Still Learning How to Fly ~ Chapter Six: :"Home of the Spartans" (Pt.3)

Ken Painter By Ken Painter, 30th Sep 2013 | Follow this author | RSS Feed | Short URL
Posted in Wikinut>Writing>Biography & Autobiography

As I go through my student teaching experience in the cold north country I experience many changes, some of them quite unexpected!

Student Teaching Way Up North

Cass Elementary School was located on Cass Road about three miles or so south of downtown Traverse City where I’d taken up residence in a downtown residence house for $19 week although I believe I paid an extra two bucks per week for the cable TV hook-up. I’d brought my old 19-inch black & white with me, and there wasn’t anything else to do. The two bucks was worth it even if there were only about five channels in those days. My room had a large double bed with way more room than I was accustomed to, a larger bureau than I was accustomed to as was the closet, hell everything about this room was larger than I had at home, plus I had a hotplate. I just had to share the bathroom down the hall with the other gentlemen, but we were all kind, and we were all clean. The lady owner insisted on it.

Cass School had been added on to, the older brick rectangle consisted of the lower elementary (K-3) wing of individual classrooms and offices which emptied at the end into the new large octagonal-shaped addition where I’d been assigned to one of the 5th grade rooms and my supervising teacher, Nancy McKinney. Nancy was also a Social Studies expert. Yes!

The octagonal addition of Cass School was an absolute wonder in my eyes. All of the 4th, 5th and 6th grade classrooms occupied the outside walls of the octagon which came to a pointed circus tent-like pitch in the center. Each of the classrooms were separated by movable wall partitions, and the classrooms were open-ended on one side in the center of the octagon, and this was the media center library with tables and chairs. Of course, out of necessity, with such an architectural design, it called for optimal behaviors from students, teachers, and all personnel to keep the noise level down. However, the architectural design aided in this, and everybody co-operated favorably. I was amazed. And I loved it! And almost 40 years later I still remember it with the most fondness.

We had students from all backgrounds and all economic strata. And since Traverse City is way up north and situated on Grand Traverse Bay of Lake Michigan, we found a fresh blanket of snow almost every morning I was there except for a warm snap the last couple of weeks that winter of ‘74, but one of my female students cross-country skied to and from class everyday, and another Native American boy was squired to and from school on the back of his dad’s snowmobile. Such was life in Michigan’s north country, and I found myself wishing that I’d brought a good camera with me for I had none.

I had settled into a decent routine there, but I was lonely, and I was searching. Mike kept writing me letters from Portland and sending me Watchtower and Awake magazines and having little else to do in my off time other than to look at the well-worn Playgirl I’d picked up at the corner market, I read these. And on Sunday when I did my laundry at the laundromat I found myself picking up old Watchtowers and Awakes which had been left there and reading those too. Seeds were being sown in my mind. Nothing serious yet, but seeds nonetheless.

And yet other changes were afoot quite by happy accident and lack of funds. I had no cooking facilities in my room other than a little hotplate, but nothing to refrigerate, and little money with which to feed myself a lot anyway, so what I’d taken to doing was this. My breakfast consisted of Tang. Monday through Friday at school I paid the 40 cents for my school lunch, and that became my main meal each day. Dinner each night consisted of Lipton Cup-A-Soup with alternating varieties. Saturdays were difficult with just two meals: Tang in the morning and Cup-A-Soup in the evening. On Sunday I went out to eat lunch, and it was a giant treat for me. After I finished with my laundry, I found my way over to the Burger Chef where they had an all-you-can-eat salad bar which really was just iceberg lettuce with a few strands of carrots and red cabbage mixed in, but I didn’t care. For 39 cents, I didn’t care, plus I splurged on a 20-cent Diet Coke on top of it, but that was my mad Sunday lunch, a couple of bowls of salad with Thousand Island dressing on top (it was either that or French, there were only two choices), and a diet soda, but I was lost in Heaven, and then a Cup-A-Soup for dinner. Do you know that I kept up this regimen for the almost eleven weeks I lived in Traverse City?

I called home and spoke to Mom a couple times while up there (and reversed the charges, of course), and I kept telling her she wouldn’t believe what I looked like when I got home . . . that I was losing weight. Recall that when I graduated high school I weighed 285 lbs, but college, and especially working at Diecast had worn some of that off, 50 pounds actually, and I went up to Traverse City at 235 and 6 feet, 1” tall. Still too heavy. But due to this self-imposed diet the pounds were just falling off. A couple of the teachers began to worry and invited me over for dinner one night, and they fed me pork chops. They were so nice, and the three of us laughed a lot. And then there was the student teacher’s banquet just before we all matriculated and left town where we all ate like little piggies, students and teachers alike, because the bill was on the college (part of that $255?).

But when I got home finally and stumbled into the house my parents were already in bed for the night, so they didn’t see me until the next morning. So when my mom came out of the bedroom she actually screamed a little scream because I looked so different.

“I told you so.” I just couldn’t resist telling her this as she grabbed me by the hand to lead me into her bathroom scales. My God. I’d never seen her this happy.

“198 pounds. Wow!” I kind of figured I may have been below 200, but I didn’t want to allow myself to think too long on it for fear it wouldn’t be true. I hadn’t been below 200 pounds since junior high school. And even though I was home now and would resume a more regular diet, my slide would continue a little while longer until I leveled off at 185 where I remained for quite a few years.

So my student teaching experience could not have been a more positive or rewarding experience for me. The town I taught in was beautiful even in the winter, the school was innovative and great, my supervising teacher, Ms. McKinney gave me enough rope to hang myself and enough leeway to learn from plus the necessary experience to grow into. The principal and staff at Cass were great and helpful also. I found myself learning from everyone. Plus while I found my world expanding in so many ways, I also found it diminishing in other good ways. All was good. All was necessary. All was inevitable.

Even when I went back to campus for the spring term to mop up with the final classes I needed to take before graduation, all was inevitable. I needed to take just one more Social Science class simply for the necessary credits I needed to graduate and to fill the requirements for my major, and there appeared to be only one in the entire course schedule that was located in the right location and at the right time with the right amount of credits for me to take it. So what was the problem? It was a goddamned Sociology class! Oh, I’d already had the introductory class, the one I got the fucking C in, the one which had been as boring as hell, and now I was going to have to take a Sociology class. It was driving me to swear, but the class book said it was about troubled youth and I had no choice. Dear God help me was all I could ask. I needed the credits.

The prof was great. I loved it. I aced it, and I mean straight-A. Go figure. In fact, my last quarter at MSU was the only term there where I had all A’s, the A I had in student teaching didn’t really count. I was finally zooming.

Skipping Commencement

Leaving town to do my student teaching that winter also meant leaving my part-time job at the hardware store, and, of course, upon my return my position was filled and there was no room for me. I needed to find something new and that’s how I ended up at the St. Joseph Home for Boys a Catholic orphanage located on the north side of Jackson. While most of the boys were orphans, a few of the boys had been placed there due to family difficulties, and so as time wore on I found much of what I was learning in my Troubled Youth Sociology class on campus coinciding very neatly with what was going on off campus at the home. I could actually feel God’s hand working on my life as if drawing scenes before me during these days, guiding and directing.

During this time period though many things culminated. Mike and Cathy had their first child, Michael (not a junior) born the latter half of April 1974. And during their sojourn in Portland they’d both become baptized as Jehovah’s Witnesses, but now they desired to return home to Michigan. Mike had been working for a large furniture company there, and while things were going okay, they felt it was time to return. Could I help? Sure.

I knew my parents were not coming to my commencement at MSU; they’d already informed me, and because of this I’d considered not going myself. The commencement address was being delivered by Senator Edward Brooke of Massachusetts a Republican. Yes he was a moderate. Yes he was African-American. It didn’t matter to me. The Watergate hearings were at their height, and all things Republican had become dirty to me with the exception of Gerald Ford the vice-president, but he was a fellow Michgander, and I still felt I could trust him. Senator Everett Dirksen of Illinois was dead and buried, and I could hear his raspy voice from the grave bemoaning the whole damned situation. Nope! The Republicans had become damned to me. And besides, at commencement I would only receive a piece of paper telling me that I could pick up my real degree after August 15th anyway. This I’d learned from Mike’s graduation the year earlier, the one which would have been mine also had I been able to attend college in four straight years.

So I decided in favor of forgoing commencement and driving my pickup the almost 2200 miles to Portland to retrieve my best friends who had now grown to three. Commencement in Spartan Stadium went off very nicely without me, and I graduated cum laude with a B.A. in Education and a GPA of 3.41 collecting the real thing from the Admin building on campus in August. But in June I made the trip west in three days stopping to camp the first night in Gothenburg, Nebraska, and the second night in Twin Falls, Idaho. I’d covered 1800 miles the first two days so the third was a breeze sailing into Portland a day before I was expected. Surprise! It was the happiest of reunions, more so because they had to get used to Twiggy, the new me.

My pickup had a fiberglass cover over the rear bed, and so over the next three days we prepared for departure carefully planning how we should carry the meager load, because Cathy would be riding in the rear bed in the sofa with a six-week old infant along with her. But we got it all figured out, or rather Mike did, I’ve never been that good with spatial relationships (me and Geometry don’t get along, and that’s why I’m not an architect despite my love of all things architectural, my spatial gizmo is messed up somehow). After we got all their stuff neatly packed in the truck bed, Cathy’s uncle, Jim proceeded to attach a car hitch to my truck so we could tow the old Datsun which was also fully packed. After we connected all the parts we said our good-byes and drove off.

There is so much I would have liked to have seen on this my first trip across America, my first time across the Mississippi River. I would like to have had the time to visit Yellowstone National Park and Mount Rushmore and Mount Hood, The Badlands of South Dakota, but we had a young mother with a nursing infant in the back end of the truck and little money. And so, even still 40 years later these remain on my Bucket List. However, I did see the Mississippi River. I did see many great and beautiful snowcapped mountains, a love affair which continues to this day. I did see the mighty Columbia River and traveled alongside of it for many, many miles. Beautiful. I saw a beautiful, brimming, and vibrant Portland, Oregon, and I met many, many wonderful inhabitants of this great city. And I made it to the vast, terrible, beautiful, and awe-inspiring Pacific Ocean, because Mike and I drove over to the coast and spent part of a day there ducking in and out of sea caves along the coast at low tide. Magic. Pure magic.

Then it came time to drive them home, and yet we still saw many sights, but Mike had the itch to get back, and we covered the distance in four days. Pretty fast considering the load we were carrying, but then there were two of us driving.

Because of the long, lonely distances in between towns out west and the fact that I had an AM radio only, we didn’t listen to it much, at least not until we got back into the Midwest where the cities were much closer. So we talked a lot. We had a lot of catching up to do. And we’d both been growing up, in separate and distinct ways, and, of course, we talked a lot about his becoming one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. While in Portland I’d met his friends, many of them, Witnesses all. I’d even attended one of the meetings at the Kingdom Hall before our departure, and then there was the big feast they’d thrown to say good-bye to Mike and Cathy. Everyone had been so nice. Everyone, friends, relatives, and I don’t mean nice just to Mike and Cathy, they’d been really nice to me, too, treating me just like family, and this fact had greatly impressed me. And so I had remarked upon this to Mike, and we talked about this. We talked a lot on the long trip back to Michigan about spirituality and what it meant for him to be one of Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Somewhere between Wisconsin and Michigan, I forget where because by then we were getting so punchy from being tired, Mike offered to study the Bible with me when we got back, and I accepted. I felt I had nothing to lose from this, and perhaps everything to gain. I hadn’t been a regular church attendee in the past five years, and I recognized deeply I needed to be fed. My heart was breaking spiritually. And Watergate had somewhat messed my head up in many other ways. I was looking, and I was ripe for the plucking.

When we reached our destination, Tompkins Center, Michigan and the house trailer they would rent from Mike’s uncle Russell, we made arrangements for our first study a few days later, and then we commenced unloading.

When I got home to my parent’s house, I told no one. That would come later. I knew my mom was going to shit bricks. I kind of liked that thought.

And I would spend that summer searching for my first teaching position.

To no avail.

(In the next and 1st installment of Chapter 7, my search for a teaching job ends, but is it everything I dreamed it would be? Find out in "Rookie.")

Link to next installment . . .

Link to last installment . . .

Link to beginning of book . . .


Autobiography, Gay, Gay Community, Gay Experience, Gay Men, Gays, Glbt, Lgbt, Memoir, Memoirs, Memories, Serial, Series, 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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