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On a rainy day in Memphis, September 17, 1953, Bessie Faye Tedford stepped out the door of her home, 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 seven months pregnant. That fall turned the baby just enough in her womb that the umbilical cord got wrapped around his neck. Later that day, Bessie Faye went into a distressed labor. Within a few hours, Kenny Lee Tedford Jr. was born, two months premature and a “blue baby.” He spent his first three months of life in an incubator, his survival each day an uncertainty. 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.
Sitting at the back of the class
Learning to speak when you can’t hear is an extraordinarily difficult task. Because his family couldn’t afford expensive speech coaches, Kenny was ten 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. 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 unprepared to handle a student with Kenny’s needs. Some days he actually felt special and relished his unique status in class. Those were the days the other kids said 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 recalls a class discussion he was allowed to participate in where the teacher asked students to share what they wanted to be when they grew up. There were the expected voices of aspiring doctors, lawyers, policemen, firemen, and a few astronauts. 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 teacher 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 for 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, Kenneth, this is a very nice idea.” And turning to Kenny she continued, “But you’ll never do this. You’re retarded, and you have a speech impediment. You’ll never be able to do anything except maybe sweep the floors.” Such thinking was prevalent in the 1950s and in some circles still is today.
The Magic Crayon
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 assess 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 retarded boy.”
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, Kenneth?”
“I can’t even draw! I got a D on my drawing, and that’s the thing I’m best at.”
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?”
Kenny pulled out the box and showed it to her. It was a tiny little sample-sized box of four 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. But he was the “retarded boy” in back and apparently didn’t deserve any more than that.
“Come into my room, Kenneth,” she said. 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, “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.
A few days later the psychologist returned for another visit. “Do you have any more drawings, Kenneth?” he asked.
Kenny handed him a new picture of a butterfly. But this one had a splendid array of colors that would bring a smile to even the most dour critic. “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 responded confidently.
“Who is it?”
“That’s my momma,” Kenny said, smiling brightly.
“What’s she doing there?” the doctor asked, genuinely curious what business a woman has on the back of a butterfly.
Then six-year-old Kenny Tedford told the psychologist, “She’s there so she can fly around the room here and make sure you give me an A+ this time.”
That, apparently, was enough to thaw even the cold heart of this very serious psychologist. 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.”
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.
That’s when Kenny 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.
Fifty-five 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 three strokes. And of course, he still has the same brain damage, hearing and vision loss, and paralysis he was born with.
But in 2007, at the age of fifty-three, 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, more than half a 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 of “disabled” people 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 important, 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. Give them the same box of crayons you’d give any other child, and you’ll be amazed at the stories they make with them.
You can learn more about Kenny at www.kennytedfordjr.com.
[You can find this and over 100 other character-building stories in my book, Parenting with a Story.]
Paul Smith is one of the world’s leading experts on business storytelling. He’s a keynote speaker, storytelling coach, and bestselling author of the books Lead with a Story and Parenting with a Story.
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I have met Kenny on numerous occasions, he is a wonderful testimony to never giving up. I had not heard this story and I love it. Indeed here’s to learning to love each other, all of us. And here’s to those teachers who see the spark in us and provide the tools we need to ignite. Hugs to Kenny and thank you Paul for sharing his story!
And as a kid who was also in an incubator, not for 3 months but 5 weeks and from that has hearing loss and was legally blind until it was discovered at age 10 she needed glasses, I resonate even more deeply with his words. I wasn’t deemed “retarded” but I sure was made fun of in school. Perhaps that’s where the level of compassion took root. Never wanted anyone to feel what I felt. Hugs to us all.