Still Learning How to Fly ~ Chapter Seven: "Rookie" (Pt.3)

Ken Painter By Ken Painter, 3rd Oct 2013 | Follow this author | RSS Feed
Posted in Wikinut>Writing>Biography & Autobiography

Amid the turmoil of teaching in the State Prison my wife and I conceive our first child. What have we gotten ourselves into?

Lock Up

As I’ve stated before, I must have a guardian angel watching over me, because just before the first day of school even opened in the regular school districts I received another phone call, this time from another assistant principal in a far different venue asking if I’d be willing to come in for an interview. It seemed that the State Prison was looking for a few good men, and they were recruiting from the substitute teachers list. Sure. I was game. It could not have been worse than what I went through during my first year in Charlotte. And the location was great just a seven or eight mile drive down the road toward Jackson. Perfect. And so I took the interview.

They loved me. My size didn’t hurt any, and neither did my age. Their whole program was explained to me by the assistant principal. Should I come aboard, I would be teaching in the elementary program. In Michigan at that time all adult prisoners over the age of 18 (my oldest was 60) upon their incarceration were given a complete battery of tests, and if they could not read at the 6th grade level or above they were mandated to take Reading class until they could. Below the 6th grade level they were considered to be functionally illiterate. It was also explained to me that there was considerable incentive for them to learn to read, because while they were in our classroom they weren’t earning any money. Instead they would rather be working on a job somewhere inside the prison earning anywhere from 50 cents to as high as $1.25 per day if they were lucky enough to land a job in the furniture factory which made the furniture for the state offices throughout Michigan. And so just prior to Labor Day 1975 I accepted a job with the Michigan Department of Corrections and became a part of the petty bureaucracy. Many people who lived in the area had already or in time would work there.

I received my initial assignment to work in the 3rd grade Reading Lab for a few months to get my feet wet, and I worked with and under the supervision of two teachers whose names I forget and so I’ll call them Bartles and Jaymes. Bartles and Jaymes were responsible for showing me how all of the equipment worked, guiding me through all of the scheduling, and in general keeping me out of trouble. You see, each student was on a non-graded continuous progress basis. Students would be coming and going from each grade level at different intervals. If a guy tested at the 3rd grade reading level he could come into our reading program on say September 15th, with a classroom full of other students who had been working individually at that level already for days, weeks, or more. His progress would be up to him. Once assigned his materials, he would work with each of us teachers, plus we also had resident (inmate) teacher aides who could assist each student with the workbook assignments. Our jobs as teachers was to help assess individual problems such as those who may have a reading disorder such as dyslexia. We actually had machines in the classroom to assist the students with such problems. It was all pretty cool.

Eventually, most would test out to the next level, but there were always one or two who would stall, and after months upon months of trying to no avail, we as teachers had the power to “00” them from the program. This would override the mandate and allow them to go get a job, but at least we’d tried.

It was a noble cause and calling, but there were days. One day in one of the 3rd grade classes I happened out of the corner of my eye to catch movement on the desktop of one of the students, so I focused my eyes a little closer. The desktop was jumping just a bit. Oh come on! He wasn’t! Though I couldn’t see it, I realized that yes, he WAS. And so I quietly tapped him on the shoulder, and without drawing attention to what he was doing, I whispered in his ear that he was excused to go to the bathroom and finish masturbating. This was NOT 6th grade public school anymore! And when he returned, I told him quietly that on future days should the urge ever return just ask me, and I’d grant him permission to be excused. It wasn’t a problem. He never asked. Problem solved.

I never had discipline problems in the prison like I did in public school. Of course, down in the center of the hallway situated in the middle of all of our classrooms sat a corrections officer with a loaded sidearm. And he was the first person each of our students saw upon entering the school each morning. To get to our Academic School each day I had to go through an assortment of eight locked bars or steel doors and checkpoints which was situated deep within this walled complex on the second floor adjoining the mess hall, and overlooking The Yard. If anything ever went down inside, we were sitting ducks, and in the back of our minds we all knew this, because we were seriously outnumbered. For this reason, the State of Michigan had taken a $100,000 life insurance policy out on us for our beneficiaries at no cost to us, and that was serious money in those days, approximately ten years salary, and yes I was making more than I made in Charlotte, of course I was working on a year-round program too.

After about three months with Bartles and Jaymes, I was promoted into my own 2nd grade reading classroom next to their reading lab. Nothing really changed except that I was on my own. I kept noticing though a phenomenon which I’d noticed earlier in their lab which kept nagging me in mine, and so I started keeping track of it over the next few months, and it seemed to hold true. I noticed as my students did their work that approximately 70% to 80% of them were left-handed. Given that only 10% of our general population is such this really bothered me that over a six month period I kept observing these high numbers, and they held between that 70% and 80%. One day, I had the chance to be over in one of the residence blocks and face-to-face with one of the block counselors for the first time. Ah, here I was with someone who possessed a degree in psychology, and so I mentioned this, and I asked her if there was any known correlation between left-handedness and crime. Her response was that at that time she knew of no studies to that effect, and we discussed the interesting observation. We extrapolated that if one could account for the fact that left-handers are more creative in their thinking, then perhaps this creativity in some minds pushes one to radical, unsocial behavior, and thus a life of crime . . . ? I’ve always wondered. I still wonder. The numbers were extraordinary!

Eventually the burn-out factor got to the junior high English teacher across the hall from me. Most of us burned out by two years of service. Those who survived longer than that, and there where a few, were either extremely strong mental individuals or a tad looney. But our school actually had programs for those students who wanted to pursue academics up through a high school diploma and beyond, and so I was asked if I would like to move into the junior high English job, and I consented because it was a great position. The students who were there were not under mandate. They wanted to be there, and I loved teaching English.

One day the teacher in the adjoining room and me were on our prep periods, and we were in my room chewing the fat when we saw a scuffle out in the hallway. Please understand that the walls in the classroom were drywall only about 3 ½ feet up from the floor and glass all the rest of the way to the ceiling, so we could observe a lot of the pushing and shoving at the beginning of this scuffle between these two adult male students. Both he and I had been teachers in public school prior to our prison assignments, and so it was only instinctive what we did next. We both charged out into the hall without thinking and broke up the fight. By the time we got out there, we had to pull one of the guys off the other, and if I recall it correctly I did the holding while he did the pulling off. But as I did the holding I was facing down toward the center of the hallway toward where the corrections officer’s post was, and instead of running toward us with his sidearm cocked which is what he should have been doing, he was running in the other direction toward the principal’s office like he was going to tell him all about it as if that was going to do any good. After we pulled the guys apart, they both ran down the hallway toward the vacated corrections officer’s post and down the stairwell to the first floor exiting the building. It was only then that we realized what we had done.

These guys were armed.

All inmates were armed. They all had some kind of makeshift weapon on them, and we all knew it. And so we also knew that one of the guys was housed in Honor Block which was right across from our school. We ran back immediately into my colleague’s classroom and looked out his window, and we watched as this one student walked very carefully out of the lower level of our building and covered the thirty feet of sidewalk to the entrance of Honor Block. And he paused momentarily before he entered looking around cautiously to see if anyone was watching, but he neglected to look up and see us observing him. He then reached inside his jacket and pulled out a metal shim perhaps five to six inches in length, one probably fashioned from a door hinge missing from somewhere around this huge complex, and he dropped it in the ornamental bushes next to the doorway before he swung the door open and disappeared inside. We both breathed sighs of relief that the shim rested in those bushes rather than our ribs.

Up until that day, I hadn’t been so concerned for my safety there. That began slowly changing with a shim dropped in the bushes.

A Bun in the Oven

Initially our plan had been to wait a year before starting a family, and so just prior to our wedding Nancy had gotten a prescription from her doctor for the pill. But after we got settled into our apartment, and I got settled into my job at the prison, we kept looking at that empty second bedroom, and we started envisioning a nursery, and so about six weeks into our marriage, we made the conscious leap for Nancy to come off the pill. We figured it would take us awhile to conceive anyway, so we might as well get started trying. It did not. We were a fertile couple. She conceived almost immediately.

And she bloomed. And blossomed. Which was a concern. My brown haired, blue-eyed wife had been 5 feet 2 inches tall, but 180 pounds to begin with, just five pounds less than me. The fact that she’d had a weight problem never bothered me, simply because of the fact that I completely understood. Until recently the world knew I’d always wrestled with that problem. But as the child inside her grew, she really grew.

We prepared for the eventuality of the birth by decorating the nursery. We didn’t know the gender, but it didn’t matter. Whichever it was would be fine. With a due date of around June 23rd we simply looked forward doing a lot of reading, praying, and preparing.

As the months grew closer we, of course, took the requisite Lamaze class for natural childbirth, but we didn’t stop there. Nancy’s physician had told us also about the Leboyer method of childbirth by which the infant is born in a warm bath. We read up on the process and found it to our liking, and so we were finding many positive benefits from the process for both the baby and the mother.

Nancy kept growing despite her best efforts to keep the extra weight down, 60 pounds in all. June 23rd came and went with the baby having dropped into position. July 4th and the nation’s bicentennial came and went. July 11th and my uncle Gerald’s birthday came and went. Still nothing, and we were starting to get concerned though the doctor assured us on each of her regular Monday visits that all looked well.

On Friday July 16th, Nancy got up really weepy. She had a dismal feeling that something was wrong, but she just couldn’t put a finger on it. Just a hunch, intuition. I may have been young, but I never went against a woman’s intuition. I called the prison and told them we were going to the doctor’s office. No problem.

Although she wasn’t scheduled again until the following Monday, he looked at her anyway, but he didn’t put her up in the stirrups and look inside. He checked the baby’s heartbeat. Everything was fine. No problem. He patted her on the hand, reassured us that everything was okay, and he sent us on our way. The baby would come when it was ready. But it was almost a month overdue we said. Perhaps we’d miscalculated, he told us.

On Sunday morning July 18th, we got up as usual, but Nancy was feeling a little nervous about everything, and so we decided not to go to our meeting at the Kingdom Hall. Who knows? Maybe something will happen. After breakfast we sat in the kitchen playing cards, and after about an hour of this I could tell that Nancy was having difficulty concentrating once in awhile, and so I gave her kind of a quizzical look. She suddenly said to me, “I don’t know why my back keeps hurting every so often?”

I dropped my cards on the table as my mouth fell wide open, “You’re having back labor! How far apart are your pains?”

“I don’t know”

“Let me know when you feel them, and I’ll time them.” And so she did, and I reminded her that we’d been through this in Lamaze class, that the baby had locked itself in the sunnyside up position with the back of its head pressing on her spine causing the back pains otherwise known as back labor, and now as it turned out her labor pains were six minutes apart. Time to go!

I called the doctor. We headed to the car, and made for the hospital in Jackson.

There would be no LeBoyer birth, because once she was comfortably in the room and examined it was noted that her water had already broken at some point, and she was having a dry birth. Because of this the passage down the birth canal became difficult at one point and forceps had to be employed, but at approximately 2:30 that Sunday afternoon our son, Micah Nathanael entered the world at 8 lbs., 6 oz., and 22 in. long. He looked beautiful, healthy, and he had my goofy-looking toes and huge feet, poor kid. All mine. I stayed late into the evening, but eventually I pulled myself away from Nancy and Micah to go home and get some sleep. I planned to go to work on Monday at least while they were still in the hospital and take a few days off after they came home. I drifted off to sleep with a smile of satisfaction on my face.

The next day at the prison, we were all smiles, the staff and me. They couldn’t stop patting me on the back enough. And that’s why it was such a shock. When Nancy called. About lunchtime. And though she was trying not to, I could tell she’d been crying. She said I needed to come to the hospital right away. There was a problem though she wouldn’t say what on the phone. Hurry. I hung up as the blood drained from my face, and those in the office knew. Something was up.


(Find out what happens next beginning in "Chapter 8 "Matters of Life and Death.")

Link to next installment . . .

Link to last installment . . .

Link to beginning of book . . .


Autobiography, Childbirth, Memoir, Memoirs, Memories, Non Fiction, Non-Fiction, Nonfiction, Prison, Prison Systems, Prisoners, Prisons, Serial, Series, Teacher, Teachers, Teaching, True Experience, True Experiences, True Life, 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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author avatar MarilynDavisatTIERS
4th Oct 2013 (#)

Good Evening, Ken. My regular check in...., except this time I also have a question. Besides the left handed issue, did you find that a lot of the prisoners had artistic talents? I ask because at the recovery home I ran, many of the women had been in jail or prison prior to admission, and rules aside, got letters from fellow prisoners or from a male that they knew, also incarcerated. Just curious. : ) ~Marilyn

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author avatar Ken Painter
4th Oct 2013 (#)

Hey Marilyn. I had no we to measure or check their artistic ability. We had no art program, and in the jr. high English program their was no creative writing component, so I really don't recall any artistic ability. I'd be really interest to know now after all of these years. Great question! ~ Ken

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