A Vietnam Vet Teaches More Than The Alphabet

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 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.