TOAD Talk: Making Time for Appreciation

"Find a moment or two to remember and appreciate family, friends, teachers, neighbors, caretakers..."
An honor and responsibility for the TOAD (teacher on active duty) most Mondays is to give what’s called a TOAD Talk at the day’s Assembly. The topics of each talk are completely up to the TOAD and have ranged from sea slugs and feminism to vampire bats and glitter. A recent talk by Director of College Counseling Maria Morales-Kent focused on a special family in her life and the deep appreciation she feels for them to this day. Read on for a transcript of her talk.

Like you I am looking forward to the coming holidays.  Gathering with family and friends – the pleasure of simply enjoying days with not much else to be concerned about except for my next yummy meal and warm conversation. Raised Catholic, Christmas was a very big part of my childhood, and today, there are many aspects of the holiday that my family and I continue to celebrate.  But as I have grown older (I just celebrated 60 years!), I find myself experiencing joy and gratitude not just in the moments I am currently living, but also in memories of past years and people who helped lead me to this very spot – to my life with all of you.
I am a first-generation college graduate, so arriving at a boarding school like Thacher 25 years ago, involved many miles and people.  I owe much to my mother – to her belief in me and all the sacrifices she made.  She lived here for ten years until she passed away.  She loved Ojai, and I think of her every day as I walk through our many spaces here. 
My mother was a housekeeper who had to leave school in the third grade when her mother died.  She started to work at a beauty shop sweeping floors.  Among the shop’s regular customers was a lady with children who gave her a job as a housekeeper and nanny.  That first job well done led to several others, which took her from her home in Torreon, to Juarez, to El Paso and eventually, Los Angeles.  There she met my father and soon found herself pregnant.  Unfortunately, he left, and my grandfather, concerned about having his granddaughter raised in day care required that my mom send me to live with him and her sister’s family in Mexico until he passed away.  Despite being separated from my mother for the first 6 years of my life, mine was an extraordinary early childhood with my extended family in a hardworking, loving community that took me in and made me feel special and wanted.  Christmas was magical there. 
Coming back to the US was hard; I only knew a few words in English, and I became, what was known back then, “a latch key kid.”  My mom worked every day, so after school I was responsible for taking care of myself.  “Latching the front door shut,” and keeping myself busy until she got home.
On weekends however, I got to go to work with my mother to a beautiful home in an area of Los Angeles called Hancock Park.  That house with a garden full of fragrant roses is still there, and I whenever I’m in LA, I make it a point to drive by just to remember.  Mr. and Mrs. Haight had 4 children - Fulton, Maureen, Hilary, and Tali.  My mom started working for the Haights soon after she and I were separated.  She was a live-in nanny since Tali’s birth; she was just six months younger than me, so we instantly became best pals. 
You might imagine the immense contrast between my life in Mexico, in my mom’s and my little apartment in LA and that house.  The best part was how welcomed and included I felt in every way - at meals cooked by Ms. Haight, reading books in the library, being taught to ride a bike by the older kids and to swim by Tali.  There were endless Saturdays riding bikes, getting ice-cream, making crafts, driving in the station wagon to the movies, and occasionally to the LA Country Club for lunch.  Every weekend, I was just another kid in the family.
Christmases were also magical there.  Mrs. Haight was an interior designer. She was of German descent, so she loved the holiday and brought Christmas to every corner of her house, my mom’s room included. Her Christmas tree was legendary, filled with gorgeous, handcrafted wooden ornaments, and a star that touched the ceiling.  Tali and I loved hanging a few ornaments in between our games; we also loved watching her and Mr. Haight welcome her guests to their holiday parties, which were. as Ms. Cronin might say, “Spectacular!”
Later I would understand that as this family expanded my worldview, they also supported mother as she tried to raise me on her own.  When I came back to the US, Mrs. Haight suggested I too live with them.  But my mom wanted to make sure I had my own home and sense of place and culture.  Mrs. Haight completely understood and came up with the weekends. My mom loved Mrs. Haight and always said she learned a great deal from her.  If the kids got an encyclopedia set, then so did I.  Annual doctor and dental visits were a must.  At one point when Talis got braces, my mom tried to convince my dentist that I had to have them.  Thank God that didn’t happen when Mrs. Haight reassured her that while Tali needed them, my teeth were perfectly fine.
When I graduated from elementary school, Ms. Haight gave me this beautiful leather bound dictionary with my name engraved and encouraged me to read and write as much as possible.  Having my name engraved on a book felt amazing. Each of her children received a similar present at the end of 6th grade.  And when the college process came around, both Mr. and Mrs. Haight encouraged my mother not to be afraid of where I might apply.  When I was deciding between Occidental and U Penn, my mom sought their advice which was, “let Maria choose.” 
I happily chose Occidental and had a transformative experience there.  And at the start of each semester, an envelope would appear in my mailbox with money for my books and a note checking in on my progress.  As I grew older and moved to Philadelphia to work in admission at U Penn, they were thrilled for me and the chance to further expand my horizons.  While I stopped seeing them as often as before, we always remained in touch.  And several years ago, I had the chance to have dinner with Mrs. Haight and Tali during the holidays.  Having heard all the stories about Christmas at her home, my children joined us and got to see her beautiful tree. 
When we hugged goodbye, Mrs. Haight told me how grateful she was for my mother’s role in her family’s life, and she wanted to apologize because she always worried that she had taken too much of my mother from me.  It was extraordinary to hear her say that because in my mind she had done quite the opposite.  And gave me, in ways she did not even recognize – so much of herself, her family and her care. 
So, my message today, is to make the most of the holidays and find a moment or two to remember and appreciate family, friends, teachers, neighbors, caretakers who have done the same for you.  Holiday greeting cards used to serve that purpose and many of your parents still send them.  But emails from you can have the same sort of power.    

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