Still Learning How to Fly ~ Chapter Thirteen: "Talented Teacher" (Pt.1)

Ken Painter By Ken Painter, 18th Oct 2013 | Follow this author | RSS Feed
Posted in Wikinut>Writing>Biography & Autobiography

As I recover after my first back surgery, I've rebuilt the music program at the school where I teach in Chicago, and for my efforts I'm rewarded with a two-week retreat in The Loop at what is called the Talented Teacher Institute. This is one of two highlights of my career communing with wonderful teachers and learning (and then came the Master's Degree . . .YES!!!)

Within My Classroom

Becoming a music teacher was one of those strange turn of events in my life that simply transformed me. I mean stop and think about it for a moment. I was the guy who way back in the 7th grade gave up on the school band program and thus playing the trombone because we had moved to a new school district and I was two years behind in my instruction and wouldn’t be able to get caught up. My sister was the one who had gone on to star in the band arena going on to college in Anderson, Indiana and getting a degree in Music Education thus preparing her to be a junior high or high school band instructor somewhere in the world, and she had excelled at it. What was she doing now? She was working for the Michigan Department of Corrections high up in the Human Resources Department back at the state prison in Jackson where I used to teach so long ago. Funny how life twists and turns, doesn’t it? But then one of the reasons that I was able to hang on to my job so easily is that band and music majors weren’t crawling all over themselves to teach in an inner-city gang-infested neighborhood like the one I taught in and at the grammar school level. Ninety percent of my school kids were below the poverty level. A lot of folks didn't want to deal with that. It didn’t bother me. I adored them, and they grew to at least tolerate me, though I know with some of them it went much deeper than that, because as time went on I got a lot of visits from grads.

By the spring of 1994 I found that I’d completely overhauled the general music program at Kanoon rebuilding it from the ground up. I’d learned to become a grant writer, and I would continue this. I believe this was the year I secured the funds to procure ten portable large keyboards for our music program which we would use for music instruction of the students.

Kanoon had an amphitheater which I used as my classroom as often as I could. It was large and inefficient, but I could call it a home of sorts, and it had an equipment room in the rear where I could store the keyboards. In one corner of the theater sat a large upright piano which I’d also taught myself to play to some minor degree of success during the first three years. From grant writing and outright begging I’d added all sorts of hand musical instruments for the students to play (a lot of percussion stuff, rhythm sticks, tambourines, etc.) plus a record and CD/tape player all necessary to the program. We had nothing that was cutting edge, but we were just keeping up.

And from there my kids learned everything from Beethoven and Mozart to Dolly Parton and Selena. We heard cumbias from Latin America and waltzes from Johann Strauss, Jr. During the course of each year we tried to cover as much of everything especially what was current. Ricky Martin was GOD! Selena was Queen!

And, of course, I taught them some basic music tablature, too. I’m not able to sight read, but I was choir trained as a child, and I did have that one music methods class at Michigan State that I aced so I wasn’t flying blind. Thank God I’m musical. At some point in all of this I realized that as I prepared for teaching my students at Kanoon, I was learning as much as they were, and very often enjoying myself more than them.

Talented Teacher Institute

It was during this school year that I learned about the Talented Teacher Institute which wasn’t really a building or anything but rather a two-week retreat for a specially selected group of teachers hand-picked from nominees from among Chicago Public School entrants. We’d received flyers that winter notifying our school of this, and I looked at the qualifications which were kind of up my alley and I started salivating. So I filled out the entry form (there was no entry fee), and I asked one of my good colleagues whom I knew I could trust if she thought I qualified and if she would mind nominating me. She was in! My principal, God bless her, wrote another glowing letter. And knock me over with a feather, I was chosen! For the efforts, I got to spend two wonderful weeks that summer break downtown in The Loop in a beautiful building on Wacker Drive communing with a couple dozen other select Talented Teachers singing, dancing, writing poetry, beating on drums, painting (or trying to), going to see Cirque du Soleil (OMG!!), and culminating with our final artistic contribution to the event. I wrote a song, of course. I played it on the piano and sang it for them and some even cried. It’s preserved somewhere on videotape though I’ve never seen it. One of my best, though I’m showing you only the first half of it just now, because I’ve changed the last half of it since. I later made it even better to reflect my ever-growing and changing circumstances and you’ll read the second verse later.

I'm Not Afraid

In a world of saints and sinners I am learning how to grow
From among the weeds and wicked things, how far I don't yet know
It's a far-off destination that calls out to my own hands
But I must fight through wrong and right to claim my heart's demands

Chorus: I'm not afraid of what anyone might say
I'm not afraid, Oh Lord, to slip up along the way
And if life is one big circus, I am not the only clown
When I find my perfect purpose may I never set it down
I can be the king of 'most anything, let me step into the crown
I'm not afraid, I'm not afraid

Words & Music by Ken Painter
Copyright 1994 by Ken Painter

I still think that’s the best line I’ve ever written, If life is one big circus, I am not the only clown. With that line I began forgiving myself for every dumb thing I’d ever done, and though it would still be another decade yet before I’d completely forgive myself and eventually make peace with me, there was light. I was making progress. I didn’t fully understand it all yet, but I was starting to get there.

My Muses

You see by this time my muses were really at work in my life. I had two really active ones and a third would be added shortly as time went on. The one of long standing, of course, was (if I speak of these in the past tense please forgive me, because they still are my muses) Dolly Parton. What can I say? I’d been a Dolly fan since the 60’s long before she went on to worldwide fame. I’m a hick, and we used to watch her on The Porter Wagoner Show when she was just the girl singer. But she’s a great songwriter, and I love great songwriters! And by the late 80’s and early 90’s I’d discovered the man who would become my number one muse, the man who is nine months older than me, and with so many songs that he writes seems to be writing what is in my heart. I’m talking about Rodney Crowell. And you’re all saying who? Well, he was Johnny Cash’s son-in-law when he was married to Roseanne Cash, and he produced all of her records too. He used to sing and play in Emmylou Harris’ backup band (along with many other greats who also got their start there). And he’s a decent singer and a fantastic guitarist, but he’s a great songwriter, one of the best in my estimation, and mostly because he writes what I’m thinking, and he writes it better than I could. And he’s written my two all-time favorite songs, both of which have influenced my life: 1) Still Learning How to Fly and 2) Shame on the Moon. Yeah, you’ve heard of both of them haven’t you? The first one is the title of this book, and the second one was a huge hit for Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band back in the 80’s (and my favorite song to sing at karaoke events). My third muse to come along shortly later was Mary Chapin Carpenter, another of the great singer-songwriters, and the point I’m making with all of this is that by the words of their songs I began feeding my psyche with stuff that started turning me inward, thoughts that started directing me toward my true self. My road turned toward where it is today largely because of the music of these three: my trilogy. And as time goes on in this narrative you’ll see the effects of their influence.

Frank Graduates

Frank had turned 17 that summer and two things had happened since he had recently graduated from his high school coursework. First, he had entered the workforce just weeks after finishing his school work. He had known what he wanted to do a few years earlier, and we wholeheartedly supported him in his efforts. In fact, his chosen trade, while physically vigorous enough, should also make him far higher wages than I’d ever earned as a public school teacher. Frank wanted to be an electrician. His best friend’s dad was one who happened to own his own electrical contracting business, and he’d spent a lot of time with the family who were also good friends of ours, and we knew this was exactly what Frank could do. So after the coursework was completed, Johnny’s dad took Frank by the shoulder one day and turned him over to his foreman and put him on the crew and thus began his informal education in the electrical trade, that is until the second shoe fell. A few weeks in Frank came down with chicken pox. When we lived in South Carolina, and he was about a year old, Frank had come down with what we thought was a really mild case of them breaking out with only one mark, and so we thought he’d already had them, and perhaps he had. Whatever the case, it wasn’t enough to make him immune, and when he came down with them at age 17 he got the worst case I’ve ever seen, far worse than the case I‘d had when I was 10. He was marked everywhere! And he suffered! But he lived, and he eventually returned to his work crew and went on to become a union electrician earning his journeyman’s license. The union eventually schooled him in college level trigonometry and calculus. I remember him coming to me with problems and asking for my help with stuff I’d aced way back in high school, and I didn’t have a clue! I’d forgotten it all. Hadn’t seen it since the late 60’s. We laughed, and his profs were really accommodating to him. He made it. He’s great. My son. I’m so proud of him!

Getting the Itch

Near the end of the 1994/95 school year I caught the itch. I was 44 years old, and I’d never gotten my masters degree, and in the spring of that year someone from National-Louis University came by our school and gave a speech about their extension program for getting a masters in a “cluster.” Basically, my problem all along (in addition to money) had been location, location, and location. What NLU was doing and had been for some time was getting groups of at least a dozen students together in one location, one evening per week, after school, assigning a professor to that location for all the coursework, and then for the next 22 months you got to work on your M. Ed. For a little over $10,000. Whew! Nice package, but the price tag? Ah, but what I’d never heard of were FannieMae loans which as it turned out I qualified for, and by now I was making good money.

And with that I applied for a loan large enough to also purchase my first computer, because now I would need one. I’d been teaching myself a little basic computing at school, but now my personal education would grow by leaps and bounds. And word processing? Ach!! But that’s where it all led, because near the end of those 22 months I would need to write a masters thesis, a research project of my choosing. I was to be given free reign on the subject. That part was great, but it was to be in the neighborhood of 60 pages, and I’d never written anything over five or six, and never that well. C’s in Creative Writing although there was that one piece I managed to get published in Awake! But I wrote that under extreme emotional circumstances. Oh well, I had a year and a half to worry about it. In the meantime, I’d learn to compute.

And so that August of 1995 sixteen of us (though by graduation we would lose two) met in a middle school classroom a few miles from my apartment with our professor for the next 22 months. She was wonderful. We later heard stories that not all of them were, so we counted ourselves fortunate. But our group was all ages. Of course, I was among the older ones, but I was not the oldest. And we would learn together. We became quite a cohesive group.

Surfing for ???

Computers are wonderful things. They are forces for so much good. And they are forces for so much that is . . . well, I don’t want to say not good though it can be. It depends. For me, it was a mixed bag. Obviously when it comes to nude males there is a certain educational factor if you look at it from the glass half full perspective. From the glass half empty viewpoint, I’m really reaching, aren’t I?

There’s a song from the brilliantly funny Broadway show Avenue Q entitled “The Internet is For Porn,” which goes in part:

The Internet is for porn
The Internet is for porn
Just grab your dick and double click
For porn, porn, porn

Imagine, if you will a full-grown man in a furry costume which looks like a Muppet-monster belting this song out on stage in a gruff voice and it’s even funnier. But the truth lies in the fact that yes, no longer did I or anyone have to go to a porn shop and park out of view from prying eyes because anything I wanted to view I could view for free via the Internet.

It all started one evening when we got to talking about the Brad Pitt pictures which had been making their way around the Internet, the nude ones which had been surreptitiously shot by a paparazzo with a long-range lens and then leaked. Being a big Pitt fan, our prof had expressed an interest in viewing them, but didn’t know how to access them. One of the more astute guys showed her, and a few of us also learned at the time, and I was off on my own adventures at home from that point on. I’m sure I could have figured it out on my own, but I’m nothing if not a willing student. Give me an opportunity like that, and I’m there! And so 1995 marked the beginning of my love affair with surfing MEN.

(In the next installment, I graduate from my Master's Degree program just as my back deteriorates to such a severe point once again that I require yet another round of back surgeries. Oh boy!)

Link to next installment . . .

Link to last installment . . .

Link to beginning of book . . .


Autobiography, Classes, Classroom, Gay, Gay Community, Gay Experience, Gay Lesbian And Bisexual, Gay Men, Gays, Glbt, Lgbt, Memoir, Memoirs, Memories, Memory, Non Fiction, Non-Fiction, Nonfiction, Serial, Series, Teach Children, 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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author avatar Painter
14th Jan 2014 (#)

Yo took a loan for what?????? Didn't you cry to mommy and daddy for them to pay the bill. Something they alway's regretted!!

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