Still Learning How to Fly ~ Chapter Seven: "Rookie" (Pt.1)

Ken Painter By Ken Painter, 1st Oct 2013 | Follow this author | RSS Feed | Short URL
Posted in Wikinut>Writing>Biography & Autobiography

My search finally ends and I FINALLY find my first teaching job. Is it everything I ever dreamed and hoped for? Yeah, right!

District Convention in Canada

That summer I really found myself with only three things to do, so my life was relatively uncomplicated. First, I still had my job at the boys home, so the job routine ran my schedule, of course. In an around this, I sent out resumes and fit in job interviews for teaching positions for the fall, what precious few I could secure, and I became a finalist for a couple of them, but for some reason, I just couldn’t seem to nail that elusive job down. And I was looking everywhere, public schools, parochial schools all over Jackson and Ingham Counties, it didn’t matter. As the summer wore on my prospects grew dimmer.

My third objective had become my burgeoning spiritual quest, and that had begun as my little Bible study with Mike. I hadn't told my parents about it at first, but when I started attending meetings at the Kingdom Hall up in Leslie, I knew I’d better open up to them about it. The conversation went better than I thought it would. My dad didn’t care one way or the other which I’d already figured, he never really seemed to care what I did, or at least it appeared that way to me. Mom was pissed however, and it was obvious from the way she stomped around the house, but she didn’t take to her usual screaming fits. She did make it thoroughly clear though that I was not to leave any Watchtower magazines lying around the house or discuss anything with them about that religion. No problem, Mom. I was a 23 year old man and what I really needed was a place of my own, but, of course, I couldn’t begin to afford that as I jumbled all of these thoughts through my mixed up mind.

I soon became impressed with how fast folks at the Leslie congregation just absorbed me as part of the family. I became scooped up in their collective bosom almost immediately, a far different experience from my Baptist childhood days during which there always remained a bubble around us. Whether that was in institutional bubble though or it simply existed because folks placed it there as a barrier between them and us because of my mother’s corrosive behavior, I’ll never know. It just was. And now I found myself growing into a spiritual family of new faces, names, and histories.

That August, because Mike and Cathy had missed the earlier district convention which Jehovah’s Witnesses held each summer in numerous locales throughout the U.S. and Canada, we heard of one being held in Sault Sainte Marie, Ontario just across from the Soo Locks and its sister city of the same name in Michigan’s upper peninsula. Mike invited me to go along, though he may have wanted the convenience of camping in my truck, but what the heck. Camping in Canada during the first week of August was something I was up for if I could arrange it with the boys home, and they proved amenable, so off we went.

Approximately four thousand people took over the hockey arena in Sault Ste. Marie, for the four day affair, and the KOA campground where we camped was filled with a lot of them. We found ourselves sitting around the campfire at night talking with a lot of folks from back in the home congregation or adjoining ones, and, of course, I’d brought the guitar with me to sing and play which always provided for a good time. I had a 12-string guitar by this time, because over the years I’d grown into my John Denver years. Folk and country were my thing. We sat around the campfire that weekend singing Take Me Home Country Roads, and they were impressed that I could hit all the high notes. John Denver held a huge following among Jehovah’s Witnesses, and I knew most of his songs, and with my 12-string covering a multitude of my vocal sins, it became easy to impress. And I impressed at least one young lady that weekend, because while there I met Nancy, whose aunt and uncle were attending at Leslie and had begun Bible studies, and for some reason whose mother I found fascinating and had conversed with a long time that Saturday night at the campfire.

When we got back to Jackson though I still had a job to do and that was to find a teaching job. That front still wasn’t going well. I possessed both a regular teaching credential and one for substituting, so as August wore on, I put my name on the substitute teacher’s list in Jackson County and the Leslie district knowing that would keep me more than busy, and my hope was that once some of these schools got a firsthand look at me I’d land a full-time job.

Job and Shock!

I received a phone call from the principal of the Charlotte Middle School (pronounced shar - LOT, with the accent on the 2nd syllable, French Canadian style) on Labor Day no less, and he inquired if I had a full-time job yet. No? He’d just had a 6th grade position open up a few days before, and would I like to come in the next day and interview for it? Great.

I was stunned. My mouth hung open as I hung up the phone. It appeared that Mr. Honshell, the principal had contacted the teacher placement bureau at Michigan State and asked them if they knew of any recent graduates well-versed in Science and Social Studies who lived in the area and who may not yet have a job, and they gave him my number. I swear I have a guardian angel.

Charlotte is the county seat of Eaton County 30 miles to the northwest of my bed, and M-50 would take me there all the way. The strange part was, for all my searching, in Jackson County and southern Ingham County, I never once thought of Eaton County and neither did anyone else, and I very easily could have applied in both Charlotte and Eaton Rapids which was only 18 miles away. The thought never occurred to anyone.

That Tuesday morning in September 1974 found me interviewing with both the principal and assistant principal, and they found me fully qualified and acceptable for what they were searching for, a 6th grade teacher to fill out a team of three. The other two were female, and they were kind of looking for a man since it was a male who they’d let out of his contract just a few days prior to go overseas into a last minute church-related missionary assignment which had come through for him. They had felt it necessary to comply with his wishes and inconveniently try to fill his position, and here they were on the first day of classes with a substitute in the classroom already and interviewing me.

The three of us teachers each possessed our own teaching specialties. Debbie was the reading teacher, Carolyn did Math, and I was the Science guy with all of us doing our own Social Studies, Language, Art, and Music with our own homerooms and squeezing in the last two as our schedules allowed. But it all sounded good to me. I was all smiles. We were all smiles as I met Debbie who was in her second year of teaching and Carolyn who was in her first just like me. I signed my contract for $7900 and change, got my teacher’s handbook and said I’d report back the next day.

What a shock! When I walked into my homeroom and I discovered my students the next morning . . . these were not the well-mannered kids I’d had from my 5th grade classroom in Traverse City. These were by far the worst behaved kids I’d seen congregated in a classroom anywhere, at anytime, and I felt that Michigan State had exposed me to a lot, to as much as had been possible, but these kids here, in this place were animals, and I was the raw meat.

To be fair, the day before Mr. Honshell had explained to me that these kids in my homeroom would present a handful, that my predecessor had a special kind of program which he supposedly worked with unruly kids. He had been granted the leeway in his classroom to read scripture to these kids (in public school? I recall thinking at the time, but I wanted the job), but he’d assured me that I had to do none of these things. He just forewarned me that my predecessor had funneled those two or three problem children from each of the fifth grade elementary school classrooms into his homeroom, and so they were all there for me to deal with in my class of thirty, boys and girls alike. My thought before I first laid eyes on them was well, how bad can they be?

I was about to find out what life in hell was really like.

Making Lemonade

The old saying is that when you’re given lemons, make lemonade. I felt like I’d erected a permanent lemonade stand in the front corner of my classroom next to the bookcase. I found myself throughout the entire course of the year constantly intervening in one little snit or another between these kids though as the year wore on the intervals got fewer and farther between if only because I got better at handling them, and the students realized that I was king, and I would have my will imposed upon them regardless.

I could bitterly reminisce endlessly about my almost disastrous rookie season, I say almost because I was earning while I was learning. But I’ll try to limit my memories to a couple of telling vignettes. One of these revolved around one of my students named Hugh (made up name, because he’d be about 50 now, and should he ever read this story it would be terrifically embarrassing). Even by the 6th grade Hugh did not have a clue . . . about anything! I swear to God, I would not be overstating the case to say I would not be surprised to find out that his mother held his weenie when every time he took a piss. I’m dead serious! All three of us teachers lost track of how many conferences we held with his mom, and it wasn’t for her lack of concern. Oh she was concerned! But the poor kid was lost in space, and the term space cadet wasn’t even a good enough one to be applied to Hugh. He couldn’t do the homework, or he’d do the wrong assignment, or he’d get part of it to school, or it would get there all crumpled up in his pocket with chocolate milk on it. Maybe it wouldn’t get there at all, and we’d get the old story that the dog ate it. Every day we’d all be on the phone with Hugh’s mom, always. Every single day. And how did we finally resolve this huge Hugh problem to a reasonable degree?

Safety pins. And envelopes.

I forget whose idea it was, but I’m certain it was one of the ladies, because I doubt that I’d gotten that inventive yet. The idea got tossed out on the table to start putting Hugh’s homework assignments in a white, sealed envelope each day, and I would pin it to his chest since he was in my homeroom. He was instructed then not to even touch this envelope, and his mother would then remove it from his chest when he got off the school bus and safely home once inside the house and not before. She would help him with his homework as necessary and put his homework in an envelope the following morning thus reversing the process. And in this way we managed to conquer the Hugh problem with very few wrinkles to the system throughout the remainder of the year. Oh, there was an occasional hitch, and a tweak here and there, but we always managed to fix it. As long as we had large envelopes and good safety pins. But can you imagine? A 6th grader? I’ve often wondered whatever became of Hugh?

But it wasn’t only Hugh, it was all the students in the class, and it had become how they perceived me, the male of the species. While I’d always found difficulty in getting them to work cohesively as a group, my two female teammates found little difficulty in working with them, and they wondered what my problem was. Granted they each had my class for one period each day, as I had their angels the same. But I asked one of my male students in confidence one day about the situation, one of the boys who I had a reasonably closer relationship with and I knew I could trust his response. I asked him why the class didn’t act out with the other two teachers, but found no difficulty letting loose in our room, and I asked him to please be honest. I could take it. His answer surprised me. I expected him to tell me that I was a softy or something. Nope. He said it was because they were women. We treat women different then we do guys, he said. And the more I thought about it, it made sense to me. This was 6th grade, and they’d never had a male teacher before, and somehow we were all suffering through this first experience together. Thirty behavior disordered children in one classroom together with their male teacher. They basically knew how to conduct themselves with a female teacher, but not with the male, and short of a whip and a chair, I didn’t either.

I did start catching on one day though. It all started with an Art project. One fairly routine day, the class and I had been deeply involved in an art project which included a lot of construction paper and glue. Unfortunately as the project progressed, the noise level of the students had continued growing higher to the point that I was getting really nervous about a pop visit from our hall-wandering principal, Mr. Honshell.

As we concluded the project, the students noisily cleaned up their desks and dumped all the scraps in a gray, metal wastebasket next to my desk near the front of the room. Afterward, I launched into my standard sermon, The Speech, about how we are supposed to conduct ourselves in the classroom while doing such a project.

The only sound that could be heard was my baritone voice which carried a nervous edge to it as I strongly urged the students to conduct themselves more responsibly. It was at that moment that I had a brain cramp which led to a tactical mistake.

Nervous as I was, I noticed the scraps of construction paper overflowing from the wastebasket, and the sight of it all bothered me, so I attempted to stuff it all back inside with my foot. As I pulled my foot back out, a huge wad of multicolored paper scraps came along with it. It seems that a sizeable wad of recently-disposed blue bubblegum had been hiding among the many scraps right in the center where I had just placed my foot bringing out with it a mangled array that looked like remnants from Times Square the morning after New Year’s Rockin’ Eve.

I swear that I didn’t swear, but the sober look of consternation on my face coupled with the sight of a young, male teacher violently shaking his right leg and foot in vain, trying to remove such a huge, festive-looking wad was more than this class could bear. First, I heard one little muffled chuckle from somewhere in the back of the room followed by another and another as the class finally exploded like a Molotov cocktail of laughter had been dropped right in its center.

Suddenly, I saw the picture in my mind from the students’ perspective, and I laughed too! In fact, I laughed so hard that tears started to form in my eyes although, upon later reflection, some of this may have been due to the embarrassment of my predicament. The class and I were still laughing as they watched me diligently trying to remove the huge wad of gum from the bottom of my right shoe. We were all still laughing when Mr. Honshell opened the door and entered our circus to find out what was so funny. I still thank God to this day that he laughed too.

Just liked I’d learned way back in Lansing with Robert, there were times to lighten up and laugh, and this was one of them. Things got a little better in my classroom after this day. But as time wore on a permanent breach occurred in our 6th grade team that I suppose was eventual. It became the two ladies against the one man, and no matter how hard I tried, I was the outsider. Them versus me. And they made it perfectly clear to me that’s the way they wanted it.

(In the next installment, I begin dating. Does it lead to the altar? OMG!!)

Link to next installment . . .

Link to last installment . . .

Link to beginning of book . . .


Autobiography, Classroom, Memoir, Memoirs, Memories, Memory, Non Fiction, Non-Fiction, Nonfiction, Serial, Series, Teacher, Teachers, Teaching, Teaching Children, True Experiences, True Stories, True Story

Meet the author

author avatar Ken Painter
Retired Chicago public school teacher. Singer, songwriter, musician, author, & opinionated old curmudgeon. Married to my husband & living in Colorado, USA. Also a father & grandfather.

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