Ken Rensink's path to special education teaching began when he was 19, just one day after he 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.
"I was paralyzed from the waist down," Ken told friend Laurel Hill-Ward, a Chico State University professor who trains special education teachers. "My left arm was so weak, I could barely hold a plastic cup of water."
After a long stay in the ICU, Ken eventually moved to a live-in rehabilitation center. He was told he could be out in nine months if he worked really hard. "I did it in five weeks," he says.
It took 15 years for Ken to return to the workforce. People had suggested he consider teaching special education, so he decided to give it a try. Today, he's in his 12th year as a special education teacher, teaching 11th- and 12th-grade students at Williams Junior/Senior High in Williams, Calif.
"Do you think, because of your perseverance and subsequent success, sometimes you're tougher on your students than some [other] high school special ed teachers?" Laurel asks.
"I think so, yes," Ken says. "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," says Ken, who has used a wheelchair since his accident.
"I had a really difficult student one time," Ken recalls. "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," Ken says. "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 o'clock, and this is a little before 8.' 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.' "
Years later, Ken was outside the school when a big white truck pulled up — and that student climbed out. "And 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?' "
"Actually, you did," Ken replied.
"And he looked at me funny and he goes, 'How do you mean?' "
"You're driving a big white truck," Ken told him. "You got a job. You did pay me back."
Ken, known as a strict teacher who demands results, is well-respected by his students and colleagues. "You are truly one of the best special ed teachers I have ever known," Laurel tells him.
"I should have died at age 19," Ken replies. "So, every day is precious. Use them well."
Audio produced for Morning Edition by Jud Esty-Kendall.
Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.