Each summer in August, shortly before the school year begins, Eddie Ortiz makes the pilgrimage from New Jersey to Calvary Cemetery in Concord, New Hampshire, where Christa McAuliffe is buried.
“It’s my way of getting ready for the new year,” he says.
McAuliffe, of course, is the teacher who perished in the 1986 explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger. Ortiz recalls watching that tragedy play out on television at school, where his seventh-grade teacher, Mr. Campbell — one of 11,000 other educators who had applied to be the nation’s first teacher in space — regularly incorporated NASA source material and New York Times accounts of McAuliffe’s training regimen into his lesson plans.
“I didn’t have a lot of heroes growing up,” Ortiz says now. “She was an ordinary person doing something extraordinary” — so extraordinary, in fact, that at the moment of the explosion, what went through the youngster’s head were the words I’m going to be a teacher someday.
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Five years after the Challenger explosion, Ortiz — whose parents never advanced past the sixth grade — became the first in his family to enroll in college. Four years after that, upon graduating from Montclair State University, he accepted an offer to teach social studies, English and English as a Second Language at North Bergen High School. With McAuliffe axioms tattooed on his arms — “Reach for the Stars” and “I Touch the Future, I Teach” — he channeled his hero every day.
But in 2018, nearly two decades into his career, Ortiz found himself troubled by a feeling of a mission still not completed. A colleague who’d recently gotten her Ph.D. from TC urged him to follow in her footsteps. That August, as he visited McAuliffe’s grave, the astronaut’s maxim that “everything is a risk” was much on his mind. “I finally decided that Christa McAuliffe would have said, ‘Go for it,’” he says. Two weeks later, thanks to some fast-tracking by TC’s Office of Admissions and some fast work of his own, Ortiz took a seat as an incoming master’s degree student in the English Education program.
The past two years have not been easy ones. Ortiz kept teaching full-time at North Bergen, even as he moved from his longtime residence in Hoboken to an apartment near the TC campus. Yet his sense of having come home was so immediate that he began collecting TC yearbooks (including one from 1917) and scouring E-Bay for vintage postcards of TC students in various locations around the campus.
“You can go to any school for pedagogy, but the humanity is what makes TC so special,” he says.
You can go to any school for pedagogy, but the humanity is what makes TC so special.
— Eddie Ortiz
Ortiz cites a poetry class he took began with Ruth Vinz, Enid & Lester Morse Professor of Teacher Education, inviting students to “think, notice and imagine in words and images” the world around them.
“By the end of the semester, I came to understand that the daily invitations were actually invitations to re-experience the world and our lives,” says Ortiz. For his own students, then, literature wasn’t something to be absorbed because of its “importance,” but instead, an interactive experience that offered an opportunity to make meaning by discovering and articulating one’s own feelings about love, injustice and other core aspects of being a person in the world.
That same invitation is implicit in TC’s commitment to inclusivity and social justice. “All perspectives are welcome and respected — all voices are heard,” he says. “It means a lot to me, as a Puerto Rican, Latinx and person of color, that TC can offer so much to people like me. And it’s so important at my school, where 88 percent of the students are Latinx, to see that people of color have an opportunity in a place like TC.”
This fall, Ortiz will enroll as a Ph.D. candidate in the TC English Education program. He’ll keep teaching full-time at North Bergen, but down the road, he dreams of joining TC’s faculty.
Meanwhile, assuming it’s safe to travel, he has another visit planned to McAuliffe’s gravesite in August.
“I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished,” he says. “And I like to think she would be proud as well.”