“I want to [be remembered] as a humble person who loved kids, and wanted to see them do well and maybe as someone who just enjoyed a lot of things; drawing and painting. But mostly, just that I was a good old Letcher County girl.”
Sonya Breeding, Teacher; Whitesburg, Kentucky:
“I grew up in Fleming-Neon, Kentucky. Growing up, I had a real modest childhood. I really liked living in a small town; the backstreets of Neon where everybody knew everyone. My dad, Paul Stewart, [is] a person that everyone really liked in the community. [He] liked to talk to people and things, so he always had me out in public with him and I guess I got to know a lot of people that way through him.
I was an only child, so I really didn’t have people to play with. My mom started out as an art teacher, so she was always showing me how to draw and things like that and I’ve never stopped. I’ve always enjoyed painting. And finally, I’ve gotten into this cake making and it’s a way to express myself. If you’re an artist, you have this need to always be creative or do certain things with it, and it’s enabled me to do that.
I was very awkward in high school. I never really was a part of the in-crowd. I just was friends with everyone. I was a cheerleader for a year or two, but I think my most enjoyable years were when I went to Alice Lloyd College. I made a lot of friends there [and] I became more social.
I have a lot of family members to graduate from there [Alice Lloyd College], aunts and uncles. I just liked it because nestled in the hills. They had a really excellent teaching program there, and I made friends with a lot of people who were in that program and we’ve remained friends to this day; we still talk on Facebook and stuff. I graduated top of my class, and received an award from them for teaching.
Alice Lloyd and June Buchanan were the two ladies who pioneered the school. The hope is that students who go there will want to come back to the mountains and work, and they won’t leave home. I guess that’s something I’ve always wanted. I’ve never really wanted to leave Letcher County. I’ve always liked the people and the things that we stand for. I’d like to see it better itself so that’s one reason that I’ve always liked the philosophies of the school. We had to wear dresses once per week, and the gentlemen had to wear suits. We always had to attend some kind of religious convocation or something one day of the week, and I think it was to teach us how to have self-respect. It taught us what to expect when we’d be in the working world, and so I still appreciate that to this day.
I’ve been a teacher for 22 years. I’m a reading specialist. I work in fifth grade and work with students mostly in reading and language arts. My parents were teachers, [and] most of my aunts and uncles are teachers. (Laughs) I guess in this area if you’re not a coal miner or a teacher, there’s not a whole lot of other options.
I taught at Jenkins for 18 years; Letcher County the last five. My parents have always taught in Letcher County. But I’ve noticed that there’s like been a dramatic decrease in the number of students that we have, and even we teachers used to get spending money for their classrooms and things. And [now] we have to really watch the field trips and things like that, it’s very limited.
It seems like there are a lot of people wanting to see some growth around here, and people are starting to come together and come up with some ideas for improving things. I see a lot of hope. I think people around here, we don’t really expect others to do for us. We want to achieve and build and do on our own. We got to do something.
I see some things [in the region] moving towards the positive. Sometimes, things have to get bad before they get good. We’ve been at a low point over the last few years, with a lot of people losing their jobs and things, so now people are seeing that there’s other things we can do to better our community. I think we’re going to see a lot of progress in the next ten years. Pikeville and a lot of these other places are picking up. Jenkins, I see growth and new residences, homes being built, and the new call center. I see a lot of people reaching out and trying to explore new job opportunities and I think that’s going to be a good thing.
I think we have some of the most talented people in the world around here. My husband, he’s working on some writings right now. He also plays music. I have tons of friends, Kim Miles that I teach with, her sons are in a band and very talented. There’s just a whole lot of giftedness, I think, in Letcher County. All the children, I don’t know how many children I’ve taught over the years, but I see so many that are gifted in music and art and writing. I’ve had two children within the past two years that have won writing contests in fifth grade; beat adults out right here during the Heritage Festival. That tells you something. There’s a lot of intelligence that’s unexplored around here, not appreciated as much as it should be.
I got a chance to go to Chicago a few years ago because of some high test scores. I got to attend a big language arts convention. A question was asked to the teachers, ‘how would you combine what you teach with something else?’ I gave an answer, and everyone asked where I was from and when I said Letcher County, Kentucky, they asked where it was. I said I live in the heart of Appalachia. A big hush flew over the crowd because they weren’t expecting someone to be able to answer or know what they were talking about. That made me feel really good. I used to give trainings and stuff like that in Lexington. When people ask me where I’m from, I’m proud to tell them that I live in Southeastern Kentucky.
My husband and I had our honeymoon in New Orleans. I remember we went on a tour of one of the graveyards, and there was the grave of Homer Plessy and the lady that was doing the tour asked everybody if we knew who that was. Nobody but us knew. My husband said, ‘you know who that is.” And I said, ‘oh, yeah, separate but equal, Plessy vs. Ferguson. And, you know, it just shocked me that out of the whole crowd [we were the only ones who knew that Plessy is the person who said that blacks and whites were separate, but they were.
I think it [music] has a lot to do [the Appalachian culture]. Even my great-grandmother, who died at the age of 100, played a banjo. She called it a ‘ban-jer.’ I think that that’s part of who we are. Some of the bluegrass music and different things, I think it stemmed from this area and still goes on today. People still play some of the songs that originated from around here, and I think that when people from around here hear certain songs or certain groups play, then it just triggers memories or stories they’ve heard, passed down the generations and things like that.
I was 20 when she [great-grandmother] died. Her name was Annie Bentley and she grew up at Dane. [She was] just a very sweet lady. Her house still stands at Potter’s Fork, and I think she could also play piano a little bit, and I play piano now. She had a brother and sister, just from a small family. I think her dad might have been the sheriff or whatever they were called back then. [She played] just for family, just for fun. We’ve gotten away from that a lot, haven’t we?
My grandfather on my dad’s side passed away before I was born. But on my mom’s side, my grandma liked to cook, and one of my favorite things that we always did together was make fried apple pies. There was just a certain way that it had to be done, and she would not have canned biscuit dough; it all had to be fresh from scratch. I think that’s one of the reasons I love cooking and baking so much is because when I was taking some college classes, my first ones during the summer, on days off I would walk up the hill just to spend some time with her, and we’d always fry up some pies together. She always boiled down, stewed down the apples. We picked them from trees that grew on the property. We would cut them up and stew them down. My papaw liked them a specific way without as much sugar in it. So she would make one pie for him and then she would load the others up full of sugar for us. Then, she would teach me how you had to cut in the Crisco just so and to make it just so the dough would be really light. She did not like clumpy dough at all. That was not allowed. She wouldn’t let me flip the pies because she was always afraid I’d get burned, so she did that part. She put a fork in flour and made the little ruffled edges around it. It was just a lot of fun. They were always really good.
When she cooked at Thanksgiving, the table was just full. New potatoes and gravy, fresh chicken, meats, the pies and cobblers and stuff was just amazing. I can often remember my papaw eating the cornbread with the buttermilk in it. (Laughs) I tried it once. I didn’t try it again.
[Being a hillbilly] means pride. It means that I come from an area where people actually are interested in one another; they’re kind, respectful, and talented. It means I’m from a beautiful place. In the fall you have all these trees that change colors. We were talking about that, my husband and I, as we came from Pine Mountain into Letcher County just last week. I was like, you know, we’ve been to the ocean, we’ve been different places that we’ve enjoyed seeing, but there’s nothing more beautiful than seeing the mountains.
We can’t wait to get back home after we’ve been away somewhere. It’s always nice, as we’re coming home, just can’t wait to get back to the people that we know. I know a lot of times when we visit somewhere, we run into somebody that’s really talkative and friendly and every time, it’s someone from Kentucky somewhere. No matter where we go, every year. You can always tell the people that’s from around, it can even been Northern Kentucky, you can just tell there’s a difference in personality.
[Toughest time in your life] Losing my father. He died of brain cancer 15 years ago. He had never been sick in his life. It’s just really hard. It’s still hard.
[Biggest accomplishment/Happiest time] Other than having my two children, just the accomplishments I’ve made with education. I’ve had really a lot of success in teaching. I love seeing kids, who may be struggling, do really well by the end of the year.
I had one student who is probably one of my greatest accomplishments I’ve ever had, and we’ve been asked to go to Hopkinsville, Kentucky, and team up and talk to a group of teachers who feel that students who are multiple grade levels behind can’t improve. This student was reading on about a fourth grade level and he was an eighth-grader, and he wasn’t coming to school and he wanted to quit. I recognized his last name because I went to school with his dad and I can remember when my mom taught the dad. I can remember his dad always had trouble in reading and he never did fully learn to read. I asked my mom, who was my reading teacher, you know, why is this? He had come from another school and, at that time, they didn’t have special programs for students like they do now. [My mom told me] some children just don’t learn how to read, and that wasn’t acceptable to me.
I worked with this student, and I told him If you just come to school and trust me, you’ll do okay. He got most improved student at the end of the year, and then two years later, he would even come to me for his other classes and ask me for help, and he remained in my reading program. He got a proficient on the statewide assessment, and now he is a junior in college. He’ll be graduating in May in the theater program at Morehead. He plays music, as well, and he’s on the Dean’s List. His name is Channing Richardson. He did a writing on it, and the professors loved it. The former principal, she’s the one currently in Hopkinsville, she said she wanted us to come during a training and show other teachers that you don’t give up on students. You have to stick with them. There’s always hope.
[Interest in Appalachia from students] I think when you work with the younger ones, they don’t think along those lines much. My husband [is] a social studies teacher, and he tells me about the things he works on with the students. We take them to the Civil War reenactments and things like that this year to get them to understand. I know when we went to the one this year, about a month ago, I saw a lot of the kids were looking at the board to see if they had family members who had participated. I think a lot of times up until around seventh grade they’re unaware of just how rich they are. You just have to take them and show them these things. I think we’re among the richest people in the world and don’t even know it. Who we are, what we’ve come from, our talents and our heritage [all make us rich].
[As an artist] I’ve always painted using acrylics. I used to enter the Wise County fairs. I’ve won a lot of ribbons and things. I paint people. I guess the last big painting I did was a baptism. I did a painting for my ex-husband’s grandmother. She was a precious lady. Her name was Ogee Morris, and she was just wonderful. She couldn’t believe that somebody wanted to paint a picture of her. I said I’d like to have a picture of when you were baptized, and she gave me that. Just a few days later, she called her children and told them that she was going to be in one of my paintings and she passed away. She’d had a heart problem for years. I decided I was not going to do the painting. Well, the family called me and they said, ‘no, we want you to. That was the last thing we remember about our mom being all excited about.’ So I did.
When I went to the Wise County fair, I was about in my early 20s. Sarah, from the Omni Gallery here in Whitesburg, I came to her with the painting and I was trying to find a frame for it. The frame I wanted was about $300 and I couldn’t afford it, so I chose a little $70 picture frame because I don’t think I was even teaching at that time or just started or something. She said, ‘I’ll fix it up for you and you can come and get it and take it to the fair.’
Well, when I came in, she said, ‘do you see your painting?’ And I was like, no. She said, ‘it’s on the wall.’ I looked around for that gold frame. I couldn’t find it and then, all of the sudden, something caught my eye. She had taken that $300 frame and put my painting in it and had still sold it to me for a lesser amount. And it just…I cried. It made my day. We ended up winning first place. So that was something that really made me happy. I need to really get back into it. My mom, she painted as well.
I want to [be remembered] as a humble person who loved kids, and wanted to see them do well and maybe as someone who just enjoyed a lot of things; drawing and painting. But mostly, just that I was a good old Letcher County girl.”