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Mary “Mom” Morales retires from teaching after 36 years
By Kevin Milliken
Special to La Prensa

Mary Morales didn’t want to leave the classroom yet. She had planned to teach at least two more years. But she felt she had to hang up her chalk after 36 years, forced out by politics. At her retirement party Saturday evening on June 25, 2011, Mary was candid about opening another chapter in her life: a bittersweet mix of happy, sad, and angry.

Mary Morales

Family, friends, and former students gathered to help “Mom” celebrate a happy occasion. Two brothers and two sons each traveled long distances from points south— Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, and Florida—to be with her on her special day. A corner table at VFW Post #2510 was packed with six grandchildren and her first great-grandchild, former colleagues from Waite High School, and former Toledo Public Schools students.

“Mom” Morales
All present were people in whose lives she’s made a difference as math teacher and tutor, mentor and mother figure. Her son stated she only saw one thing in the thousands of students who passed through her classroom: “potential.”

The same may hold true for her three sons, as well as the six younger brothers she practically raised as a college-age Latina in East Toledo after the untimely death of her own mother at a young age.

“A lot of people simply adore her,” said Bill Wagner, her middle son. “It’s the kind of effect she has on all kinds of people—her former students, even students that were not hers at the same high school knew exactly who she was and what she did because of all the extracurricular activities that she did.”

Bill pointed out his mother wasn’t just involved in the Spanish American Organization (SAO) and other Latino activities and groups, but had a hand in just about everything that involved youth inside and outside Waite High School. Mary was active in Future Teachers of America, Youth-to-Youth, and even a cheerleading advisor at one point.

“She was always putting herself out there to help out wherever she could,” he said. “She was a good role model for everybody.”

But Bill stated Mary always took a particular interest in Latino kids who passed through the halls at Waite.

“Not just in their education, but what was their life going to be like if they could get some assistance and get some mentoring,” he explained. “She always talks about how she came from little and how she was practically the substitute mother for her younger brothers. They were all teenagers down through ten years old, so she had to take care of them when her mother died.”

Mary started her education career as a substitute teacher at Woodward High School as she was finishing up her bachelor’s degree from the University of Toledo. She then went to Macomber High School until the vocational-technical high school closed in 1991. Mary then chose to return to her alma mater where she taught math for two decades. She could have retired and left the classroom several years ago, but chose to keep trying to make a difference in teen lives.

“She likes being active, likes being able to help the kids,” said Bill, 42. “I think she was going to keep going until they kicked her out.”

Bill lamented that leaving teaching may “leave a void in her life.” But he also quickly pointed out his 63-year old mom “acted more like someone in their late 40s or early 50s,” so he wasn’t worried that she’d find ways to stay active in retirement. In addition to volunteering, Mary plans to do some traveling to visit her younger brothers and sons, including her oldest, 47-year old Ed and Nick, age 30.

“Very caring woman, very passionate about what she wants and what she can do for everybody else,” Bill said. “She’s the kind of person we all look up to.”

In fact, Bill doesn’t hesitate to refer to his mother as a trailblazer and draws comparisons between her and the first Latina U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor: two women who came from humble beginnings to rise to the top of their professions. Bill even took the leap of faith that if his mom had chosen to pursue a legal career, she could have been where Justice Sotomayor is today. But he also admitted teaching is a deep-seeded passion for Mary that won’t go away anytime soon.

“She believes there is opportunity for all these kids because she came from very meager opportunities and worked her way through—National Honor Society when she was in high school,” said Bill. “She graduated high school when English was a second language for her parents, got into college, the first graduate of college from her family, and kept working on through all these years, and giving to all these young people.”

Mary Morales

One favorite anecdote of the evening was how Bill met his wife through his mom, who had taken in the Waite High School student. She was having her own difficulties at home. The couple now has been married nearly 30 years, raised four kids, each completed college and built their own house together. Tammy Wagner spent her senior year living in the Morales household so she could graduate without the pressures of her home life.

“She was like the “Dangerous Minds” teacher,” said Tammy. “She went into the inner city and the kids who weren’t going to graduate, she got them to graduate. Kids who didn’t think they had potential, she got them to do stuff. She took them on field trips to different universities, tried to get them set goals and achieve them. She was very inspiring.”

Happy for a new chapter
Attempts to interview Mary grew frustrating as well as joyful at times, because well-wishers frequently interrupted the conversation to say hello to the guest of honor. Other teachers stopped by to offer congratulations and swap war stories. Her brother, a retired police officer from Alabama, came to joke that his older sister was joining him on “the other side,” a public employee swept aside too soon by changes in state pension laws.

But Mary smiled through it all, a bit unsure of what may lie ahead beyond a summer of catching up with her brood across the country. One other goal is immediately clear: she finally plans to finish the Master’s degree her son described as “one or two classes away from being finished for a number of years.”

“Don’t bring that up,” admonished Mary, who explained a UT professor is making himself available for whatever she needs to get it done in her spare time this summer.

“I’m trying to, I’m trying to (finish),” she said with a sheepish grin.

“I’m happy, because there’s a different life, maybe I wanted to do more of but didn’t have a chance to,” she said.

But summertime travel appears to be the most important item on her immediate agenda.

“I have sons in three different states, three brothers in different states,” Mary explained. “For a while, that bothered me. I couldn’t go see them, because I was always working.”

Mary also plans to “do a lot of volunteering.” She hopes to remain active in three or four community groups, including SAO where she is currently treasurer and a past president. She also serves as recording secretary for Latins United/Latinos Unidos and plans to stay involved in her church and the Waite Alumni Association.

Mary even wanted a hand in planning her retirement party and doing the cooking, but her family would have none of it.

“Me not doing it sort of bothered me because I control everything myself usually at school,” she joked, also pointing out she’s been in charge of the Cinco de Mayo banquet held each spring at Waite, as well as dinners for SAO and Latinos Unidos. “It’s a big adjustment, being catered to. I usually cater to others.”

Sad to leave the classroom
“I feel some sadness, because I have to leave the school and I love teaching,” she said. “I’ll miss the kids.”

But when asked how many students she taught over a long career, the math teacher provided an arithmetic problem to find the answer: about 150 students in her classes over a 36-year career. That equates to 5,400 math students. But everyone admits Mary impacted thousands more of Toledo’s kids over that span of time.

“I really wanted the students to learn math, to think that math is important every day in their life, and I wanted them to appreciate it,” she said. “I don’t care how many tests they’re going to have to take: they know their math, they know they’re going to need it, whether working, getting their paycheck, or putting gas in the car.”

Over the years, Mary did everything from tutor students to help them pass the Ohio Graduation Test (OGT) to teach basic math classes to pre-calculus.

“My big thing was to make sure my seniors passed,” Mary said with a smile. “Some of my seniors came back to me and admitted the only reason they passed was because of me and I really love them for that.”

The retired math teacher still receives cards, notes, and gifts from former students who tell her how much she meant in their young lives.

“Those are the little things that make you happy,” she said. “I didn’t have big rewards, but those are my small rewards.”

Throughout her teaching career, Mary noticed inner-city students brought their problems to school from a troubled home life. So her role as an educator frequently expanded to role model and mentor, confidant and counselor. That is why she became known as “mom” to so many students.

While students respected her at the other two high schools, never did it become more evident than when she returned to Waite as an alumnus and teacher.

“The kids treat me different because I come from the school,” Mary said. “They know I’m not afraid to walk Ravine Park Village or Birmingham Terrace and the other projects because I have friends who live there. So they saw me and knew I wasn’t afraid to go to anybody’s house, either. They respected me a little differently.”

In addition to “house calls” to ensure students succeeded, Mary always opened her classroom an hour before school and stayed at least an hour after classes ended for the day. Many students knew they could come at those times to seek tutoring or find a safe haven. She also allowed students to drop in at lunchtime to play chess or cards.

“A lot of the kids said I was straight,” she admitted with pride. “Whatever I said I was going to do I did. If I said ‘I’m going to check up on you,’ they knew I was going to check up on them. That’s what they said they appreciated, that I was straight with them, not wishy-washy. There were teachers that were Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde—they didn’t know day-to-day.”

Mary admitted she has some students who now are in prison. But she writes to them regularly, because she refuses to give up on any child.

“Because they need someone,” she said bluntly. “Sometimes I see some of the homes they come from, see some of the things they go through. I just wonder how they survive.”

Mary readily admitted she made a special effort with Latino kids, even though pointing out every student has been important to her. Her strongest impact was in setting an example, being a role model to minority students. She noticed it early in her career.

“We didn’t have that many minorities at Waite, we didn’t have that many girls,” she said. “I’m teaching pre-calculus. All of a sudden, I’ve got one Latina in my class. Then I notice an Asian male, then a black male. Then I began to notice more minorities taking Algebra II and pre-calculus. They saw me. I come from their school.”

Mary even found herself as the keynote speaker at Waite’s Cinco de Mayo banquet, a surprise role that she relished as one more chance to invoke the message of education to the high school’s Latino student population.

“If I can do it, you can do it,” she told them. “Get your education. That can never be taken away.”

But after such a long career, there is one single moment that stands out for her. It happens every year at graduation.

“When I see them walk down and they give me that big smile or that wink or they’ll shake my hand and then I know,” she said. “That’s all I’ve ever needed.”

Angry at “the politics of teaching”
Mary’s departure from the classroom has nothing to do with students or her age.

“It’s the politics of teaching,” she said with a tone of bitterness. “What’s happening with the school board, what’s happening with the Senate Bill (5) and all that, pension changes….It makes me sad and angry.”

Mary is one of more than 200 TPS teachers retiring from the classroom, many of them making the decision sooner because they would lose money when pension changes take effect July 1 in the State Teachers Retirement System (STRS). Senate Bill 5, which appears headed to a November referendum, also would take away union bargaining rights, such as health care and some working conditions.

The TPS board of education also is locked in a bitter round of contract talks with the Toledo Federation of Teachers. Those negotiations recently went to a fact-finder. The two sides are expected to vote whether or not to accept those findings this week.

“It makes me angry, because I love teaching,” she said. “I could do it forever. The sadness comes because I’m not going to be able to teach them. I feel I’m getting my hand cut or my voice cut.”

Mary readily admitted the choice to retire is hers. But it is a purely financial decision and one she feels forced to make.

“I’m not doing it because I don’t love them (her students). I’m doing it for financial reasons,” she said. “I live by myself, I have to live. The kids know. They still talk to me.”

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Copyright © 1989 to 2011 by [LaPrensa Publications Inc.]. All rights reserved.
Revised: 06/28/11 13:30:24 -0700.





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