Alumni Column: Can-Do Warrior



Kay Traester LaBanca '05

I smile too much, and I rarely appear to be angry. Yes, I am one of those annoyingly perky people who genuinely loves life and tends to see the glass as half-full. Always. Sometimes, this happy-go-lucky mentality can irritate people, but I refuse to apologize for it. I think one of the reasons my eighth grade students are drawn to me is because I never appear to have a bad day. I tend to ap­proach every day as a new opportunity for learning, growth, productivity and happiness. Every day, I have a new chance to make my diverse students’ day a little bit brighter, a little more manageable and a little more meaningful. Every day, I strive to give 150 percent of myself into my lessons for my students because, after all, they deserve it. This may surprise you, but I have not always been naturally happy. In high school, I struggled with multiple bouts of clinical depression. As an over­achieving perfectionist, that first B+ I received in honors chemistry sophomore year seemed like the biggest failure back then. Boy, did I have a lot to learn! Gradually, thanks to the endless support of my parents, family and friends, I bounced back and once again emerged with a smile on my face and the courage needed to move forward. Unfortunately, the same experience with depression oc­curred sophomore year at Colgate and then again while teaching abroad in Shanghai, China after graduation. While I certainly blame no one for my diagnosis, I have found that overcoming it has made me a much stronger person able to handle whatever life throws my way, be it the loss of my grandparents, my mother’s multiple battles with cancer and multiple sclerosis or my godmother’s death to cancer last year. Life has not been easy or predictable, but my positive attitude and opti­mism allow me to recognize that tomorrow will be a better day. It has to be. As a teacher, I am hap­piest when I can fully pursue passions outside of the classroom that allow me to explore my hobbies, interests and talents. Resuming singing in a semi-professional setting this year was an excellent way for me to reintroduce music into my life. Volunteering with my alumnae sorority, church and other local organizations brings me happiness and fulfillment. Bikram yoga brings me a sense of calm, stillness and inner peace. My husband, close friends and family bring me boundless joy, love and laughs. And, as ever, running is often my biggest stress reliever of all, providing me with the freedom for “me” time and the space to explore the physical world around me.

On January 30, I had the opportunity to run my nineteenth lifetime marathon when finishing the Houston Marathon. Unlike any other marathon, I came to this start line completely unpre­pared and untrained for what lie ahead. In fact, I had not done more than a seven-mile training run since running the New York City Marathon in November. Whoops! For the first time, I did not know what to expect or if I should even attempt all 26.2 miles with so little training. Still, I vowed to make the most of the opportunity, smile, take one mile at a time and try to enjoy the journey. And did I ever. Even though I finished almost one hour slower than my personal best, I was amazed at the peace I found during the race. Every mile, I talked to fellow runners from around the country with similar goals and aspirations. I shook hands with an eight-year-old girl who gave me a Twizzler and told her mommy she wanted to be a runner like me when she grew up. I pet countless dogs’ heads. I cheered on a determined wheelchair runner. I met a man who loyally pushes his mentally and physically impaired daughter in a stroller every race he runs. I braved on-and-off-again rain showers. I even enjoyed a partial beer at mile 21 and gave multiple high-fives to spectators. Over four and a half hours after I started, I sprinted to the finish in one piece and somehow became whole once again.At school last Monday morning, I wore my brassy medal and technical finisher’s shirt proudly, as I do after every marathon. Inevitably, my naïve, wide-eyed students asked me, once again, if I had won the race.

“Yes,” I said sarcastically, “didn’t you know I am an elite Kenyan runner?”

I’d smile and then point them to a favorite quote by John J. Bingham that hangs on my chalkboard, which reads:

“The miracle isn’t that I finished. The miracle is that I had the courage to start.”

“Sometimes, life is not all about winning,” I tell my students. “It’s the journey that matters.”

And that, my friends, is the ‘can-do warrior mentality’ I try to transmit to my students within the magical four walls of my classroom every day. I encourage you to take this journey to find your­self through what you love. Sometimes, all you need is a little hope, optimism and the ability to put yourself outside your comfort zone. And in the end, you never know where your journey might take you – and how much fun you will inevitably have in the process.