Still Learning How to Fly ~ Chapter Six: "Home of the Spartans" (Pt.1)

Ken Painter By Ken Painter, 28th Sep 2013 | Follow this author | RSS Feed
Posted in Wikinut>Writing>Biography & Autobiography

As I begin my junior year at Michigan State, I work as a classroom aide as a part of my curriculum, and I am tested by one of the young students. Do I rise to the occasion?

Inspiration Comes in the Unlikeliest of Places

Michigan State University had begun its existence in 1855 as the first and largest land-grant college of the kind, an agricultural college to be sure, but it had branched out as state colleges do and now encompassed all of the necessary collegiate pursuits and covering many of them quite well. And in my chosen field of elementary education MSU was among the tops. When I parked my truck in the commuter lot and boarded the bus on my first day of classes I held the hope that this was going to turn out to be the best of experiences. I also realized why they affectionately called it Moo U. Some of the fallow fields surrounding the commuter lot had been recently sprayed with fertilizer, and the air smelled ripe with the aroma of cow manure. Yup, this was Michigan State, and welcome to our Dairy Air!

Because I was a commuter student, my classes were centered around my ability to walk from a fixed point namely being dropped off at the commuter bus lot in the center of campus which coincidentally was situated right across the street from Erickson Hall the home of all El-Ed majors. While I had very few classes in this building, Erickson became my hangout in between classes when I had time to kill, when I needed to locate a study carrel or a chair to lounge in and read, any place to hang out in since I had no dorm room. Its central location made it advantageous to me. Our class schedules allowed us 20 minutes to get from one class to another, and sometimes depending on location and weather it could take me all of that to make it from points A to B, but usually I had very little problem, and yet all my paths seemed to cross by Erickson Hall.

Starting as a junior all of my classes except one or two were at that level, but because my teaching major was in Social Science and my teaching minors, I had two of them, were in Natural Science and English, I found myself still with a few sophomore level classes during this year due to MSU’s quarter-based (10 week) system rather than the semester based system I had come from. I found myself about to cram a lot more learning into a shorter time period, but as time wore on, I also found myself liking it. No time for boredom. I mention this not only because the institutional change of learning environment presented an important challenge to me that I soon found myself adapting to, but also because of an amusing sideshow which happened during my first term on campus while attending one of these classes.

I had an American History class (which I loved) which met in the Engineering Building on campus not far from Erickson Hall. After class one Monday I seriously needed to use the restroom, and so I did choosing one located just down the hall from the large lecture hall where our class of almost 600 students had just let out. I had never used a restroom in this building before, and well, let’s just say that the graffiti in the stall I happened to choose to occupy that afternoon was unique, simply fascinating! I don’t know for a certainty but I found myself really mesmerized by the way the minds of these engineering students worked . . . different to be sure, but I mean, wow! I stayed in that stall way longer than I needed to, and I actually found myself returning back to that restroom a couple of times a month just to check and see of some of the stuff had changed! It was political, it was humorous, some of it was sad, and yes, of course, raunchy, but most of it was smart. I found a lot of intellectual honesty written on these walls, so much so that when I went home later that Monday afternoon I wrote my best song up to that date . . . 40 years ago, and I celebrate its anniversary on these pages. Dedicated to the Patron Saint of bathroom graffiti artists who I made up myself . . .

Graffiti Joe

I found him on a Monday with his markings on the door
And I paused to read the words he had to say
With his slogans about presidents and politics and war
I sat longer than I really had to stay
For his verses were so funny and his messages so true
And his questions had been answered one by one
His phone numbers with his services provide for something new
And the stories of his life provide for none

He’s a self-proclaimed professor of the bathroom artistry
You can read his lectures when you’ve got to go
And the causes that he seeks to right are aimed at you and me
With a special flair and signed Graffiti Joe

You can see him in the bathroom with his pencils and his pens
And detect a simple message on his mind
Has he come to make additions to the messages he sends
Or is it answers to his lines he hopes to find
But whatever is his motive, you may rest assured he’s there
You can read his sermonettes upon the wall
Should you find a place he’s never been, consider it so rare
That he hasn’t got around to get your stall

He’s a self-proclaimed professor of the bathroom artistry
It will blow your eyesight every time you go
When you find yourself there reading, “Thanks for patronizing me,”
And his signature, “With love, Graffiti Joe”

Words & Music by Ken Painter
Copyright 1972 by Ken Painter

And there it is, never published, but I performed it in public several times, and it always got a good laugh. And despite the fact that I can’t read and write music, I still remember the tune. Some of the songs I wrote back in the day such is not the case. Time passes. But I found myself learning my newfound religion everywhere on campus, some of it in the unlikeliest of places.


Mike was a senior to my junior status, but still when our schedules allowed we shared a ride back and forth to campus, a great saving for us. And during that fall we also managed to snag part-time jobs together at a hardware store back in our hometown, so we were spending an inordinate amount of time together if we hadn’t already been. But Mike was a business major and so we held no classes in common, and our academic interests proved very different. At least I found myself developing my own mind scholastically apart from Mike during this time period.

My degree requirements mandated certain things I’ve always been thankful for, and what wasn’t required for my degree my professors always managed to fill in the rest. Being an Education major, every single quarter of classes I had one class devoted entirely to some form of on-site work in a classroom somewhere in the community which would find me assisting a local teacher in some fashion, and I don’t mean just being a go-fer. Or perhaps the class saw me being a reading tutor for the quarter to at-risk students. But always I would spend one full eight-hour day per quarter out in a classroom somewhere getting my feet wet, listening, observing, tutoring, leading small groups, and in general finding out if I really wanted to be a teacher. That was also designed into this process, because not everyone did, and a few students had the guts to realize this and fell by the wayside.

It was during one such assignment during my first couple of quarters at MSU that I met Robert. I found myself placed in an inner-city 1st grade classroom this particular term. Robert was the student, and it seems that every teacher has one, whose desk had to be placed right next to the teacher’s. That fact alone warned me that I needed to keep an eye on him.

It was during my second visit to the class that the teacher decided to take a little leap of faith. She needed to leave the classroom for a moment for some urgent need, and the whole class was working quietly on some project. She assured me there would be no problems. The very moment she left the room, little Robert popped up from his seat and walked to the back of the room where he had three little girlfriends that he wanted to talk to and posture for. Test Number One!

“Robert,” I spoke up loudly. “You need to come back over here to your desk and sit down and get back to your work.”

Robert just looked at me rather defiantly from the back of the room and stated as a matter-of-fact, “I don’t have to, Fatso.” Test Number Two!

Well, a lot of things ran through my mind very quickly, but mostly my instincts were telling me that this little kid was awfully cute standing there defiant and all, and I really wanted and needed to laugh. And so I did.

I laughed and laughed, and I laughed some more until I had to sit down and wipe the tears from my eyes. Well, he was right, disrespectfully so, but nevertheless I was somewhat overweight. And so I said to Robert, “That sure was a good one, Robert. You sure are funny.”

He looked at me like I had lost my mind! Why wasn’t I yelling at him? Why wasn’t I grabbing his arm and dragging him back to his seat? Why wasn’t I mad at him? These were the responses he was conditioned to expect. He was so perplexed by my response to his little test that he very simply and quietly walked back to his seat, sat down, and reconnected with his work.

I had met his little test and proved its equal, but Robert had won, too. He had learned that he could push buttons on an individual but that he couldn’t necessarily predict the response, and that proved to be a great lesson for him. For the duration of that term, Robert was always a model of good behavior around me and a bit of a little buddy. But most of all, he respected me as much as I respected him.

This little scenario became a major hallmark of my Education education for I learned to trust my instincts, because I had good ones, and I learned that I loved kids, and so I belonged in the classroom.

From that day on I aced pretty much everything in sight at least in my education classes. Oh, I had trouble in a some of my science classes getting B’s, and there was a Sociology class that no matter what I did, and I could have done cartwheels naked in Spartan Stadium and it wouldn’t have made any difference, I was going to get that one, lone C. There just had to be one! But I excelled, and I loved it. I soared for the most part (Introductory Sociology notwithstanding).

Strange Phone Call

Of course, during all of this time I still bunked at my parents’ home on M-50 in Jackson. My dad was still working at Diecast, and my mom had recently returned to the workforce as a garment worker at a local retail outlet. She worked in their warehouse where the clothing came in, and she would remove the wholesale ticketing from the ladies garments and reticket them with the retail pricing ready for redistribution to their downtown store. One late afternoon just shortly after I’d gotten in from college but before they’d gotten home from work the phone rang, and so I picked up. It was Pastor John from the Baptist Church downtown.

Now I had not attended since I’d graduated from high school although I’d been faithful up until that time. But once I’d started college, I’d let go, and my heart had begun spiritually searching. I still considered myself Christian, but otherwise floating, and the only other thing I was really certain of was that I no longer believed in Hell. Hell died for me when I turned 18, and I buried it. But Pastor John did not call to talk to me although he pleasantly but briefly inquired how I was doing. No other mention was made about my absence from church. He wanted to know how things were going at home. I told him okay, near as I could tell though I was in and out a lot. Could he be more specific? Well, he hemmed and hawed a lot, but then he said he was concerned about my mom. Mom? How? Well, he didn’t want to get into specifics, but had I noticed any changes in her behavior? No. Although I wasn’t going to let on to Pastor John that she was always mental, but he had to know that! He’d known us for years, so there wasn’t any change in that, and why was he concerned now! No there weren’t any changes that I could see. And he asked that if I noticed anything would I please call him. Sure. I had no idea what was going on, but she left the church for good a couple of years later.

(In the next installment, Mike graduates and gets married, Watergate seriously disillusions me, and I win a lottery . . . for once in my life.)

Link to next installment . . .

Link to last installment . . .

Link to beginning of book . . .


Autobiography, Memoir, Memoirs, Memories, Memories From My Young Days, Memory, Non Fiction, Nonfiction, 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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