“The teaching that leaves its mark is not what is done from head to head, but from heart to heart.” (Howard G. Hendricks) When I wanted to find a meaningful quote to start this biography, I stopped on this one. Beautiful, deep, and with very important words. Words like teaching, mark, and heart, all of which are associated with the person I chose for this biography, all are relevant to the wonderful project that today is the best tribute to a life that has been dedicated to making it possible.
Hortensia Méndez de Álvarez was born on February 13, during the 20th century in Havana, Cuba, the second of five children of the marriage of José Méndez Ramos and Hortensia González de Méndez. She received her education from a school of Ursuline nuns, the Merici Academy, whose ministry was the education of girls and missions in Africa. In the midst of extracurricular classes (piano, dance, languages, guitar, singing) that provided her with a multidisciplinary and extensive training, she experienced the splendor of a Cuba that launched its last fireworks before entering the darkness of communism. Her school, wrapped in a mystical trail of memories and feelings of nostalgia, represented for her an inexhaustible source of unfinished dreams and perhaps the flame that lit a bonfire that would be consolidated much later. She remembers that seeing her nuns loaded with papers to correct and colored pencils made her admire the teaching profession. She finished her high school education at the Ethel Walker School in Connecticut, fulfilling her parents’ dream of a trilingual education for their children.
Upon returning to her country as a graduate, she found the Revolution in full swing and with a sense of urgency, her family organized her exodus without ever having foreseen that they would have to start over in another country. Leaving houses, extended family, childhood friends, nuns, and an unreplaceable world behind, in a violent and unexpected way, propelled her to a premature adulthood. With a breath of relief to be together, her parents, her siblings, and she embraced exile.
The following years, a huge effort was made for both her siblings and she to continue their education abroad, but economic circumstances prevented it, and after becoming a bilingual secretary, she worked in New York until her health was seriously compromised, not only physically but also emotionally.
Her parents heard that the Dominican Republic was the country that resembled Cuba the most and in 1963, they moved to a cozy wooden house in the city of Moca. Soon after, Hortensia dedicated herself, along with her siblings, to help her parents with the company that they had just started in their living room. It was in Moca that their tobacco business resurfaced, creating happy memories filled with lessons.
In 1965 she met and married her husband Fenando Álvarez Bogaert, with whom she had four daughters. She was actively involved in her husband’s political career, which led them to move to the city of Santiago on more than one occasion. It was during one of those political campaigns that her daughters became her first students. They studied at the Veritas Institute in the city of Santo Domingo, and for a few months when the whole family had to move to El Cibao, the girls received classes from their mother, which reactivated her old dream of teaching.
But it was not until a few years later during Christmas time, when her family’s economic condition deteriorated, that Hortensia Méndez decided to put into practice her illusion of being an educator. She had completed her French studies at the French Alliance in Santo Domingo, reaching the highest diploma, which gave her the title of language teacher.
She started receiving groups of children, teenagers, and bank executives at her house to teach them English and French. She then expanded her workshops by adding other extra-curricular activities until she found a niche in the education industry, since there wasn’t a place like hers where children could go to after school to study languages, practice swimming, and take music and art classes.
Later on, her clients suggested opening a preschool and the rest is history. She studied to become the General Director of her incipient school, reaching the highest GPA of the Pedagogy career and the title of Valedictorian at the Pedro Henríquez National University.
Thirty years later, Follow Me School is a reality, which in a certain way bears great similarities to a school that, as a second home, permeated the memory and hearts of so many people over the years. Many years have passed since the time when Follow Me’s first teachers were her eldest daughter’s college friends.
I am that eldest daughter who, from her profession as an architect, allowed herself to be infused, by the grace of God, with the most beautiful of vocations: to be a teacher. I think that my mother has shown vision through all the stages of her life as an educator, from her success in offering children and teenagers a cultural space and academic support to the development of an institution that has graduated students who are recognized for their outstanding achievements.
My mother has been a source of inspiration throughout this evolution of events. She has never wanted to separate affection and family unity from the school’s philosophy. We are a tribe, an extended family. Within these walls, a high academic standard is combined with something that is extremely innovative: living and acting with faith; significant human warmth combined with creativity and academic excellence.
Something that has truly inspired me is learning to raise the self-esteem of my students by demanding that they do their best, without conditioning the most disinterested and noble love that I can offer them. I once read a quote that says that a child who is loved at home comes to school to learn, but a child who does not receive love comes to school to be loved.
They all love each other, they are corrected with love, they are taught with order and enthusiasm, they are educated through the arts, languages and theater, and they learn to be happy. I believe that being a leader entails helping people reach their greatest potential. I believe in the power of vision as well as the power of not giving up, but above all, I believe that faith is what makes all things beautiful and what gives people the strength to persevere.
I was and am marked, like many other children and teenagers, by the example of someone who dreamt of a wonderful project and fought to maintain it. A project whose ramifications, neither she nor I will be able to measure.