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Keith Rinker: "There is absolutely no excuse for not getting a GED. It is a must."
Keith Rinker is a certified nuclear welder who has retired from Westinghouse, is a GED graduate, an ordained Church of God minister, a father of seven, a grandfather of 12, and a great grandfather of two. He lives with his wife, Ruby, in Florida.
"The military was a great place to get an education then," Rinker recalls. "They had so much to offer, so many different choices. When I would finish one school, they would offer another option. I just kept going. I ended up learning to be an electrician, a blacksmith and welding fitter, learned to do body work for cars, and run a machine shop."
Rinker also completed his GED after taking an Army-sponsored preparatory course.
But the wealth of choices before him then was in sharp contrast to a childhood fractured by poverty, neglect, and an abusive and alcoholic father.
"I grew up in Indiana in a poverty-stricken family," Rinker says. "I was the fifth of eight children, and our father was an alcoholic and very abusive. When I was 11, my father died. My mom worked in a restaurant, but she didn't make a lot of money and she wasn't able to support us even with county support that provided coal for heating and a lot of food commodities. When I was 12, I was put into foster care.
"It was a bad situation. I don't remember being unhappy because of the poverty. In the late 1940s and '50s a lot of people didn't get to the middle class. We weren't the only ones. But trying to go to school without having any of the things I needed—clothes, books, pencils, and paper—was hard. I got to where I hated getting up in the morning and going into that."
After a couple of years, Rinker and a younger sister were returned to their mother although other siblings remained scattered in foster homes. Life at home had not improved, though. His mother had remarried, but, like his biological father, his stepfather was an alcoholic. Two years later, at just 17, Rinker talked his mother into signing the enlistment papers that allowed him to join the military although he was not of age and did not meet any of the military's height or weight requirements.
He had not finished high school, but Rinker knew that he was good with his hands. And through his neighbor, Rinker had glimpsed a future for himself.
"I had a neighbor who had the nicest house in the neighborhood," Rinker says. "He was a kind man. One day, I asked him what he did. He worked for an implement company as a welder. I made up my mind right then to become a welder. If he could do it, I could do it."
The Army offered welding school. Soon Rinker was off to the Aberdine Proving Grounds in Aberdine, MD. And soon thereafter, Rinker was a welder.
Still, in the back of his mind, Rinker knew that to succeed in life he needed a high school diploma.
"I was self motivated," he said of deciding to obtain his GED. "I went looking for the program and found the classes that were available, the time to do it, made myself available, and took the classes. In my mind, I knew that if I did not have a high school diploma or its equivalent, I would not be able to get a job. In the 1950s and '60s that was stressed to us so much."
Rinker also knew the accomplishment would have little effect on his military career.
"Getting my GED did not help me in military as far as rank or money," he says. "I understood that from very beginning. It wasn't something the military cared about. At the time, a high school diploma was not required to get into the military, and it was not required for trade school."
The GED preparatory classes were not lengthy—three nights a week for three weeks, just enough to go over the basics, according to Rinker.
The test itself was another matter.
"It was quite lengthy," recalls Rinker. "We went from one subject to another, and they timed us. We were given papers in different subjects to work on. Then they told us they would get back to us with the results."
A commanding officer called a few weeks later and congratulated Rinker, who had gained more than his GED. He had also gained the knowledge that school could be fun.
"I was so disconnected from school," Rinker recalled of high school. "It wasn't until I could be like all the rest that I realized that school could be fun. I had the same green fatigues as everyone else and the same materials. I was an adult and had come to a place in my life where I had the tools and resources to do it. If you don't have the resources, school can be a devastating thing."
Three years later, Rinker left the military, returned to Indiana, got a welding job at Westinghouse Electric Corporation, and got married. Children soon followed. He was so proficient at his job that he was certified for nuclear welding and traveled to nuclear sites across the country to perform repairs. Eventually, he taught the welding class at Westinghouse. Life was good.
During those years, the knowledge that school could be fun simmered in his mind as Rinker increasingly felt a religious calling. He decided to enroll in Bible college, and in 1981 he was ordained as a Church of God minister.
Meanwhile, Rinker juggled his job at Westinghouse with his calling in youth and music ministry and his role as a father to seven children. After 42 years, he retired from Westinghouse in 1996 and took a full-time job with Christian Service International, doing mission work in Eastern Kentucky and West Virginia. When that work became too physically taxing, Rinker and his second wife, Ruby, retired to Florida where he still performs special occasions such as funerals and weddings and does yard work in the summer.
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"I never gave my children any option," Rinker says about whether they would finish high school and go on to college. "All of my kids except two completed some college. The discussion was always: What college are you going to attend? What are you going to be? They all worked at a young age and all excelled at school. They were all good students even in college."
But today's parents don't always see the importance of an education, Rinker observes. That includes the parents of his grandchildren-his own children-who nonetheless acknowledge they were fortunate for the parental push they received toward education.
"Today a lot of parents don't find education as important," Rinker says. "I think that is a mistake."
And mistakes are something young people are prone to make, including Rinker's grandchildren, who are now teenagers and young adults.
Although three of them have dropped out and are now in their 20s, Rinker says emphatically that it is not too late for them to go back and get an education.
"It is never too late," he said. "If you are 90, it is not too late to get an education. But when they are 22 or 24, is it almost too late to convince them that it is a necessary thing. At that age, it is awfully difficult to convince them they need an education. They seem to think it is one of the last things they need. What they think they need is somebody to pay their bills, fix their car. It is a difficult thing to convince young people to get their GED. I don't know the answer to that."
That is why Rinker said it is so important to "press hard to keep them in school."
"We had one grandchild who dropped out of high school," he said. "We hounded him until he started back to school. He went back to school three different times, but never finished and today he is having a difficult time finding a job."
"There are so many more resources available today than when I was young," he says. "There are organizations to help with books, with clothing, with transportation, just about everything you need, there is some organization to help you get it if you don't have resources on your own. When I grew up those were not in place. I would try to lead young people to those resources, but I would encourage them to finish school. I would press them hard to finish high school.
"The GED is a wonderful tool, but it is not the first option. Finishing high school is the first option. I look back, and I don't have a class to identify with. I don't have memories of going to the prom, I don't have all the things when you get older that you look back on."
Still, for anyone who does not have a high school degree, Rinker says he would "press very, very, very hard to get a GED. I would not settle for anything less than an education. There is absolutely no excuse for a young person who has dropped out of school not to finish their GED. It is a must."
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