Still Learning How to Fly ~ Chapter Thirteen: "Talented Teacher" (Pt.3)

Ken Painter By Ken Painter, 20th Oct 2013 | Follow this author | RSS Feed
Posted in Wikinut>Writing>Biography & Autobiography

I've recovered from my last round of back surgeries to become the new school librarian, yet my health continues to deteriorate to the point that I must teach from an electric wheelchair while my wife becomes totally disabled via Social Security Disability. And the band plays on.

Burning Legs and Feet

When I wrote in the song that I wanted “to run and dance on air” that was no joke. By that time, I was beginning to have shooting pains in my legs from the neuropathy. My physician sent me to an orthopod for another round of x-rays, and I thought, oh my God, it’s only been a year since the last debacle of the last surgery. All of the x-rays showed, according to him, that my spinal column was collapsing into my pelvis or something like that. He made it sound absolutely dire. He said that I needed a horrible sounding surgery that would require him going in from both the front and the back and putting metal plates in place which would keep my spine from collapsing further. I nixed that idea. I just wanted an end to the shooting pains in my legs, and so he put me on Elavil which did the trick. Worked like a charm. I just forgot to ask the one magic question: What about the side effects? This would be the last time I would ever make that mistake.

I really needed the Elavil, and it did work fairly well in stopping the burning in my feet and the pain in my legs. However, I did not need the forty pounds I would gain as a result of taking this drug. When I quit taking it a year later I’d ballooned to 321 pounds and I hated myself more than you can possibly imagine. In 1999 I had sunk to the deepest of my period of self-loathing. Fortunately, there was something else in the making which would help pull me out.

One Good Move Left

I wasn’t happy with my morbidly obese self, but I’d decided that I would just have to live with whatever pains I had in my legs and feet. As I looked in the mirror I just couldn’t believe it! In the eight years I’d been teaching in Chicago, I’d gone from a guy who was cruised in the gyms by hot men to one who looked in dire need of an extreme makeover. Immediately! If only for his health. I did not recognize myself. Was I in there? Anywhere?

About this same time, Frank and our daughter-in-law, Michele told us about a beautiful new subdivision of condos about eight miles farther out in the edge of Oswego, and the price was right. Nancy and I had always felt bad that we’d lost our first house to the Reagan Revolution back in ‘84, and now 15 years later we had nothing to show for our efforts. We were still renting. The time was right. The price was right. We were both working and making decent wages, and we qualified for a Nehemiah loan. Our previous turnover did not hurt us. All things clicked and just before school let out for the summer Nancy and I moved into our two-bedroom dream condo of sorts in Oswego, Illinois.

Of course, now I had a 40 mile commute to work. Fun, fun, fun!

My Other Side

This also meant changing congregations of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Please realize that during all of these years I’d been surfing the web and exploring my other side, and Jehovah’s Witnesses do not allow for homosexuality under any circumstances. So I had a conflict of interest going on internally which was driving me nuts! It was a visual thing (okay, there was masturbation involved, but beyond that . . . nothing). My point is that deep down I knew that at some point I had to piss or get off the pot or it was going to destroy us all, or at least I felt like it would. But quite frankly I was scared shitless. I was a total coward. And I had no faith that God would work it out for me.

And changing to the Oswego Congregation only made it worse. Over the next few years, I rarely attended. Off and on, I would say, Nancy probably went a few more times than me, but I could see I was dragging her down with me. She probably went into Naperville without me a few times just to catch up with old friends and keep strong, but it wasn’t the same. Everyone knew I was spiritually sick. But it was so much deeper than that. They really didn’t know all that was going on with me. Yes, it was the gay thing, but there was more, too. By this time, my list of doubts about the theology had begun to grow.

Our First Grandchild

In May of 2001 we welcomed our first grandchild, our beautiful granddaughter, Alexis into the family. She was born shortly after I’d turned 50, and I was her Papa. I couldn’t have been happier. Nancy and I were glad that the kids had been wise and waited four years before having their own since they’d been only 20 and 18 when they got married. We’d realized only later that we should have waited longer before starting our family, but one can’t turn back the clock. They were wiser.

But just a few months later in September on the 11th, I no sooner had arrived at school than our security guard informed me that a plane had just hit the World Trade Center in New York City. My very first thought was terrorist attack. My second thought was Nancy, and I got on my cell phone and called her. My third thought was Michelle and Lexi, and I called her. She hadn’t heard and got on the TV immediately and then called Frank who was already at work. All our fears then became focused on the Sears Tower. My school was about four miles away, but it was a day of hysteria and a local concern.

Well, you know the rest of the story, but with each passing tragedy we Americans cry and cry again, and then we pull closer together for awhile . . . until the next time.


Actually the attack on the World Trade Center marked the end of my tenure as the music teacher at Kanoon. As my physical condition had deteriorated over the past couple of years, I’d been having greater difficulty getting around my large and difficult-to-navigate theater. For a guy with bad legs, climbing the many steps was just getting to be more than I could bear. And beginning with this school year 2001 my health care provider had even gone so far as to provide me with an electric wheelchair to teach from. I could no longer stand up to teach! I’d gotten that severe. And decrepit. And so I’d petitioned my principal, Juanita, (Diana had left a few years back) to begin looking in earnest for my musical replacement and for another position within the school for me a year or so earlier.

The day after 9/11 she took me into her office and broke the news to me. She’d located him - my replacement. I was beside myself with joy! He was another musical guy just like me, and he was perfect. We both recognized that I didn’t hate the music program, but I could no longer handle the physical plant. And as it worked out the current Librarian wanted to relocate to another school, and if I wanted to run the Library/Language Arts program it was mine. Perfect. Oh yeah! And the swap was made.

As the Librarian I really didn’t have to be a librarian, but we did read books, and with the older students I conducted a computer-based research studies program with them. All the 8th grade boys wanted to do research on Playboy magazine, but thank God for filters, and who was I to judge? I really loved reading to the Kindergartners and 1st and 2nd graders. Being the Librarian was good, and Language Arts was my minor, so it proved to be a good fit. But I really needed my wheelchair. I was 320 pounds with pains in my legs and feet and in the sorriest shape of my life. I looked simply pitiful. But it was during my library years that I started writing many things. In fact, it began during the summer break just prior to 9/11, I believe in August. I’d started making peace within myself with all of the stuff my mom had done to me as a kid. It had all begun over a period of weeks with nightmares of sorts, or perhaps you could call them restless dreams, perhaps that’s a better description. Visions of that day back in that backseat of the old ‘49 Plymouth of my grandparents’ kept surfacing for no apparent reason and I kept seeing in my dreams what really happened all of these many years later. I kept seeing it, and feeling it, and hearing it. It all kept bubbling up from my subconscious into my conscious, and then I knew . . . I knew. Nancy and I had many, many discussions about it, because as a teen I‘d long been suspicious of the ‘49 Plymouth recognizing that the heavy rear doors were too heavy for a 3-year old to accidentally push open, but we told no one else. Not Frank. Not Michele. Not my sister, Sandi. Never mentioned it to my parents ever. No one. But we did write it off as probably postpartum depression, and I was finally able to forgive her.

That was during the summer of 2001 sometime after my granddaughter was born. And so I needed to write a book. Of course, if was all fiction, and I embellished some of the true events which went into it and added and subtracted characters. But my main purpose in writing the book Sudden Gifts was twofold: to heal, and to see if I could do it, if I could write something longer than my masters thesis, and at 207 pages and approximately 100,000 words I accomplished what I set out to do. I never tried to publish it, and whether it’s any good or not, who gives a rip! There’s a bit of it in this memoir, and this is far, far better. Truth is always better than fiction!

And so after I finished the book early that fall once I began in the library at school I’d write good stuff off and on for the rest of my time at Kanoon whether it were to be an essay or a poem. One of the first things I wrote later that year was a poem about teaching which has stood the test of time.

What Was I Thinking? (The Teacher's Reminder)

What was I thinking when I chose to be
The lowest of peons . . . a teacher . . . that's me!
Despised and devalued and dumped upon daily
By groups of gratuitous grumps much too gaily,
And it wouldn’t bother me but for the glee
With which all those people toss judgments at me.

I’ve been called much too lazy, but lazy I’m not!
Have you ever fallen asleep on a cot
In the back of a room half-enveloped by vapors
Arising from red ink that bleeds into papers?
Well, neither have I, but that's not the real point
That I'm trying to make with my nose out of joint.

It's just that I'm tired of being called lazy,
And overpaid, ignorant, useless, and crazy.
Just a little more praise, and a little less grousing
Might prove to be infinitely more arousing
To teachers downtrodden, disheartened like me
Who didn't chose other good places to be.

We could have been doctors, or lawyers, or actors,
Architects, spies, even mad chiropractors!
Anything might have put more in our purses
Excepting, of course, social workers and nurses,
The only two totems more lowly than we,
The teachers of our nation's youth, don't you see?

But money's not really what bothers me most;
It's the lack of respect from the children I host.
They come to me pouting and shouting their pains,
Then they promptly assault me with paper airplanes,
And curse words, and spitballs, such vicious attacks,
But need to stay calm, I'm supposed to relax.

So I call in their parents to show them my stings,
But the parents respond, "My child don't do such things!
My child is an angel . . . at least when he's not here!"
In that case perhaps you should teach Sonny Dear.
I'd like to respond that way. Oh, I'd love to say it!
But I maintain respect for them rather than repay it.

I just look at them sadly with pain in my eyes,
For I've come to know what they won't realize.
Their kids will do anything they are allowed,
And now Mommy and Daddy have made them so proud
By defending their misdeeds, enabling their blame
To be shifted elsewhere. Their kids have no shame.

And so I the bad teacher, I slink back to my room.
I put on my black hat, and I jump on my broom.
And I'd like to fly way off to far Timbuktu,
But I fear that the schools there would not be so new
Or well-stocked with good books or new techno devices;
However, I might rediscover what nice is.

And I might find respect is much more than a word
I read once in a history book or that I heard
Way back as a child when in school I first thought
That I could own the whole world . . . if only I taught.
And so I recall now what I must have been thinking,
I pick up the chalk to keep my heart from sinking.

Copyright 2002 by Ken Painter

If it sounds a little like Dr. Seuss, I plead guilty. I was reading so much Dr. Seuss to my kids that Ted Geisel was a constant presence on my mind during those years. He’s still a god to me. A true genius. I hope that by trying to emulate his style just a bit I didn’t subtract from that in any way.

Big Changes for Both Nancy & Me

2003 was a year of big change for both Nancy and me. The pains in both my feet and legs had deteriorated to the point that I was in utter agony. It had gotten to the point that it felt at times as if someone was crushing lit cigarettes out on the soles of my feet, and my legs would spasm involuntarily at times with what I could only describe as my “lightning bolts.” My students at school looked upon me with faces which could only be described as pity. And so my physician sent me to a neurologist. Finally, and thank God. I didn’t know what a neurologist was, but I would soon learn, and he would change my life for the better, forever.

His office was located way out in Park Ridge near where Hillary Clinton went to high school, and it was well worth the drive. He checked out my neuropathy to find it advanced enough and questioned my prescription history. He agreed that Elavil was all wrong for me because of the weight gain, and any physician worth his salt should know better. What about Neurontin? I told him that my Primary Care Physician had tried that on me, but that I’d had severe migraine headaches as a result. He said that left only two other choices, and one of those is never used except as a last resort. So that left us with really only one choice. Topamax.

And then he looked at me really seriously. “But it has a side effect,” and he raised his eyebrows.

I looked at him like I would cry. “What is it?” I asked glumly.

“Weight loss,” and he smiled at me positively gleefully. I loved this Irishman! “The only problem is, it’s so damn expensive that doctors don’t like to prescribe it. But you’ve got good insurance don’t you?”

I told him I did. I still had to pay about $40 co-pay, but I didn’t care. The stuff worked wonders, and it actually helped raise my metabolism. I began losing weight eventually losing the 40 pounds I’d gained on the Elavil which helped me tremendously. And most importantly, it stopped all of the shooting pains and burning. I’m still on this drug a decade later, and it’s since gone generic. My life began to be restored.

Nancy’s on the other hand wasn’t doing quite as well during 2003. Let me back up a bit. Two decades earlier she had been first diagnosed with Type II Diabetes. She either never believed it or ignored it for over a dozen years until in the mid-90’s when she could ignore it no more. Fast forward to 2003, now she was on insulin injections plus she also weighed over 300 lbs. and it had begun affecting her eyes. She’d begun having laser treatments for the diabetic macular degeneration. These had appeared to work. Then as the year wore on she developed COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease), and she needed to start carrying oxygen with her. She had to stop working. For good. For the past three years she’d been working in a fairly affluent fitness center no less in their daycare center, and they’d adored her. She took care not only of the workers’ children, but also drop-offs of kids while members were working out. It was quite a place. I liked it, because I got to go and use the therapy pool! But now she had to go on oxygen permanently and come out of the workforce and apply for Social Security Disability. And to underscore how severe she was, she applied and was accepted on the first try. No second attempt appeal. No attorney. Nothing! Accepted on the first try. That’s how severe she was.

She got so bad at one point after she came out of the workforce that she had to be hospitalized in Aurora because of the COPD, and I thought we were going to lose her. She was put on Prednisone which made her swell up soooo bad (I won’t disclose how much weight she gained in four days time because it’s embarrassing and it seemed impossible), and they finally took her off the drug, because it was proving counterproductive. It took another week in the hospital for the waterweight to come back off, but she returned to normal size.

(In the next installment, fasten your seat belts ~ nothing has prepared us for our "Summer from Hell")

Link to next installment . . .

Link to last installment . . .

Link to beginning of book . . .


Autobiography, Class, Classes, Classroom, Gay, Gay Community, Gay Experience, Gay Lesbian And Bisexual, Gay Men, Gays, Glbt, Lgbt, Librarian, Libraries, Library, Memoir, Memoirs, Memories, Non Fiction, Non-Fiction, Nonfiction, Poem, Poems, Poetry, 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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