RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
And now, as we do every Friday, let's hear from StoryCorps. Today a conversation between two special education teachers. Laurel Hill-Ward brought Ken Rensink to StoryCorps to talk about his path to the classroom. It began in 1985, just one day after Ken completed his training for the U.S. Army Reserves. He fell asleep at the wheel of his car, hit a telephone pole and nearly lost his life.
KEN RENSINK: I was paralyzed from the waist down. My left arm was so weak, I could barely hold a plastic cup of water. They said if you work really hard, we think you can rehab in nine months. I did it in five weeks.
LAUREN HILL-WARD: Do you think of your perseverance and subsequent success, sometimes you're tougher on your students than some high school special ed teachers?
RENSINK: I think so, yes. But by the time they get to me in high school, many of these kids, they've been told for so many years that they're failures. I'm trying to help create folks who will not get rolled by life, but will roll over life. Or in my case, roll through life. I had a really difficult student one time. I was working him hard. He was a senior, and it was getting close to graduation. And one morning before school, I passed him in the hallway, and I could smell alcohol on his breath. I'm supposed to turn students in.
However, I know if I do that, this kid's going to be suspended. I knew where he was academically, and this could very well be the straw that breaks his academic camel's back. And I thought, well, school doesn't start till 8:00, and this is a little before 8:00. So I said, look, if you stay here on campus, I or another teacher are going to have to turn you in. Go home. And don't ever do it again.
HILL-WARD: The years rolled on, and just maybe two years ago I was out in front of the school and a big old white truck pulls up. He comes up to me and shakes my hand, and I said, I'm sure glad I didn't turn you in. He said, I never did thank you for that, did I, Mr. R? I said, actually, you did. And he looked at me funny and he goes, How do you mean? I said, You're driving a big white truck, you got a job. You did pay me back.
You are truly one of the best special ed teachers I have ever known, Ken.
RENSINK: Well, I should have died at age 19. So every day is precious. Use them well.
MONTAGNE: Ken Rensink, known to some of his students as Mr. R. with his friend, Laurel Hill-Ward, in Chico, California. He's currently in his 12th year as a special ed teacher. This conversation will be archived along with all StoryCorps interviews in the American Folk Life Center at the Library of Congress. You can get the podcast on our website npr.org.