Mr. Frye, etc. She was a wonderful lady and professor.

Ava Porter

Ava Porter said...

What a wonderful note, Mr. Weber. I shall always have fond memories of her, you and Diane, Mr. Frye, Coach Arban, etc. at Catholic High. She was a wonderful English instructor and person!

Sending hugs to all who remember her,

Ava Porter

Lauretta Ferrill said...

Brought tears to my eyes. Even though I only went to Catholic High my freshman year,
Miss O made a huge impact. The great teachers we have in life are never forgotten.

Tricia Crowley said...

Thank you for this obituary and tribute. Our 5 children had 1 favorite teacher: Miz O. As my colleague she was generous and non-intrusive--even those daunting times I taught remedial freshman comp,the hardest thing I did at Montgomery Catholic. There are few teachers as passionate about teaching and about literature and grammar, and she was one that I was honored to know and love.

Peter Crowley said...

Thank you for writing this loving and honest account, Mr. Weber. I’ve been thinking why Miz O was my favorite teacher. My best reckoning is it was her combination of passion and seriousness.

Beneath her fatigue, toughness and structure in the classroom was a romantic core. She wanted to share sublime marvels. When we read plays aloud in class, I could watch her face and tell that quietly, even with the stumbling student readers, she was basking in it. That sense of wonder was hard earned, though, and while she wanted us to get to where she was, she didn’t mean to make it easy. Eventually a student could grow to appreciate what good gifts she was sharing with us.

Appreciation aside, she also had to teach us how to write, and in doing so she earned our respect. Early in my freshman year, after having Miz O accept my final paragraph for the quarter, I had about 20 minutes of class time left while other students were furiously scribbling. I could have used it to improve the paragraph and get an A, but I decided I had worked hard enough. After letting me do nothing for a little while, toward the end of class she called me to her desk and quietly told me she would never, ever let me get away with that kind of laziness again. It scared me and shamed me because, more than any other teacher, I wanted her to like me. For me, as for others, she was the judicious audience member, “the censure of the which one must in your allowance o’erweigh a whole theatre of others.” (“Hamlet,” Act 3, Scene 2)

Peter Crowley
CHS Class of 1993
Saranac Lake, N.Y.

Vince Cornell said...

May God rest her soul. She was not only a wonderful English teacher, to whom I owe my love of literature, Shakespeare, and writing, but she was a wonderful boss at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival. She picked some of her students to work as ushers at ASF, where she was the Front of House manager.

Every year at ASF they put on a charity play full of random comedy skits. I volunteered once, and they wrote a little skit featuring an "usher gone mad". Just before the doors closed and the show began, a planted actor posing as a tactless patron walked across the stage. In the ensuing altercation, I pulled a gun on him and he wrestled it away. Suddenly, Ms. O burst on the scene, shot the gun out of his hand, wrestled him to the ground, slapped handcuffs on him, and then lectured the audience on eating candies wrapped in that obnoxiously crinkly plastic during the show.

It was, by far, the biggest laugh of the night.

The other memory I have is the one time we tried to pull one over on Ms. O. It was Honors Brit Lit. She was going to be out of town during a double-period, and she had selected a BBC documentary about the life of Elizabeth Barrett Browning for us to watch during her absence. We watched for about five minutes, and we decided it was terribly boring. One of us, who shall remain nameless, produced a copy of Monty Python and the Holy Grail to watch instead. We swapped the tapes and reveled more in our craftiness than the movie itself.

Then, halfway through, Mr. Weber entered to check on us.

Never has such a funny movie been so agonizingly painful to watch. If you ever watch it again, just try to imagine your school principle sitting in the room with you (especially during the Sir Galahad skit). We tried to explain that this was Brit Lit and King Arthur was a part of Brit Lit, but Mr. Weber just shook his head and said, "I can't believe she has you guys watching this."

The next class we received the worse dressing down imaginable. It still brings fresh shame just thinking about it. Ms. O was angry, disappointed, and betrayed.

I was about 2 inches tall for weeks, both in her class and at the Shakespeare Festival. She didn't hold the grudge, though.

Thank you, Mr. Weber, for this tribute. I will forever be thankful to Ms. O, and, as I continue my love for literature and share it with my own children, she will be ever near my thoughts and always in my heart.

Vince Cornell
CHS Graduate '97

Anonymous said...

I still miss you Mom. Everyday. I would stay in Highschool forever if it meant I didn't have to have lost you.

Love always,