Kent ISD — Larry Ridley pauses to look at the yellowing graduation certificate with its fancy curved letter spelling out his grandfather’s name, Frederik Benjamin Been.
“It’s interesting that he was in one of the first vocational programs in the nation,” Ridley said, noting that vocational education was started through the Smith-Hughes Act of 1917. “And then I ended up teaching it my whole career.”
At the end of the school year, Ridley, who is the architectural and engineering instructor at the Kent Career Tech Center, will wrap up an almost 40-year career in vocational education. His impact on the students has not gone unnoticed.
“I thought he was just like every other teacher when I first met him, because he runs the class pretty similarly to how every teacher would run a class,” said Rockford senior Jacob Tomasko, who was in Ridley’s architectural and engineering class. “There’s just something different that I can’t really put my finger on.”
After a pause, Jacob added, “It’s his passion and interest for what he’s teaching. It just makes the teaching experience a learning experience that is just different than sitting in a class being taught by somebody who just hates their job. I’m sure he could go get a job that pays him more, but he prefers to be here, teaching us, and that’s huge.”
Sometimes You Have to Make the Dream Happen
Just like his grandfather, Ridley rolled up his sleeves to achieve his dream of teaching, although the original plan did not include vocational education.
“I remembered my grandfather telling me a story,” Ridley said, adding that his grandfather’s school ended at eighth grade. “He wanted a full high school diploma because he felt education was important.”
Ridley’s education journey started at a small accredited Christian education (A.C.E.) school started by his family’s church north of Memphis, Tenn. He graduated in 1984 but didn’t start college, the University of Tennessee at Martin, until seven years later.
In between, Ridley packed in quite a bit: He worked at a grocery and a department store, helped family members build their homes, built car engines, and was a catalog tech for AutoZone. That’s when he decided to go to a vocational program. About the same time, he landed a job with the Shelby County Office of Planning and Development in its civil engineering department, converting hand-drawn maps to digital ones.
“The class went from about 8 o’clock to 2:30 every day,” Ridley said. “The school I went to was right downtown Memphis and I would leave there as soon as I got out of class at 2:30. I’d sleep in the parking garage for 15 minutes and I’d work from 3 to midnight.”
Within 10 months he completed the program and began working for a company that designed prisons.
“I wasn’t there for very long, because that’s when I made the decision after sitting in the cubicle eight hours a day that I needed to go to college and it was time to do it,” Ridley said. So, Ridley quit his job and enrolled at UT Martin with the goal of becoming a high school English teacher.
‘Set yourself some goals, modify those goals if you have to, but as long as you do and don’t just sit on your bed and do nothing, you build your life.’— teacher Larry Ridley
Once he graduated, he headed to Michigan because compared to Tennessee, he said, “I knew I could at least make a living as a teacher.”
A chance meeting at the Secretary of State office with a Lansing School District official landed Ridley his first teaching job.
“I emailed (the secretary) that afternoon and she called back, ‘We have a vocational program for drafting and CAD and your resume is exactly what we’re looking for and you have a teaching certificate,’” Ridley said, adding they wanted him to interview the next day. “So I stepped right in and that’s what I’ve been teaching ever since.”
Always Work Towards a Goal
His career would eventually lead him to the Kent Career Tech Center, where for the past 10 years he has used his life experiences to inspire his students.
“So, I will tell them some of those colorful stories sometimes,” Ridley said. “But the purpose behind telling some of those stories is that wherever you find yourself in life, whether you decide engineering is not for me, architecture is not for me, work towards some goal.
“Set yourself some goals, modify those goals if you have to,” he added, “but as long as you do and don’t just sit on your bed and do nothing, you build your life.”
From internships to scholarships — it is estimated that more than 100 of his students have earned scholarships — Ridley has made an impact on the lives of his students. Many of those students’ accomplishments have been featured in School News Network. Former student Aria Sanford said that Ridley had the biggest impact on her school career, helping her to discover the world of architecture.
“I never looked for awards or praise,” Ridley said. “But when it comes, I save them. I keep a couple of three-ring binders and we all have those days where it just feels like the whole world is falling apart. The thank yous from parents and students just put you right back on top of the world.”
The binders have been packed up and Ridley has been working on cleaning out his office as he prepares for the next chapter.
He is not sure what that will be, but he does have one thing planned: to visit the Chicago vocational high school attended by his grandfather, a “great man” who taught him about a lot of things.
“I just want to walk through the halls of where he went to school,” Ridley said.
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