Blog · Changed for the Better

Changed for the Better: the power of arts in education, episode 9

Kayla Tavares

Hopefully, there are people in your life who, when you think about them, spark a sensation of pure joy, love, and light. While I have many people who fit in that category, Kayla Tavares is at the top of the list. When I see her or think of her, warm hugs encircle my spirit and for a moment, all is right with the world, which is why I’m so excited to offer this episode.

Kayla, in her younger years, was my dance student and a die-hard Thespian. She started out getting her feet wet backstage when she didn’t get cast in her freshman year musical. The next year, she persisted and finally took her turn in front of the spotlight – from then on, the performance bug bit her. In her sophomore year, she enrolled in my dance class and grew exponentially with each year, eventually taking on ensemble roles in The Wiz, In the Heights and West Side Story.

Her courage grew so much that in her senior year, she was the third dancer in the “Take Me To Church” trio dance with Manny and Emily that made me cry. She loved performing, but was content supporting the leads and making her mark in quieter ways. She always had a zen quality to her, which, if I’m being honest, helped me to center myself as a teacher. Whenever she walked in the room, I remembered to take a breath and relax. I still do.

Kayla went off to Ithaca College, but transferred to SUNY Cortland where she graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in speech and hearing sciences. After some soul searching (in a pandemic), she realized that her passion and gifts lie on a different path. After completing her 200-hour yoga certificate, she got her foot in the door of Columbia University where she now teaches yoga in the college curriculum. Not too shabby.

Who is Kayla?

A self-described “gentle giant,” she was (and is) tall, quiet, did her work and came back the next day to do it again. She chose her confidantes carefully, connected to her adult resources as was appropriate, and moved on with her day. She rarely revealed her real emotions and had set strong, healthy boundaries for herself to maintain her spirit and reserve her emotional energy. One of her mantras, which she uses in her classes, is protect your peace. As an empath, she absorbs the energy of her surroundings and understands that she needs to guard the squishy heart that is underneath her powerful facade.

As an adolescent, she was helped greatly by the support of her upperclassman friend Tendrina (keep an eye out for episode 10!) and the idea that it’s okay to not make it, and that there’s always another shot to try again. Dance brought her so much peace and comfort that she was able put aside any disappointment and go for the next available opportunity. That disappointment turned into some great triumphs later on as she took on the dance captain role and got the honor of wearing Thespians’ gypsy robe.

Kayla, in high school, wearing our gypsy robe. It has been in Thespians for decades; longer than I have been a part of the organization.

The dance studio turned into her place of solace, probably spending more time in there than she did anywhere else in school. There, she learned a sense of discipline and how that boosted her own sense of power. She started to realize how natural it was to share her powerful gifts. I call that “Kayla magic.” It’s something that you just understand about her when you start talking to her. Maybe someday, you’ll have that opportunity.

In my photos, I have so many selfies of Kayla and I.

How has Kayla changed since high school?

Anxiety. I went to college and started to experience this little (big) thing we’ll call anxiety, and that has changed my life. It’s changed how I function, how I do things, not for the worst, but a lot for the better because I had to do things to keep myself up, to make sure that…I cannot fall, because if I fall it’s going to be bad. I have to make sure I’m outside, drinking my water, eating, doing my yoga, teaching – teaching makes me so happy. But also, it can drain you, giving so much of yourself to people all day long and then you go home and you sigh and now I have to tend to myself.

I can completely relate.

Kayla recognizes that as much as she needs to tend to herself, that doesn’t always happen in reality; taking care of yourself can easily fall by the wayside. So, she works to employ the discipline that she learned in the high school studio so that things in her world don’t fall apart.

She also feels more like herself now. I’ve stepped into who I want to be. She dresses how she wants, and she decided to finally go for “the big chop.” Back in high school, she was so attached to her crown of hair. Hair is everything to a black woman. If you have a lot of hair, that’s the standard of beauty. Growing tired of the constant maintenance, she decided one day that it was time to let it go. That is what paved the way to make me be who I want to be and do whatever I want.

It’s amazing the attachment we have to hair. Somehow, hair provides a validation of identity for people. Why? It’s just hair, right? Yet the prevailing social expectations, particularly of black women, are set by what we do with the crown of keratin on our head. It doesn’t do anything other than provide a certain “look,” but it can become an all-consuming definition of who we are.

With the shedding of those expectations, she somehow became freer to really evaluate what she wanted to do with herself. After college graduation, she reflected more thoughtfully on the direction she really wanted to go, and speech pathology wasn’t it. The important lesson here is that you can make a decision to follow one path, and decide at a later time to change direction that will work better for you.

I’ve stepped into my power since high school.

Big Kayla speaks to little Kayla

Continue being authentic. This is a running theme for Kayla. Adolescence is a time when your guard is up and you choose very carefully to whom you show your goofy or sensitive or smart self. She would give herself one of her famous hugs and say It’s okay to just be you. The Kayla magic is enough.

What does Kayla grapple with now?

Anxiety is still a thorn in her side, as is the process of figuring out what her passions are and how to make them a regular part of her life. She knows that teaching falls into that latter category, and she is putting her focus on expanding her role as a teacher. Her mind is a constant chatterbox and not knowing what direction she is destined for doesn’t help the anxiety. On one hand, she manages that future insecurity with the knowledge that it’s normal to grow and change and live my life every single day. On the other, there’s the part of her brain that tells her that she needs to figure out her entire life plan right now. The battle between those extremes is where she’s living; her goal is to be present and in the moment.

Of course, there’s nothing like a little COVID to wreck your world. She got sick last December, and fell completely out of her routine, her flow, and that sense of discipline that she always keeps so close to the vest. Months later, since she has recovered, she has worked on getting all that back.

She misses how free she was during high school. She admits, I mourn that part of myself. Her circle of friends have all moved away from home, have jobs, and they don’t get to spend the quality time together that they had become so accustomed to in high school. However, they are still close and continue to support each other, even though they don’t get to see each other often. I think they still have the group chat from high school.

Kayla’s sage advice

Some kids struggle with friends and with having people around them. Keep really good, close friends. It doesn’t have to be a humongous group, but you always need people there to support you, have a little laugh and share some common interests. That was such a big part of my life and still is.

Be authentic. It’s really easy these days to fall into the trap of wanting to be like everybody else. Be yourself.

With this question, we had a little discussion about how the pandemic robbed so many kids of the crucial social interactions they needed to develop their ability to create and maintain relationships. In the safety of the school, there are adults in real time who can help give an assist if things go wrong. Online, they are truly isolated and vulnerable to the whims of social media and phone messaging. Our prayer is that they have the ability to catch up.

Self-care necessities

The pandemic, for everything it took away, also gave us certain gifts. Since going to restaurants was out of the question, one of her self-care practices was getting more familiar with her own kitchen, cooking for hours, making recipes from scratch. She got so good at it that she made all the food for her sister’s bridal shower this past summer. She seeks the embrace of her kitchen to help a long day at work melt away.

Music has also developed into a passion, making playlists for every mood, each yoga class, and everything she does, especially when she’s teaching or cooking.

Being outside is another respite – she has a portable hammock and a foldable bike. She and I have shared many an hour at a local park, hiking, sitting by the waterfalls and just taking in the environment. We are of one spirit when it comes to absorbing the outside.

We recently had lunch in Nyack, NY and took a walk to the water, where we sat for about an hour. We didn’t have to say much, we were just bathing in the sun, the air, and the good company. This is another example of a Tirro-Tavares selfie.

It’s quite evident that the two of us have nurtured a strong bond that now transcends the teacher/student relationship. Over the years, even through long stretches of separation, our paths have intertwined in a way that we both think will stand the test of time.

My love language is words of affirmation.

I think we speak the same language.

Watch the full interview here!

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