This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
“A cupcake changed my life,” Tiffany Tavarez said.
Tavarez, now a community relations professional at Wells Fargo, was a hard-working senior in her high school when her art teacher, Charlene Kahse, held a bake sale that would forever change how Tavarez conducted her life.
Tavarez grew up with a single mother after her father died when she was 6. Her mother, who had never gone to college, stressed that education was the path to success, but she also needed Tavarez and her younger brother to assume more responsibility at home.
“[My mom] said, ‘OK, this is your adult time now. You have to help me take care of the household, you have to help me take care of your brother, and with that, I don’t want school to be an issue,’” Tavarez said.
Tavarez said her mother focused on “humanizing educators.”
“She would say, ‘They’re not aliens. They are adults who have your best interests in mind. Just connect with them and ask questions,’” Tavarez remembered.
Tavarez was a good student, but never connected deeply with a teacher until high school, when she had Kahse as her art teacher.
“Mrs. Kahse was the first person to ever really look at me,” Tavarez said. “She noticed me and paid mind to me in the classroom in a way that was different than any other educator.”
Kahse said Tavarez was set apart from other students immediately.
“You know when you have friends or family who have a 3-year-old and they say, ‘yeah, she’s 3 going on 40?’ That’s how I think of Tiffany straight off the bat,” she said. “She was very mature for her age. Very goal-oriented.”
Kahse became Tavarez’s mentor and helped Tavarez get into a dual-enrollment art program that allowed her to take high school and college classes at the same time.
“As an artist, she wasn’t really all that great,” Kahse said with a laugh. “But, she had so much passion and she was so highly motivated that she just couldn’t be denied.”
“That was a big milestone for me,” Tavarez said. “And Mrs. Kahse was always a part of that.”
Along with schoolwork, Tavarez worked nights, weekends, and summers at several jobs in order to support herself and her family. She played many roles – babysitter, tutor, saleswoman, office clerk – and she even had a stint building set pieces for the winter window displays at Macy’s on 34th Street in New York City. However, the jobs she worked never brought in enough money to afford the many costs of senior year, such as photographs, a class ring, college application fees, and senior field trips.
“Those things are expensive,” Kahse said. “I knew she didn’t come from a family that had a lot of resources. Because of her work habits and because of her passion, I wasn’t going to let her not be involved in these social activities that are really important to high school life.”
One day, Tavarez noticed students walking around school with cupcakes.
“I’m always hungry, so naturally I was asking students where they got them from,” Tavarez said, laughing.
She found some of her teachers – including Mrs. Kahse, the “ringleader,” as Tavarez called her – running a bake sale. Tavarez said she asked what it was for.
“Mrs. Kahse, in her caring way, was just like ‘Mind your own business. Get out of here,’” Tavarez said.
She grabbed a cupcake and ran away, not having paid much mind to the bake sale.
A few weeks later, Tavarez said, Kahse gave her an envelope. Inside was a check made out to her, with ‘Tiffany’s senior year’ written on the memo line. The money was raised from the bake sale.
“I was just totally moved,” Tavarez said. “The reason it was so significant for me was it was the first time I had ever experienced someone giving back. It was a concept that was foreign to me, having come from a very survival-of-the-fittest background.”
Other than the money, Tavarez went home with a larger gift: a new outlook on life.
“I promised [Mrs. Kahse], any time someone invested in me, I would pay them back by investing in someone else,” Tavarez said.
Kahse said that there were nuns at her Catholic high school that had an influence on her similar to that she which has passed on to Tavarez.
“Many of my nuns mentored me and inspired me to be a better person and reach out to people who I thought were worthy of extra kindness,” Kahse said. “Everyone deserves kindness, but sometimes you have to go above and beyond for certain people, and I felt that way about Tiffany.”
After graduation, Tavarez became a first-generation college student and the first person to receive a full scholarship to Temple University for the arts, where she earned a BFA. Tavarez completed her master’s at University of the Arts.
Tavarez has worked for PECO, Temple University, Comcast, and now she serves as vice president of community relations for Wells Fargo. She also serves on the board of directors for the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program and as commissioner for the Pennsylvania Commission for Women.
“I joke that it’s probably meant to be that I work at a bank because I assume any type of gift I receive is a loan,” Tavarez said. “I’m very grateful to Mrs. Kahse, because she put in so much effort to make sure I felt like everybody else and had that opportunity. That forever changed my life. Now, I really try to pay it forward with my work in corporate social responsibility and community philanthropy.”
Stories about the influence of outstanding teachers are made possible by a grant from the Lindback Foundation.