|"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.