A Vietnam Vet Teaches More Than The Alphabet

Feb 26, 2012
Originally published on February 29, 2012 9:20 am

Ron Cushman's journey to teaching started when he was wounded in the Vietnam War. He joined the Marines in 1968, at the age of 19. He was severely injured the following year.

"I was a scout in the Marine Corps, and I must have stepped on a land mine or a booby trap. That's all I remember," he says.

Cushman's right hand was mangled and eventually amputated.

"When I was in the hospital, you had to kinda think about what are you going to do for the rest of your life," Cushman says. Then he remembered his sixth-grade gym teacher, who once told him, "You know, you ought to be a teacher."

Though he's not sure what his gym teacher saw in him, he took the advice. Cushman taught kindergarten and second-grade classes for nearly 30 years in Bothell, Wash., a suburb of Seattle. He retired in 2004.

On his first day of teaching, he was nervous and scared. In place of a hand, he had a hook. "I remember walking on the playground. This mob of kids, they just came running over at me, and they were just gawking and staring," Cushman says.

At first, he tried to fold his arms and hide it, but the students were curious.

"So, every year, like on the first day of school, I'd take out the prosthetic arm and then we'd pass it around and ask questions, and they play Captain Hook or they do whatever," he says. "As long as you were open and playful and answer all their questions, it was only a big deal for about an hour or two."

He particularly clicked with students like Jamie Marks, now 16 years old. "There was definitely something past the 'I'm going to teach you the alphabet, and then you're gonna forget me in second grade,' " she says.

Marks was Cushman's student in the 2000-2001 school year. They've stayed in touch ever since.

"I live in a split family, and so I've never really had someone that's, like, always been there," she tells Cushman. "You've always been stable, throughout everything, you've been there with a lot of the huge stages in my life."

"That's what I want to give," Cushman says. "It's not just fun, but I want there to be meaning. I want to be a lasting impression."

Cushman even taught Marks how to drive. He was there when Marks got her driver's license.

Marks says she's thankful for everything her former teacher has done.

"You know, it really is a privilege to be able to say that I know you," she says.

Audio produced for Weekend Edition by Katie Simon with Anita Rao.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now, for another conversation from StoryCorps' National Teachers Initiative.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: This school year, we're sharing stories from and about teachers and their students. Today's story comes from Bothell, Washington, a suburb outside Seattle. That's where retired kindergarten teacher Ron Cushman taught for nearly 30 years. Recently, Ron sat with 16-year-old Jamie Marks, who is one of his former students. And Ron told Jamie how his path to becoming a teacher started when he was wounded on patrol while serving in the Vietnam War.

RON CUSHMAN: I was a scout in the Marine Corps, and I must have stepped on a land mine or a boobie trap - that's all I remember. My right hand, it was just all mangled up. And I did have it amputated. When I was in the hospital, you had to kind of think about, what are you going to do for the rest of your life? 'Cause I was 19 - or 20. And then I did remember that there was a gym teacher back in sixth grade who said to me, you know, you ought to be a teacher. I don't know why he said it, but I remember that did stick with me through all the years. And it popped out of my head: I can be a teacher.

JAMIE MARKS: Do you remember your first day at - being a teacher?

CUSHMAN: Yeah. I remember being really, really nervous - and scared. And I wore a hook on my hand. I remember walking on the playground. This mob of kids, they just came running over at me, and they were just gawking and staring. I folded my arms to kind of hide it, but they were curious. So every year - like, on the first day of school - I'd take out the prosthetic arm, and then we'd pass it around and ask questions. And they'd play Captain Hook, or they did whatever. And as long as you were open and playful and answer all their questions, it was only a big deal for about an hour or two.

MARKS: Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CUSHMAN: And kids like you, Jamie, we kind of clicked.

MARKS: Yeah. There was definitely something past the, I'm going to teach you the alphabet and then you're going to forget me in second grade. And I live in a split family, so I've never really had someone who's like, always been there. And you've always been stable, throughout everything. You've been there with a lot of the huge stages in my life.

CUSHMAN: Remember driving last spring?

MARKS: Yeah.

CUSHMAN: I taught you how to drive.

MARKS: And you were there when I got my driver's license.

CUSHMAN: Yeah, I remember. And that's what I want to give - not just fun. I want there to be meaning. I want to be a lasting impression.

MARKS: You know, it really is a privilege to be able to say that I know you, you know. I guess, just thank you for everything.

CUSHMAN: Oh? Yeah, it goes right back at you.

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MARTIN: Ron Cushman with his former student Jamie Marks in Bothell, Washington. Learn more about StoryCorps' National Teachers Initiative, at NPR.org.

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MARTIN: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.