TOADTalk: The Courage to Correct

Ms. Honorato argued that our responses to mistakes define our strengths, courage, determination, and perseverance.
Each week, an All-School Assembly launches with the Teacher On Active Duty (TOAD) sharing something of interest—a reflection, a story or song, a demonstration of some sort, or a simple poem. In this way, the community gets to know one of our own a little better. Recently, our TOAD was Liz Honorato. Ms. Honorato teaches math and advises sophomore girls in Middle School and the Latinos Unidos affinity group. She also coaches JV girls’ basketball and this year is offering Bachata and Salsa dancing classes in the Afternoon activities program. Her TOADTalk is below.

At the start of this academic year, I began by allowing my students to reflect on their past mathematics classes and giving me a sense as to who they know they are as math students. I do this because as much as I can assess their work and tell them how they are doing mathematically, it is ultimately them who define themselves and their understanding of the subject. So, in a short survey where many of the questions were about their past history with math, what they do to help themselves in their understanding, etc., one of the other tasks that I asked them to do was to set themselves two goals that they want to achieve by the end of the year. The responses included many of the typical ones that I’ve seen in my career in teaching: make new friends; get an A; learn new things; participate more; have fun. While all of these are awesome and I appreciated every single one, there was one response that I don’t often see and I was glad that this student was brave enough to write it down. It was: “To not be stressed, and to be more ok with making mistakes.” So, thank you to this student (you know who you are)! This statement prompted my desire to speak about making mistakes today.

When you make mistakes, however big or small, you might feel stressed; it’s true. It’s an inevitable part of ourselves as people in a society that has influenced us to associate mistakes with failure, incompetence, underachievement, anxiety, not being good enough, and the list goes on. However, it is the way that we work on fixing our mistakes that defines our strengths, courage, determination, perseverance—all things that build our character and are a result of errors that we ought to strive to remedy in our lives. 

Mistakes are part of our lives. In the mathematics classroom, I have seen many of you work through a tough problem that involves countless steps and the final product is sometimes not in accordance with the information given to you. You have to go back and look for the things within the problem that stumped you on your path to a successful outcome (AKA finding that “aha” moment when you realize what you did wrong ). That often requires you to read through every decimal, fraction, incorrect numbers usage, etc. on your page, and depending on how neat your work is, you often have to be more thorough in your analysis of the process because things aren’t as clear as you intended them to be. Sometimes, you also have to ask for help. Outside of the mathematics classroom, there will be things in your life that you will often need to look back on, and there too, the process may be just as tedious, laborious, require time to show real change, and require the help of others—but you must be patient and look for the best way to fix the process, to fit your understanding, and help you move forward, ultimately allowing yourself to reach success and your goals. 

In my life, I have made many mistakes, and I’d like to share with you one particular instance when I identified a mistake and gave myself the opportunity to fix it, allowing me to grow and find love, success, and positivity in my future.

I grew up in East Los Angeles, in a very low-income neighborhood/area composed primarily of immigrant families. I identify as a Chicana woman (AKA a Mexican-American woman). I was raised by two beautiful parents, both from Puebla, Mexico. They are two hard-working people, who despite not having much, always tried to give us the best life possible—instilling in us values like always greeting and treating others with respect, being humble and giving to others, going to school and working hard so that we could achieve bigger things later in our lives, and the list goes on. The last of these values was super important to me, so I always tried my best to be a pretty good student in middle school. I was given the opportunity to go to Irvine, California to listen to a panel of admission officers talk about their respective boarding schools. I remember being shocked that there were even schools like this in the country. Being the kid that I was, I became fascinated (almost bewitched honestly) about the opportunity to attend a place like any of these schools. The one that had the most impact on me was Phillips Exeter Academy. Why? Because of Ms. Joyce Kemp, the woman who was speaking so passionately about Exeter that I vicariously lived through her smile and the happiness that emanated from her as she spoke about the school (sidenote: I later learned that Ms. Kemp was a mathematics teacher as well and I was both surprised and excited that I was going to have her as my teacher my first year at Exeter). But, at the panel, I didn’t know what or where New Hampshire was (or that it would be seven degrees or less in December…), but I ended up applying to Exeter and Phillips Andover Academy after such an amazing introduction to both schools.

Upon my acceptance to PEA, my father and I were flown to the school to acquaint ourselves with the faculty, the student body, the area, the buildings, the food. It was all so nice, but the weather was killer. My dad bought us both big jackets to keep warm, and despite this, our noses were still running, the wind was making my face and teeth freeze, yet we were shocked at seeing students come out of buildings in shorts and flip flops going to classes.. It was a different world for sure. After an amazing three days, we were getting ready to leave and the head of the admission office, Mr. Mahoney, asked us a final question: “What did you think? Would you see yourself here, Liz?” He didn’t know that my dad and I had talked about it the night before, and although we both knew it would be a sacrifice for me to leave home and be so distant from my family when I was so close to them, that it would be a great opportunity and such a gift to continue my education at this prestigious school. Instead of giving Mr. Mahoney a verbal response, I handed him the letter with my signature and my father’s signature as acceptance of his acceptance of me. I didn’t have to visit Andover to know where I wanted to be. Mr. Mahoney was elated—It was a huge hug-fest after that! 

The real change and challenge came when I began school at Exeter in the fall of 2006. I was going to classes every day and tried to involve myself in various clubs/aspects of the school, but I found that a lot of the time I felt homesick behind closed doors. I wasn’t achieving high grades like I had been used to, and this left me with a feeling of unworthiness and not being good enough to be in a school like that. I felt out of place because I grew up very humbly but there were others that had so much and made it very evident at the school. I continued to suffer in silence for four years; my biggest mistake was not reaching out to someone about my problems and not leaning on others for help and advice. This, in turn, affected my college application process. I was dealing with my mental health issues, and some physical health issues as well that didn’t allow me to fully give my all into the process. The support from others in completing my application was abundant, and I will always be thankful to those people at Exeter who did everything to support me, but I just didn’t have the strength in myself and the motivation in those moments to give my all into the process. Heartbreak came with my acceptances; I was admitted to only two schools—amazing schools, but not where I really wanted to be. I had picked those schools at the last minute, not knowing fully where I wanted to go and not looking at them thoroughly enough due to what I had been going through health-wise. At that moment, I felt like a complete failure. I felt like I had let myself down, but I had also let my family down, who had supported me fully from such a young age and encouraged me in the best ways possible to grow and find success in everything I did. 

My summer that year was a time to find myself. I had the “aha” moment at what seemed like a time that was “a little too late,” but I kept hope and found the courage to work through past errors in order to find positive change. I identified my mistake in not reaching out to others about my troubles and worked on finding ways to better my situation by doing just that! Reaching out to others. One of those people was an Exeter alum, Ms. Veronica Ortiz, who became my mentor and helped me make a plan of action for the year to come in order to get to where I wanted to be. My parents were instrumental in the continued support and encouragement; they became my form of therapy and the people I felt comfortable sharing the many worries, discouragements, and feelings of unworthiness that had overwhelmed me in my time at school. 

When at college my first year, I had set myself a goal of achieving my best by reaching out to teachers when I was uncertain about anything, getting involved with the school culture, and finding moments to reflect on what I could work on to better my experience in the present, that I had not been so courageous to work on in my experience in the past as a high school student. It took a year of hard work, but I repeated the college application process as a first-year college student, researched well and found my top choices, worked well on my writing for each school, met with others to aid me in that process, and was also patient as I navigated a year with discipline, constant support, determination, and a goal I wanted to reach. 

Eventually, I found success and a light at the end of the road. I was accepted into my top choice. 

So, in my personal experience, just because I struggled in high school and in making mistakes that ultimately did impact my life in a less than ideal way at that period of time, I didn’t let that moment, that came with feelings of defeat, define my future and what outcome I wanted in my life regarding college. I worked hard to fix things in myself, in my process, and in the way I set myself to achieve my goals. I constantly reflected on my past experiences, looked at the moments that I knew needed work, and carefully worked to fix those mistakes in order to find success. 

What do I leave you with? 
Be comfortable with making mistakes. One of the biggest mistakes you can make in your life is not making mistakes. You’ll miss the chance to become a better version of yourself, to bounce back, to grow. Success and fixing parts of ourselves take time, so be patient. Don’t give into the negative voices in your head, instead set forth to find and follow your bliss. Whenever you experience set-backs in any process in your life, don’t quit, work to get to the win. Sometimes with no pain, there is no gain.

I’ll leave you with a verse from Shakira’s song called “Try Everything.” It says:

I messed up tonight
I lost another fight
I still mess up but I'll just start again
I keep falling down
I keep on hitting the ground
I always get up now to see what's next
Birds don't just fly
They fall down and get up
[Many] don’t learn without getting it wrong

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