Being vigilant against bigotry based on ethnicity is only one form of prejudice we have to be on guard against. Another is based on the abilities each of us is born with as the following story illustrates.
On a rainy day in Memphis, September 17, 1953, Bessie Faye Tedford stepped out the door of her home onto the porch, slipped on the wet steps, and fell down a short flight of stairs to the sidewalk below. She suffered no broken bones, or serious injuries. In fact, it probably wouldn't have been a noteworthy event at all except for the fact that she was 7 months pregnant.
And that fall turned the baby just enough in her womb that the umbilical cord got wrapped around the baby's neck. Later that day, Bessie Faye went into distressed labor. Within a few hours, Kenny Lee Tedford, Jr. was born, 2 months premature and what the doctors called a "blue baby." He spent his first 3 months of life in an incubator, each day an uncertainty if he would make it. He did survive. But being deprived of oxygen for so long resulted in brain damage, deafness in both ears, partial blindness in one eye, and a slight paralysis of the entire left side of his body. Kenny Tedford was destined for a hard life.
Well, Learning to speak when you can't hear is an extraordinarily difficult task. And not being able to afford expensive speech coaches, Kenny was 10 years old before he learned to speak fluently. So at the age of six when he entered school, Kenny was relegated to the back of the class. And while the other children learned their ABCs, Kenny was assigned a coloring book and a few crayons and told to draw pictures. His teacher was just unprepared to handle a student with Kenny's needs.
Some days he actually felt special and enjoyed his unique status in the class. Those were the days the other kids told the teacher they wanted to be "retarded like Kenny" so they could just sit in the back and color instead of study.
But other days he was painfully aware of his situation – the cruel names, taunts, and mocking of the way he walked or talked. And the insults didn't just come from the other children. Kenny remembers a class discussion where the teacher asked each student to share what he or she wanted to be when they grew up. There were the expected answers of a doctor, lawyer, policemen, firemen, and a few astronauts. Well, when it was Kenny's turn, he showed the teacher a picture he'd drawn to answer the question. In it was a tall, thin man standing at a lectern. The teach asked, "What's this?"
Kenny explained, "Someday I want to teach everyone how to get along and love each other." He didn't have the words for it at the time. But what Kenny wanted to do was to be a professional speaker and storyteller. It was an admittedly bold aspiration from a boy who couldn't hear or speak well. His teacher knelt down beside him and addressed him along with the entire class. She said, "Students, Kenny, this is a very nice idea." And turning to Kenny, she continued, "But you'll never do this. You're slow, and you have a speech impediment. You'll never be able to do anything except maybe sweep the floors." That kind of thinking wasn't uncommon in the 1950s, and in some circles maybe still isn't today.
But for our purposes, one of the most instructive moments in Kenny's life came later that year. A psychologist visited the class on a regular basis to assess a few of the children, and especially Kenny. One of the techniques was called 'art therapy.' Kenny was asked to share some of his drawings which the psychologist used to determine his creativity and cognitive ability. On one visit, Kenny offered him a picture of a butterfly he had just drawn. It was small, and almost entirely drawn in black and white. Looking at the picture, the doctor said, "Hmmm, not very colorful, or creative." And he wrote a 'D' on the picture and handed it back to Kenny. "Maybe my teacher is right," Kenny thought. "Maybe I'll never be anything but a dummy."
Kenny rolled up the picture and put it in his backpack. When school was out, he walked out of class with his head hanging low. Shortly down the hall, another teacher saw him and stepped out to talk to him. "Kenneth, come here." He walked up to her, and she knelt down to talk to him eye to eye. "What's the sad face for?"
He told her, "I can't even draw! I got a 'D' on my drawing, and that's the thing I'm best at."
So, she asked to see his drawing. When he showed her the butterfly, she said, "He's very pretty. But he looks a little sad. Can I see your box of crayons?"
So, Kenny pulled out the box and showed her. It was a tiny little sample-sized box of 4 crayons – the kind you get at a restaurant to keep the kids entertained before the meal arrives. She opened it up, and inside found these four colors: black, white, gray, and red.
"Are these the only colors you have, Kenneth?"
"Yes, ma'am," Kenny said, a little embarrassed. He knew the other kids were given bigger boxes with more colors. Apparently, he didn't deserve any more than that.
She said, "Come to my room." So, He followed her in, and she sat down at her desk. She pulled out an enormous box of crayons, just like the other kids had, and gave it to him. She found several sheets of paper, rolled them up and placed them in his backpack. Then she said to him, "Kenneth, I want to tell you something. You are very creative. When you talk, even at your age, you tell the most amazing stories. And you seem to love all the kids, even the ones who make fun of you. So I want you to go home and think about that – that you are important, and you have a gift."
"Then, I want you to draw your butterfly again. Use any colors you want this time. And when you're done, you think of a story to make your butterfly come to life." Then she hugged him, and sent him on his way.
Well, a few days later, the psychologist returned for another visit. "Do you have any more drawings, Kenneth?"
So, Kenny handed him a new picture of a butterfly. But this was amazingly colorful. "Wow! That's wonderful, Kenneth." Then with a puzzled look on his face, he added, "And is that a woman on the back of the butterfly?"
"Yep," Kenny said.
"Well, Who is it?"
"That's my momma,"
"What's she doing there?"
Then 6-year-old Kenny Tedford told his psychologist, "She's there so she can fly around the room here and make sure you give me an A+ this time."
And That, apparently, was enough to thaw even the cold heart of this very serious psychologist. With watery eyes, he looked down at Kenny and said, "What a beautiful story." Then he took out his red marker, cupped his hand around it so Kenny couldn't see what he was writing, and scribbled his assessment at the top of the picture. Then he rolled up the paper and gave it to Kenny. "Put this in your backpack and don't look at it till you get home."
Well, With impressive resolve for a first-grader, Kenny dutifully waited till he got home. He ran straight to his bedroom, pulled out the paper and unrolled it. In big red letters, he saw 'A+' at the top of the page.
And that's when Kenny Lee Tedford, Jr. knew that with the right opportunities, he could do anything he wanted to do. With the right crayons, he could be a great artist, and with the right education, he wouldn't be relegated to sweeping floors for a living.
Sixty years later, Kenny Tedford's life still isn't easy. He's survived numerous life-threatening challenges including a heart attack, cancer, a broken neck, and a stroke. And of course, he's still a victim of the same brain damage, hearing- and vision-loss, and paralysis he was born with.
But in 2007, at the age of 53, Kenny Tedford earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Theater from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. In 2011, he completed his Master's degree in Storytelling from East Tennessee State University. And today, over a half-century after he was ridiculed for believing such an absurd notion, Kenny Tedford is a professional storyteller. He brings a smile, a laugh, and a special kind of wisdom that only his life could teach, to audiences all over the country.
Kenny Tedford is living proof of the limitless abilities people labeled 'disabled' can have when they're given a chance. What he most hopes people take away from his story is that people born with different abilities want to be treated just like everyone else, and given the same opportunities. They want to be talked to like everyone else, not spoken to like an infant. They want to be loved like everyone else, not tormented and teased like an outcast. More importantly, they want to be challenged like everyone else. They want someone to have high expectations of them, higher than they might even have for themselves. They want to be believed in, to have their dreams and aspirations nurtured, not mocked. Give them the same box of crayons you'd give any other child, and be amazed at the stories they make with them.
Okay, when the time is right to explain to your kids that some people are born with a different set of abilities than others, share Kenny's story. If you want more detail, you can share the rest of Kenny's life story, which you'll find in the book Four Days with Kenny Tedford.
Until then, here are some questions to get you started with your discussion:
Are there any kids like Kenny in your school? What do you know about them?
Do you talk to that person? How do you talk to them?
Why do you think Kenny only had a small box of four crayons?
When Kenny's teacher told him he would never be able to do anything other than maybe sweep the floors, how do you think that made him feel?
In what ways might it be appropriate to treat someone with disabilities differently that you treat other people?
Okay, in the next lesson, we'll talk about the difference between reverence and respect.