Patti LaBelle has been a favorite vocal artist of mine since I began teaching at East Topeka Jr. High School in 1972.
When among my friends, especially those who are educators, I frequently say, “My students at East Topeka Jr. High School taught me how to teach, but they also taught be more than that. They taught me we were more alike than different.”
We often hosted community lunches at the school, where families would bring food to share. The majority of our students at the school were African American and Hispanic, and I learned that many of the foods my family referred to as “home cookin’” were exactly the same dishes that my African American students called soul food. I remember saying to myself, “I thought home cooking was turnip greens and cornbread, corn pone (crispy cornbread sticks) served with pinto beans and cooked with a good-sized ham hock, fried okra and sweet ice tea. I had grown up in West Texas and not lived anywhere else until I moved to Topeka, so the headfirst dive into new culture was exhilarating for me.
My Hispanic students introduced me to new recipes. It was always their families’ food that ran out first at the community lunches. The lines always seemed longest for homemade tamales, refried beans and fried jalapeno peppers.
Music is another strong memory I have of my time there. Patti LaBelle, Gladys Night & the Pips, Etta James and Lena Horne became some of my favorite female artists and remain important to me this day. Isaac Hayes, Al Green, Ray Charles, Teddy Pendergrass were at the top of my favorite male artists. Then there’s Mavis Staples. She’s so special to me that she has her own category.
I remember driving to Kansas City, to two separate occasions, with two teachers from ETJH, to see Patti LaBelle and Gladys Knight perform.
Closer to school, I loved hearing gospel music. When some of my students invited me to join them during a revival at St. Mark African Methodist Episcopal Church, it reminded me oh how I grew up listening to the gospel songs at the First Baptist Church in my hometown and at my grandparents’ church when I stayed with them in the summers. To this day, there’s nothing that keeps me hopeful and believing I can overcome any challenge like gospel music.
While music has always filled my heart and soul, I am confident that the students, their families, my colleagues and the community around the school in Topeka expanded my view of the world. What amazed me most was discovering just how many things my West Texas family and our East Topeka families had in common.
© Tyra Manning 2018