Strong Families, Strong Daughters Blog

Cultivating the Education of Young Women

Mary T. Ortiz, Ph.D.

My introduction to heirloom flowers came from a visit I made to Thomas Jefferson's home, Monticello, several years ago. It was a beautiful, warm June day and we found ourselves in the garden and took the garden tour.

It was absolutely amazing to be surrounded by bright colors and somewhat unusual flowers—unique, with a good scent, overwhelmingly beautiful. The master gardener there mentioned that these flowers were extra lovely because they were heirloom flowers. Heirloom flowers are taken from seeds that are at least fifty years old. They have vibrant colors, strong scents, and are very strong and hardy. There's also a notable lack of uniformity in them; heirloom flowers don't conform to a mold. 

As I was listening to the description, I kept thinking that these adjectives describe some of the people I admire most in my life. They are "heirloom people"—strong, reliable, following their paths with tenacity and individuality, happy with their own uniqueness. And I thought, these characteristics are what I'd hope to find in a truly educated young woman. At Oakcrest, we're educating girls to be trustees of humanity—that rich and important phrase from Saint John Paul II.* 

We are educating our girls to be strong, confident, well-prepared, virtuous women who are person-centered. And person-centered means they know the human person is sacred, at every moment, from conception to natural death, no matter what happens to them. Their humanity automatically makes them sacred. And when we have problems in life, and in everything, we start from that point of view: what is the truth of the human person and how do we address that in any situation? That's what it means to be a trustee of humanity. 

It is sometimes hard to conjure up an image of a trustee of humanity. This is where the heirloom flower is helpful to me, because it's a concrete image. It allows me to go back to that metaphor of education, gardening. What gardening and education have in common is great effort and great sacrifice. There are so many virtues required of both: tenacity, hope. When I think about education, I also think about the work of parenting and the work of school. 

Heirloom flowers don't just appear. They're cultivated through serious work. And I like to think of all of us as heirloom gardeners. We're not just cultivating a few tomato plants on the fire escape; we're doing something much bigger. And an essential point is that we gardeners—parents, educators—need help. We need ongoing training, coaching and encouragement from experts and seasoned peers, and we need hope. 

1) Training: Our Coffees and other talks are one way we hope to provide this for parents. In addition, I think of the importance of having a good book about education. Always have a book or podcast on hand. Two recommendations I would give to you are The Teenage Brain by Dr. Frances E. Jensen and The Childhood Roots of Adult Happiness by Dr. Edward Hallowell. You don't need to read the entire book. Just take notes and read as much as helps you. Note what's speaking to you. You can go back, think, reflect, even use those notes for prayer. 

2) Coaching and Encouragement: Take advantage of what Oakcrest offers. On Friday, November 20, psychologist and family physician Dr. Leonard Sax will be visiting Oakcrest and giving two talks on young women and education. Family Enrichment is another great training resource, one of the best investments you can make. With these things, you're getting fresh input from an expert, or from seasoned peers who've traveled the road before you. These are great resources that are necessary for our work. 

3) Hope: This is really important. St. Thomas Aquinas, in his Summa Theologiae, says, "Prayer is the language of hope... The Lord teaches us hope by teaching us His prayer. The Our Father is the school of hope." Parents and educators need hope renewed very often, and at a very deep level, because what we're doing is very deep. My prayer for parents is for faith, hope and love, and all the virtues, especially the cardinal virtues of prudence, temperance, fortitude, and justice. We need to ask for them because our daily work requires the virtues in a very real way. 

* Apostolic Letter, On the Dignity and Vocation of Women, n. 30

Mary T. Ortiz  holds a Ph.D. in English Literature from New York University, and a B.A. in English and German from Bowdoin College.  She is a member of Phi Beta Kappa. While completing her doctorate, she taught writing and composition at NYU, and began a 15-year career of developing supplementary educational programs for girls throughout the U.S. Working collaboratively with educators and parents, she coordinated the creation and growth of programs that develop the whole person: camps, service projects, cultural and leadership programs, all of which offer spiritual formation through the Prelature of Opus Dei. Mary first joined the Oakcrest faculty as an English teacher and Assistant Head of School in 2009. She became Head of School in 2012, bringing to Oakcrest her love of literature and the humanities, and experience and commitment to the education of young women. 
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