This past weekend, I had the opportunity to go back to a place that I will always hold dear in my heart — Topeka, Kansas. That’s where I learned how to overcome my addictions, where I learned how to become “weller than well” during my eight-month hospitalization at the Menninger Clinic. That’s where I was when I got the news that Larry had been shot down over the Laotian jungle and I would have to start my life over without him. Topeka was where I kept one of my first promises to Larry, to finish my degree and become a teacher.
My first teaching assignment was what prompted me to return to Topeka last weekend for a reunion with the students and teachers who were with me at East Topeka Junior High in the 1970s. What a special occasion to be able to celebrate Fiesta Mexicana together in this beautiful city. We hadn’t seen each other for years and yet, as we rode together on our parade float, it felt like we had never been apart.
These were the people who embraced me and made me feel welcome when I was a brand new teacher. – with a distinctive Texas twang! We had such diverse backgrounds and interests, but one important thing in common – our devotion to delivering the best possible education to the young people of East Topeka. This school left a lasting impression on me, which I describe in my book.
We developed a team-teaching class called “Self-Expression through Communication and Social Interaction.” It integrated current events and literature about individuals who had made a difference in our country with the required social studies and English curriculum…We wanted to teach children to think and to consider the effects of leaders who had made a difference. Our lessons on the importance of looking beyond labels to the character of each individual impressed our students so much that they reversed their nicknames for us, calling me “Pepper” and my African-American colleague “Salt.”
I spent 14 years of my life in Kansas, and although I’ll always be a Texas girl, Topeka is beyond special to me too. Those were the kids who taught me to teach.