Faculty spotlight: Madame Torres


Caroline Kelly, Staff Writer

Madame Torres is much-loved in the La Jolla Country Day School community having taught languages here for nine years. I spent some time learning more about her life experience  and I am excited to share our conversation so that we can all get to know her better.

Q: Where did you grow up as a child?

A: Until nine years old, I grew up in Algiers, the capital of Algeria. Then, at nine, I moved to Syria in a city on the Mediterranean called Latakia that is a border city with Turkey. At sixteen and a half, I moved to Paris, France. 

Q: What was it like growing up in each country?

A: My early childhood, until I was nine, was very sheltered and beautiful. We had a connecting apartment with my maternal grandparents which I loved. My dad was a doctor and my mom worked for an African embassy I think in Congo. Algeria values the French culture and vacations. We used to have a lot of vacations where each one we would go to a different country. That’s what I remember a lot from my childhood, the extensive traveling and discovering which is how I think I caught the travel bug. 

Q: What was it like in Syria?

A: Syria was amazing, I think it was one of the periods that I loved the most in my life. I discovered my dad’s side of the family with so many cousins, uncles, and aunts. It was very safe and I felt that the community was very strong which made everything very fun. The neighbors visited and brought food to each other. My brother and I used to roam the streets freely without feeling any danger. We used to go to the beach before or in between classes and there are just a lot of happy, worry-free memories in Syria which people don’t imagine when they think of the country.

Q: What languages did you grow up speaking?

A: French was my maternal language and was the first language that I learned because Algeria was occupied by the French. My mom, even though she was Algerian, grew up with the French culture and as a French citizen. Then, Arabic was my second language. The interesting story about that is that when I was in fourth grade, we moved from Algeria to Syria. I was thrown into a school that spoke only Arabic which I did not know a word of at 9 years old. It was such a weird experience. I used to go to school and it was so overwhelming because everyone was speaking a foreign language around me. My parents said that I might have to repeat 4th grade because I was so lost. I was like “Hell no, I am not repeating 4th grade” so this is what immersion does because everything around me was in Arabic, I learned it pretty quickly and passed to 5th grade. Then, I learned English my first year of high school and learned Spanish when I was almost 34 years old. 

Q: What languages does your family speak?

A: My sons speak French, English, and Spanish. I speak to them only in French no matter what. This takes a lot of discipline because it is difficult when your husband doesn’t speak French and you live in a country where English and Spanish are predominant. 

Q: What is a funny story from your childhood?

A: I wanted to learn the guitar because my mom was teaching me piano and I didn’t want my mom to be my piano teacher, so I saved up my money and finally bought myself a guitar. I was so proud of myself, but I could not find a teacher in the entire town where I lived. I used to walk around with my guitar on my back and look really cool, but not know how to play it. It’s so sad because there was no internet, Youtube, or anything so it was very hard to learn it on my own. The arts were lacking in a third world country and this is something that stuck with me because I felt in my soul that I was so artistic and I wanted to dance, play music, and sing, but I did not have that opportunity.

Q: Did you find a way to express yourself artistically?

A: For the guitar, no. As far as dance, they created something called the Mediterranean Games which is very similar to the Olympics. It happens every four years, but it is the Mediterranean countries that participate. In 1987, the Mediterranean Games were happening in Syria during my Junior year in high school. They hired the Russian delegation to come and choreograph the opening and closing ceremonies, which was a huge deal. It was going to be televised all over the world and they had built all of these incredible Olympic facilities in the town where I lived. 

The main Russian choreographer came to my school that was exclusively girls and picked some of the students to dance in the choreography for the ceremonies. I was not there, which was devastating for so long. All these girls were talking about it and here I was who dreamt of dancing since I could remember. The delegation of course was just visiting and it was preplanned, so there was nothing I could do. 

Q: What happened next?

A: So the end of the school year came, and they started bringing us to the stadium to start our training for the opening ceremony. My friends and I were all running around having fun because at 16 I still loved to play. There was this huge wooden tower in the middle of the stadium and all of a sudden I heard my name being called on the speakerphone. I was like, “Wait a second, did they just call my name?” There were thousands of girls from different schools so I thought that maybe I didn’t hear it right, but then they called my name again. All my girl friends were like “they’re calling you, they’re calling you” and I was just wondering where the voice was coming from. So, I remember climbing the stairs to this observation tower with everyone watching and planning below. I went up there and there was this Russian guy with a translator from Syria. They asked for my name, the school I went to, and how old I was. They asked me if I had any dance experience whatsoever and I said “no, but I do martial arts.”

Q: Why did you mention martial arts?

A: Martial arts and dance are very similar because in martial arts we learn the katas which are choreographed moves that follow each other. I think that’s why I was really attracted to it because there is all this movement and you have to know your space and remember a combination. 

Q: How did the Russian delegation respond?

A: They said “Ok, thank you” and a couple of days later, my mom got a call on our home phone that made her really confused. She hung up and said “Well I guess the head dancer and choreographer picked you to dance solo at the opening game and possibly in the closing. You are going to have a solo on TV in front of millions of people.” I ended up getting the opportunity and wasn’t even dancing in a group. My life completely changed. They started sending a private chauffeur and training me one on one with no one else in the stadium. I became famous in my city and in Syria. I went to interviews on TV and danced in front of the President at the time. It was such a life-changing event and more than anything, I got to dance. 

Q: Who was or currently is the most influential person in your life?

A: Fast forward many years, I came to the states alone at 22 and started working at the Hyatt hotel downtown. I was still very naive about life, I mean at 22 you think you know everything, but there were still so many things I did not know. I met this woman with whom I struck a friendship during a conference at the Hyatt. Sometimes you meet your soulmate, it could be anyone at any age, and Gail Halinka is that someone in my life. She became a spiritual guide and mother-figure who said things to me that didn’t make much sense at the time, but continued to lead me through my decisions. 

Q: What is a specific piece of advice that she gave you?

A: One of the things that she said to me when I first met her in the states was “Don’t ever dim your light for someone else.” At the time, I was like “What the heck does that even mean?” Throughout my relationships and my life, I began to understand that we all have something very special, and sometimes we have the tendency to not to let it be because it is too threatening. You have to sacrifice your own dreams and career when you have a relationship with someone and have kids, but there is a fine balance. That is something that encouraged me to follow dreams that at the beginning appeared crazy. Gail never told me what to do, she just loved me very much and shared her knowledge and wisdom with me. I think it is important to have someone in life like that. 

Q: What led you down the path to becoming a teacher?

A: Teaching is my seventh career change. I have always heard people say to me that I should be a teacher, but I wanted to do so much like dancing and traveling the world. When I graduated college after spending three months in the states, my mom was working at a high school and told me that they needed a full time substitute teacher. She said that because I had just come back from the states and had my degree that they were willing to interview me for the position. I thought to myself, “Ok, it is as substituting and not full time, I can do this” because I wanted to be free and roam the world. I got hired at 22 to teach high school kids English in France. It was the scariest thing because some of them were 17-18 years old, so they weren’t much younger than me. Later on in my life when I became a professional dancer, I taught dance all over the world in 37 different countries. I used to do workshops which helped with my teaching experience.

Q: Why did you start teaching again later in your life?

A: At 40 years old, I was working as a property manager for luxury buildings. One random day, I woke up and decided that I was ready to teach. I loved my experience when I was 22 and was ready to be back in the classroom. I was hired as a substitute teacher at La Jolla Country Day School, and here I am nine years later. I taught French and Arabic because I was proficient in both languages. At the end of the year, they tried to find me a position to stay and I ended up teaching French, Spanish, and Arabic. I really wanted the connection with younger people. I feel super inspired being in the classroom and that I learn as much from my students as I teach them. There wouldn’t be anything else I would rather do right now. I am very passionate about it. 

Q: What are you proudest about in your career?

A: Through all my careers, I was able to walk through my fear. A lot of the time, I started jobs that I wasn’t sure I was prepared to do and challenged myself to do them anyways to get completely out of my comfort zone. I have worked really, really hard to get where I want to be and be good at it. 

Q: What advice do you have for high schoolers?

A: When you graduate college, you don’t necessarily get hired in a job that you know completely or that you will be able to do extremely well. There will be a lot of challenges, but you have to walk through that fear. If your heart is not at 200% in what you are doing, you need to do something else. I really believe that doing something with passion and being driven by your true self is much more important than any salary that you can make. I think it is more important that you do something in life that you wake up in the morning and feel good about and  love doing while knowing you are making a difference for yourself and people around you. Don’t be scared about doing something that you are not sure about. Every time I changed careers, everybody around me would ask “Why are you doing this?” and “You have the financial security and are comfortable… why would you put yourself through this?” My answer was always “Because I think I am done learning everything I needed to learn with this and I am ready to move on and learn something new.” That’s another thing: don’t get stuck somewhere where there is no growth or you will lose the joy.  

All photos accredited to Madame Torres.