Still Learning How to Fly ~ Chapter Twelve: "That Toddlin' Town" (Pt.2)

Ken Painter By Ken Painter, 17th Oct 2013 | Follow this author | RSS Feed
Posted in Wikinut>Writing>Biography & Autobiography

I begin my teaching career as the General Music Teacher in a K-8 Magnet School in an Hispanic neighborhood on the southwest side of Chicago, and I'm loving it, but then my old job at the tire factory comes back to haunt me. I need back surgery . . .

Bienvenidos a La Villita

Kanoon Magnet School where I would report that morning in September of 1991 was located on 23rd and South Kedzie Streets in the Little Village neighborhood of Chicago, a little over 30 mile drive for me one-way depending how I should slice it much of it on I-55 from the SW suburbs. It would take me anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour depending on traffic. Not horrible. But the school was located near the north end of this Mexican-American neighborhood and just three blocks from Farragut Career Academy (the old Farragut High School) where TV game-show host Pat Sajak graduated in 1964 and beautiful movie star of yesteryear Kim Novak in 1950. Now all the billboards in the neighborhood were printed in Spanish, and driving down 26th Street in the morning as many of the shop owners would be opening their colorfully fiesta-painted shops, I would often feel like I was driving down a street in Guadalajara rather than Chicago, and I would grow to love it like no other experience I could imagine. Bienvenidos a La Villita reads the archway on 26th Street at the east end of the village. “Welcome to Little Village.”

I walked into the Kindergarten through 8th grade school that first morning to receive my assignment from the school secretary, Becky, and I found that I was to be the general music teacher. Okay. Not a problem. I was told by Becky that the regular music teacher had quit the Friday before and they may be a few days locating a replacement, and would I be willing to fill in until they could locate one? NOT A PROBLEM! This was looking really good. I informed Ms. Becky that I was not only a singer, but that I played the guitar as well, and tomorrow I would show up with it in tow. She thought that was great, and she handed me my schedule for the day. I was itinerant in that I would be traveling from classroom to classroom. Basically I was providing relief while the regular classroom teacher was on the planning/prep period. Hence, during that period the class would have music, art, library, Phys. Ed., or computer class. We even became known as the Prep Teachers like we taught preps or something (we had to fight against this misnomer).

That first day, all I really remember is that I pushed a cart with Music books around on it from classroom to classroom and tried to follow some inane lesson plan that the defunct music teacher had left behind and explained that should I still be around for the class next week we’d do better. As it turned out, I was and we did. I don’t recall what we did, but by then I was already overhauling the whole damn program. As It turned out the principal’s daughter was in one of my 3rd grade classrooms, and she took a liking to me. What’s not to like, right? Well, by the end of the week, our principal, Diana, who was an absolute delight to work for and one of the best and most astute administrators I ever worked for came in to observe me in action. After class she told me that she couldn’t find anybody for the position and as far as she could tell I was immensely qualified to hold the job if I wanted it. She wanted to appoint me to it as a full-time sub at full pay. Oh hell yeah! No arguments from me. I would get full benefits and seniority just like a regular teacher. The only hitch was that I had to be regularly appointed to that job within three years. But for the time being the job was mine. She gave me a piece of paper that I had to take downtown to have filed and that was that. I was now the General Music Teacher making about $28,000 a year on a 40 week school year at a fairly new 1000 student campus on the southwest side of Chicago. Life was good. I could almost feel the guardian angel’s breath.

My Real Education

Teaching at Kanoon marked the beginning of both my real education toward humanity and the opening up and final acceptance of myself of who I was as a gay human being though I still had a long and winding road yet to go through before I would get there. But I seriously doubt I ever would have gotten there had I not been with my Kanoon family. The love I felt from them was nothing short of immense.

One of the teachers I worked with described the school as a little U.N., and she was absolutely right. We had teachers who hailed from all over the globe, not just Mexico and Puerto Rico though those were the most popular origins. Among the others I recall were Cuba, Dominican Republic, Guatemala, El Salvador, Chile, Peru, Colombia, Ecuador, and even Spain. There were probably more, but these are the ones I most vividly recall. And my best friend there, the Art/Social Studies teacher grew up in Little Italy from first generation immigrants from Tuscany, so I heard all of the greatest stories you can absolutely imagine of vignettes about Italy especially of his aunt who lived in Tuscany a mere 12 miles from Florence and had never been to visit it. Can you imagine? But then we used to marvel how close to Lake Michigan we were at our school, a mere five or six miles and some of our students had never seen it. Part of our mission were school field trips to correct that!

Kanoon while I taught there (and I’m certain still is) was a bilingual school immersed in dual-language instruction. Recall that I had two years of college level Spanish during my first two years, but that was 20 years earlier, and I managed only a C during that 2nd year. But I still had a good foundation, and it wasn’t necessary that I speak Spanish; in my function as Music teacher I was to be one of their English models. So while I did have a few students who spoke no English at all (and this presented a few problems on occasion), I usually had a willing student-translator. We managed.

And then there was always a test. There was always a student who wanted to be a smart ass. One day several months after I’d been there I was in one of the 6th grade classrooms writing something on the board and so my back was turned from the class. Ah . . . 6th grade! Well, by this time it was well-known that I’d taught in a state prison a long, long time ago, because I’d told them all this when I first got there, and they’d got all wide-eyed! On this particular day one of the boys got a wild hair up his ass and figured he’d just try me out to see how good I was. Poor kid.

While my back was turned and I was writing on the board from behind me I heard this boy shout out, “Hey, Pelon!” Pelon (pay - LOAN) is Spanish for baldy. His first mistake was thinking that the old gringo didn’t know that.

I slowly turned around, put the chalk down, and I walked over to his desk looking like I was going to kill him. You could have heard the proverbial pin drop in that room. I narrowed my eyes to slits and placed my hands down on the top of his desk and leaned over him while he cowered in his seat with a look of menace on my face and a look of abject fear on his, and then I said, “That will be Senor Pelon to you!” And I smiled at him and winked while he breathed a big sigh of relief, and the entire class erupted into immediate explosive laughter.

“Ha Ha! He got you Jose!,” they chided him. He didn’t care. He started laughing nervously, but for the rest of that year and the next two until he graduated from the 8th grade, just like Robert from yesteryear, Jose and I got on famously. Don’t mess with me! And thus began my reputation at Kanoon.

This incident became so famous, that some of my colleagues even affectionately called me Senor Pelon out of friendship (but only in private, in the teacher’s lounge and never in front of students). I went so far as to put it on my vanity license plates with the state of Illinois. It became my persona. And while there would be other incidents and occasional tests over the years, none would be quite so famous as this, but all would be resolved with my usual biting wit, and the student would get the point. Don’t mess with me.

Frank's High School Curriculum

As time wore on Nancy grew tired of taking children into the home and decided that she would rather work with children in a daycare setting out of the house. Our economic situation had improved, we even had a second car, and Frank was older so he could be left at home alone to do his schoolwork unsupervised for a few hours, given his assignments and then checked upon later, and so Nancy went to work at one of the daycare chains a couple of miles from our apartment.

This was all about the time Frank had completed his 8th grade assignments. By this time, we had located a perfect correspondence high school in Chicago, The American School, for him to complete his 9th through 12th grade education. The tuition was not only affordable, it included all of his books which would be sent for all of his coursework, and they would design his chosen curriculum, and teachers would be available via telephone should he get stuck. Otherwise, we would still supervise his daily progress. Perfect. He had four years to complete all is coursework, but he finished in 2 ½ graduating a few months before he turned 17, and then he would enter the work force. More on this later.

Misuse of My Back Catches Up With Me

As September 1993 approached and thus the beginning of my 3rd season at Kanoon I faced a severe dilemma. During the prior spring I had begun suffering shooting pains down both of my legs but most noticeably on my left side. My doctor had sent me for several nerve tests and what had been discovered so far was that the sciatic nerves running down both of my legs were involved, but I’d needed to visit a neurosurgeon for further testing. An MRI was taken over summer break and at some point it was determined that I needed back surgery. A double laminectomy at L4 & L5. My vertebrae were in pretty bad shape with a lot of crud pressing on the nerves as they immerged from my spinal column, and that had to be removed. And so surgery would be performed at Michael Reese Hospital in Chicago just before Labor Day, and I would miss the first four weeks of school recuperating.

I went to Kanoon and reported to my principal all of this, and she told me she’d hold my position and get one of our other semi-regular subs an older lady familiar to our students to take over my classes while I was out. She also asked if I could work up sort of a general outline for her to follow for those first four weeks, and I was more than happy to. My principal didn’t have to hold my position for me. I still hadn’t been regularly appointed to that job. And she did not have to hire me back after I recuperated.

I had my back surgery which went off without a hitch, but like everything else involving surgeries with both Nancy and me nothing goes exactly as planned. The doctor had closed me up with staples which was normal for this kind of procedure. Well, when I went back a week or so later for my check-up, the incision wasn’t healing properly, and so he had me readmitted back into the hospital and reopened the incision, and this time he sewed me up with real stitches which healed properly, but I ended up missing the first six weeks of school instead of four. It all ended up healing properly in the end. I was 42 years old, and the arthritis in my back was getting advanced at a young age due to my years of throwing tires around at the tire factory a decade or so earlier. My past was coming back to haunt me.

When I got back to my class at Kanoon and found myself safely in my position again, I couldn’t get it off my mind that I hadn’t been regularly appointed yet to the job. For some reason we’d just never gotten around to filing the necessary paperwork. This was my 3rd year, and while it was still early in the year yet, if I didn’t do it before the end of the school year, I knew that I would get no more step increases . . . no more raises in pay. So I waited only a couple weeks after I had returned and then I approached my principal with what was on my mind. And her response warmed my heart.

“We never have gotten around to that have we? Well, you certainly deserve to have the spot, and the pay. I’ll have the paperwork for you before the end of the week.”

And true to her word, less than two days later she called me into her office, and she handed me a letter that was far too glowing, and I told her so, but she instructed me to take it over to the administration office and file it which I did, and the job was mine for as long as I wanted it. Or until I should screw up. And that was that.

Some people did screw up. We watched in horror one day on the television as a thirty-something male substitute teacher was led out in handcuffs from a school building just a few blocks away from ours by the Chicago Police. The charge? Allegedly masturbating in front of the 1st grade class he was supposed to be instructing that day. Supposedly, after his orgasm on the floor, he instructed one of the students to wipe up the mess. One of the other more astute students took flight and ran to the office and tattled!

My principal watching the perp walk in horror on TV turned to me and said, “Wasn’t he here just last week?”

“Yup!” I replied with my mouth hanging wide open in utter disbelief. Our school had been spared by a matter of days.

(This concludes Chapter 12. In the next installment, my career at Kanoon soars, but eventually, my health deteriorates as does that of my wife. Which one of us hits bottom first?)

Link to next installment . . .

Link to last installment . . .

Link to beginning of book . . .


Autobiography, Class, Classroom, Gay, Gay Community, Gay Experience, Gay Lesbian And Bisexual, Gay Men, Gays, Glbt, Lgbt, Memoir, Memoirs, Memories, Non Fiction, Non-Fiction, Nonfiction, Teach, 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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