Standing in wonder at my mother's accomplishments and influence

Published: Saturday, May 12 2012 5:00 a.m. MDT

Trent Toone is a journalist for the Deseret News.

Keith Johnson, Deseret News

Editor's note: The following is an excerpt from the book "Life Lessons from Mothers of Faith," published by Covenant Communications.

President Gordon B. Hinckley once said, “People wonder what we do for our women. I tell you what we do: We get out of their way and look with wonder at what they are accomplishing.”

Today I stand in wonder at everything my mother, Connie M. Toone, has accomplished and how she has influenced my life. Looking back over the past 30 years, so many examples of her showing, teaching, achieving and loving come to mind.

She demonstrated tremendous patience the day my brothers and I were playing football in the living room and accidentally broke a small crystal piano that was special to her.

She rarely missed our numerous choir concerts, school plays, piano recitals and sporting events.

When a junior high teacher gave me the option of taking an A- or redoing a large assignment for the A, I settled for the A-. Mom was not happy with my decision and let me hear about it.

On many nights, Dad, a farm equipment mechanic, stayed out late, helping farmers repair their balers and harvest their crops. When he wasn’t in a distant northern Utah field, he was fulfilling his calling as bishop at the church. Mom seldom complained and only threw the saltshaker at him once.

She has always been generous in sharing her time with others and very rarely says no when someone calls for help. For Mom, service has always been second nature.

One of Mom’s finest moments, however, came during a pivotal time for our young family. In 1992, my younger brother, Cameron, became very sick. He was taken to the hospital, where we learned he had diabetes. This experience presented a whole new challenge for us.

While Cameron adjusted to diabetes, my parent’s next concern was finding additional income to cover the costs brought on by his condition. It was determined that Mom needed a full-time job. But rather than apply for some job she didn’t care about, Mom decided to return to school and finish her teaching degree. This plan required us to make some sacrifices — “Nothing simply happens,” she taught us. “But,” she continued, “If you try hard enough, you can usually find a way to reach your goals.”

As early as 6 years old, Mom aspired to be a teacher. Her mother was a teacher. Mom liked to pull out Grandma’s old, dusty teacher-edition textbooks, study their words and pretend she was standing in front of a classroom full of students.

When she got into high school, Mom became interested in other things. For a short time, she wanted to be a dietitian. She took a job at a nursing home in North Logan, but didn’t find a lot of joy in that line of work, so she again focused on education.

She graduated from Sky View High School and accepted an academic scholarship to Utah State University. Then, when she was 18, my father proposed marriage and Mom’s educational pursuits were put on hold for almost 20 years.

When my older brother and I were in elementary school, Mom volunteered to help in our classes by playing the piano, singing and reading with students. She enjoyed herself immensely and vowed that when all of us were in school, she would return and finish her education.

During those early years, Mom taught piano lessons part time in our home to supplement the family income. She had instant rapport with students, and as they excelled, word spread quickly about Connie Toone. Soon mothers from neighboring towns were dropping off students at all hours of the day for a 30-minute lesson. At one point, she was teaching as many as 50 students a week. For years, we awoke at 6 a.m. to basic scales and renditions of “Hot Cross Buns” and “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” After school, we hid in the basement to escape the sound of the piano pounding.

Before Cameron was diagnosed with diabetes, Mom made a goal to become nationally certified as a piano teacher. This required her to pass theory exams; perform long, elaborate pieces without mistakes in front of an audience; and her students needed to play the piano at a high level. Mom handled the theory tests well enough; her students played well, but not amazing; and despite hours and hours of practice, the music was difficult, and she occasionally hit the wrong keys. Carpal Tunnel Syndrome and a growing cist in her wrist only added to her stress. Mom fought on, but the harder she tried, the worse she performed. That’s when she knew the door for that opportunity had closed.

Then adversity presented a new door.

Mom returned to USU in 1993 and endured a grueling schedule for the next two years. While the five Toone children went to school each morning, Mom made the 30-minute drive to the university's Old Main Hill and attended classes. In the afternoons, she welcomed us home from school and practices, helped with homework, shuttled us to Scouts/mutual and cooked dinner. After everyone was tucked into bed around 10 p.m., Mom rubbed her temples, sighed and found the energy to pull out her own homework. About three hours later, she finally allowed herself to crawl under the covers for a few hours before waking up to do it all again around 6 a.m. In the midst of our family circus, she remained steadfast and focused, studied relentlessly and improved her skills.

On one occasion, my older brother attended a college math class with Mom. He reported it was fun to see our “old Mom” interacting with other college kids. Sometimes the foreign-born professor was hard to follow, but Mom knew how to solve the problems and gained popularity by eagerly assisting others.

Another challenge presented itself at the end of 1994 when our Super Mom discovered she also had diabetes. Although she had learned greatly from her son’s battle with the disease, our ambitious mother was forced to slow down and consider her own needs. It hasn’t been easy because she only has one speed — warp speed. Even after years of practice, crashes occasionally occur. We do our best to decipher the symptoms early and help her maintain a healthy balance.

She graduated in the spring of 1995. In the back of her mind, however, she worried that her sacrifice wouldn’t be enough to get a job. Those doubts were squashed and replaced with tears of gratitude one day in the spring of her last quarter. Mom was substitute teaching in a class at Bear River Middle School when a problem arose with a student. Demonstrating her classroom management skills, Mom resolved the disturbance without incident and spared sending the student to the office. What she didn’t know was the principal had secretly observed the whole episode. He was impressed. Because she was willing to deal with situations as a substitute, he was willing to take a chance on her. He offered her a position on the spot.

Although the road has been rocky at times, Mom looks back and knows everything happened for a reason. More than 15 years have passed since she earned her degree in elementary education. She loves her job and strives to have a positive influence on every student. She teaches math and music to sixth and seventh graders at Alice C. Harris Intermediate School in Tremonton, Utah. Mom has a gift for connecting with students, and colleagues admire her creative and innovative ideas. For example, she made waffles in class in order to teach students about conversions. Another time, everyone did handstands to understand inversions. Her students especially loved using a mock budget to build a small city out of graham crackers. When it comes to math, Mom loves to hear a student say the words, “It was so hard, and now it is so easy.”

Mom’s efforts to reach out to troubled and confused students have not gone unnoticed. In 2004, she was one of 11 teachers in Utah to receive the Golden Apple Award from Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. It was a memorable night for our family. She was quick to say that accolades don’t motivate her; her real reward is seeing her students and family achieve their goals.

Most important, Mom has always set an example of serving others and is a true disciple of Jesus Christ. I am grateful for her commitment to caring for our family. She has taught us that adversity can be a blessing, and if we put our heart and soul into pursuing our dreams and ignoring our fears and self-doubt, we can do anything.

Now at age 54, Mom has considered returning to school for a master’s degree. Certainly, in the coming years, we would be wise to get out of her way and look on with wonder at the amazing things she is sure to accomplish.

Trent Toone is a feature writer for the Deseret News and Mormon Times.

Email: ttoone@desnews.com

Twitter: tbtoone

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