Sarah Ortiz shares thoughts about lessons from teaching during the summer

On a sunny day this past June, I walked through the doors of the parish school of St. Anthony’s Catholic Church in Washington, DC, bursting with hope for the next five weeks.This summer, I worked at PALS (Program for Academic & Leadership Skills), an all-girls program that ranges from third grade all the way to high school.

I taught character classes on living virtuously and mentored the seventh and eighth graders one-on-one. With little teaching experience, I was a tad naïve about how teaching really works. Many of the girls came from broken inner city homes, and some acted as though they would rather be anywhere else but PALS. Needless to say, I was also nervous, as managing a classroom meant calling for respect and enforcing discipline.

On the first day, the girls flooded into the small, un-air-conditioned building, and they looked obedient and shy as they observed their fellow campers and teachers. For my 3:00 p.m. class, I unfortunately had the most rebellious group of seventh graders. Things did not go according to my perfectly scheduled lesson plan: the white-board markers failed me, the character surveys were not in the room, and the girls had had a rough first day and were in no mood for class.

Despite the lack of respect that I had to deal with that first day and many days after, I do not hold any personal grudge against the girls. Quite the opposite, I grew to love those energetic and passionate seventh and eighth graders. The relationships formed from those five weeks are irreplaceable and precious. My co-teacher and I eventually got to know the girls as individuals. We gradually earned their trust, and so understood that their misbehavior almost always stemmed from something bothering them on a deeper level.

Teaching at PALS was full of difficulties, but more importantly, through these difficulties I found deep joy. While I took the metro home at the end of the day I read Sheldon Vanauken’s novel A Severe Mercy, a true story in which Sheldon “Van” and his wife Jean “Davy” journey toward Christianity guided by their friend, C.S. Lewis. The novel has a fitting title, as Van must endure a truly severe tragedy, but one that he ultimately realizes is a mercy from God.

Reading this book while I taught at PALS gave me a unique perspective on the problems I encountered while teaching and on the questions the girls raised about hardship. In the beginning of the novel, Van and Davy do not believe in God and solely celebrate the beauty of life. It is Christianity, however, that allows them to handle the sorrows that come their way. A few of the PALS girls had dealt with difficult situations that most twelve-year olds should never experience. That level of unmerited suffering is a reality that cannot be ignored.

During class one day, I asked the girls why we should “stop and smell the roses.” Most understood the significance of appreciating the beauty that surrounds us, but the hardest lesson was that we should all respect the inherent dignity of every person—no matter what they have done to us. This was difficult for many girls to swallow, as they had past experiences of hard family lives, friendship problems, and financial difficulties that had shaped their childhoods. So while teaching these girls how to handle everyday problems with families and friends, the deeper question of suffering remained.

Yet in the words of Sheldon Vanauken, “goodness and love are as real as their terrible opposites, and, in truth, far more real, though I say this mindful of the enormous evils… But love is the final reality; and anyone who does not understand this, be he writer or sage, is a man flawed of wisdom.”

The experience of teaching inner city girls opened my eyes to the harsh reality that far too many of them must endure broken family lives. While teaching and mentoring these girls, I reminded myself that they were helping me as much as I was helping them. Teaching was no walk in the park, and there were many thorns along the way, but the roses that bloomed from my time with those girls brought lasting fulfillment.

Sarah Ortiz is a sophomore living in Lewis Hall and studying PLS and Classics. You can often find her reading philosophy and poetry on a Bond Quad bench and smelling roses. Contact her at