By Kirsten Carlson
Cambridge. Best known for Harvard, the school where some of the nation’s, and world’s, finest head for a top-notch education. Cambridge is also home to a whole bunch of people who are not affiliated with the illustrious school in any way. The Moronta family is one example. In the mid ‘90s, Guillermo Moronta, Jr., was an average, lower middle-class, Cambridge kid living in a small apartment with his three siblings and his mom. His father was present but was only a small part of his life. One day Moronta went to school, headed to gym class, and encountered Mark Talbott and SquashBusters’ founder Greg Zaff hitting squash balls against the gym wall. A few months later, he was on the first SquashBusters team.
Fast forward 11 years, and you have a man who just graduated from Bates College and will start a job as a full-time faculty member at Portsmouth Abbey School in Portsmouth, Rhode Island, this fall. Moronta will be teaching multiple Spanish classes, a math class, will be a dorm parent, an assistant football coach, possibly an assistant baseball coach and the head squash coach. He will be a busy guy.
A busy life will be nothing new for the 24-year-old though. For the last 11 years he has been working, and working, succeeding, occasionally making mistakes, and continuously learning. When Moronta went to the SquashBusters tryouts in 8th grade, he immediately took a liking to the sport that he had never heard of before. When he began the program, he loved the squash part but didn’t know what he was in for academically.
“I didn’t realize the academic part until I was involved with the program,” he said. “I wasn’t a very strong student, and there was a time SquashBusters asked me to leave the program because I wasn’t performing academically. Greg Zaff came to my house and sat with my mom and me in the living room, and basically laid out my options. In a nutshell, things were unbalanced and unstructured. I did not have a balance between academics and sports. I was getting C’s and D’s in school because I wasn’t doing my homework; because I was at football or baseball practice. It wasn’t clear to me until I stuck with the program that academics were important and that there were ways to enjoy them.”
Moronta stayed with SquashBusters and managed to improve his grades. In the summer of 1998, before he was to enter 10th grade, Moronta met Chris Smith at a Harvard Squash Camp.
“I saw his energy the first day,” Smith said. “He was the first kid there and the last to leave. He instantly showed just how much he loved squash and his passion was contagious.”
Smith, who was to start working at SquashBusters that fall, often drove Moronta home from camp, and the two became instant friends. During their conversations, which included everything from the Red Sox to school, Smith got an idea of what he thought the high schooler needed to fulfill his potential.
“Some kids you feel right off the bat that they need certain opportunities to be successful, and I felt that right out of the gates with Guillermo,” Smith said. “Two days after meeting him I was thinking he needed, and would do well in, the setting of a prep school. What he needed was very similar to what I needed (when Smith was in high school), and that was ‘round-the-clock supervision and people giving you structure about when to study. He needed the academic and social structure, the academic rigor and the hook of a beautiful campus.”
The idea of a prep school was not new to Moronta. All of his mentors at SquashBusters, and other adult figures in his life, thought it would be good for him. In ninth grade, he applied to a few private schools, but none accepted him. Smith, a graduate of Tabor Academy—about an hour south of Boston—told Moronta the school would be a good place for him. After an interview, and an agreement, Moronta was given a shot at the prep school.
“They accepted me on the condition that I improve my GPA to a B average. And I did. I quit all my extra sports teams. I went to the library after school. I went to SquashBusters, but only did academics. Once Tabor got those grades, I was officially accepted.”
During his years at Tabor, which began with him repeating his sophomore year, Moronta, the consummate athlete, played football, squash and baseball. Smith visited often and rarely missed a squash match or a chance to keep Guillermo motivated. Guillermo also quickly became good friends with his squash and baseball coach, Bill Lloyd, who he is still close with today.
As his time at Tabor neared an end, Moronta applied to and got into schools that years before would have never been an option. His number one choice was Bates, which was his “reach” school; the one he felt might be out of his grasp.
Thanks to the “Say Yes to Education” program, Moronta’s college was paid for. In second grade, a man had come into his classroom saying he would pay for college for any of those students who made it that far.
When Moronta was accepted to Bates, it was a huge moment for his family.
“My mom didn’t graduate from high school,” he said, “and she made it her goal for her kids to go to college.”
Though getting into Bates was no problem, staying was a different story.
“College was similar to boarding life but more independent. You weren’t told where to go and what to do,” he said. “I struggled with when to study, and I learned my lesson. I got bad grades one quarter and was asked to leave and go do something else. I left and worked and took a couple of classes at U-Mass Boston, got A’s and B’s, and then got reaccepted into Bates.”
Now a recent graduate of Bates, Moronta says that, looking back at it all, he wishes he could have had a busier social life, but often had to study instead.
“I always needed more time than others to get my work done. Saying no to friends about hanging out, and instead going to the library to study, was tough. Another challenge was not being able to participate in more activities, like student government. I wanted to but couldn’t because of the time I needed to devote to school.”
Moronta did have time to continue playing squash. He played eight or nine for all four years and was elected team captain by his peers his junior and senior years.
“The most fun I had at Bates was on the squash team, especially my sophomore year, as we had great team chemistry and finished 10th in the country. Also, hanging out with my friends. The guys that I lived with in my freshman dorm; we all stayed really close.”
Moronta’s graduation from Bates is something he is proud of, but not nearly as proud as the people around him. “Guillermo was given the scaffolding, structure and support around him, but he built himself up around that structure,” Smith said. “Guillermo deserves all the credit. It’s clearly him. It was his own personal motivation and drive.”
“My mom is absolutely happy and very proud that I graduated,” Moronta said. “She worried about me graduating, but she never had any doubts. She is happy that she doesn’t have to worry anymore. She wants me to do whatever makes me happy, and she is excited about where I am going next year.”
Moronta’s brothers and sister are not all in college, but they did all graduate from high school. His sister is currently enrolled at a community college; his 19-year-old brother is working, and his 17-year-old brother just graduated from high school hopes to go to the Massachusetts State Police Academy.
“I always felt responsible for being a role model and showing my siblings right from wrong, as well as being a positive older male figure in their lives,” Moronta said. “It was hard going away to boarding school and then going away to college. I always felt bad that I wasn’t able to help them. Now that I am done with school I can help them more. I had to help myself to help them. I’m happy that they are not bad kids and are being productive in society. I’m also happy that my mom, being a single parent, is not dealing with bad kids and that she is proud of and happy for all of us. I have a job lined up now, so I will be able to help my mom financially.”
As the fall approaches, and the fact that he has graduated from college sinks in, Moronta is looking forward to being able to work with and help kids when he begins his position at Portsmouth Abbey.
“Being a role model is my motivation,” he said. “I’m also a dorm parent. My apartment is attached to an all-boys dorm. Every night, I will be responsible for them. It’s going to be like I have 20 younger brothers. I’ve always enjoyed coaching and teaching, was involved in a few service-learning programs at Bates, and have been a Big Brother. I just have fun doing that kind of thing. And also, being an older brother, I love teaching youngsters.”
As Moronta begins his role as a mentor, Chris Smith, who considers Guillermo family (Guillermo read at his wedding), can’t wait to see what he does next.
“He is going to give back as a coach, mentor, advisor, friend; everything-—if not more—that he received from so many people,” Smith said. “It is going to be inspirational for me to watch him teach back those same lessons I taught him. He will be such a powerful addition to Portsmouth Abbey (who happens to have three SquashBusters kids enrolled there). Guillermo will inspire the students to go above and beyond and do great things—the same way he was.”