In 1979, Canadian entrepreneurs Sam Chaiton and Terry Swinton stumbled upon Lesra Martin while on a business trip in New York.
They were at the Greenpoint Environmental Protection Agency laboratory to research a gas-saving pollution device when they ran into Lesra who had a summer job at the lab as part of a government-sponsored program for inner city kids whose families were on welfare and who were trapped in the tough gangs and drug-infested Bushwick neighbourhood with little hope of a productive future.
The Canadians – touched by Martin’s curiosity and good nature – brought the then 15-year-old functionally illiterate Black youth to Toronto to get an education and acquire life skills.
Shortly after his arrival in the city, Martin and his new Canadian friends were at the Toronto Public Library’s Palmerston branch rummaging through used books on sale when one particular paperback caught the teenager’s attention.
It was The Sixteenth Round; From Number One Contender to #45472 which told the gripping story of boxer-turned-death row prisoner Rubin “Hurricane” Carter’s early life, his pugilistic career, his arrest for triple murder and life behind bars in solitary confinement.
Martin was so moved by the book for which the Canadians paid 25 cents that he wrote to Carter who replied and a friendship emerged that led the Canadians to work assiduously to free Carter.
Their private thorough investigation led to Carter’s exoneration of all charges in 1988.
From being illiterate nearly 30 years ago, Martin – who like Carter now resides in Canada – is owner of a law firm and a motivational speaker who has appeared at the United Nations and on the Oprah Winfrey show.
Last week, he was the final keynote speaker at the 10th International Confederation of Principals (ICP) world convention at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre.
Hosted by the Ontario Principals’ Council, the event attracted nearly 2,000 principals, vice-principals, teachers and educators from 41 countries.
“I am honoured to be your speaker and pleased to be among those who know first-hand the importance of education, those who want to make the best of life and those who are committed to making a difference,” Martin, who completed high school in 1983 as an Ontario Scholar and received an honours B.A. from the University of Toronto five years later and a law degree from Dalhousie in1997, told the delegates.
Thrown a lifeline by strangers, he made full use of the opportunity to turn his life around and fulfill his dream of becoming a lawyer.
“My life exemplifies that, with the right attitude, small doors can sometimes open up into very large rooms and dreams can become reality,” said Martin who practices law in Kamloops, British Columbia where he lives with his wife and two children. “Strangers came into my life, provided me with access to opportunity and I adopted the right attitude. My life, as difficult as it has been, has also been filled with inspirational people who, in the wake of challenges themselves, showed me the way to go all the way in life and to always reach back and lend a helping hand.”
Martin shared with his audience the day he said he encountered his toughest challenge when he learned he could not read or write even though he had just graduated his Grade 10 Brooklyn English class of 40 students with the third highest mark.
“Terry and Sam took me to the Board of Education here to get tested and the man that did the testing said he would be hard-pressed to believe that I could read at a Grade Two level,” recalled Martin. “If I couldn’t read, then there had to be something wrong with me. Of all the voices I heard in that little room that day, the loudest one I heard was my own saying you are stupid, you are dumb, you can’t read and write and you will never amount to much in life.”
Martin also spoke about the low expectations that his American teachers had for him.
“On career day when I came to the head of the class to say what I wanted to do, I loudly and proudly announced I wanted to be a lawyer,” Martin said. “Mrs. Franklin (his Grade 10 English teacher) pulled me close to her and whispered in my ear that I should learn to be more realistic. She suggested that I learn a trade and learn to use my hands. She also told me that the New York Department of Sanitation had the largest group of employees in the city and they did pretty well.”
He said his English teacher was the only one that interacted with the students and he gave the audience an insight into how the promotional process worked at his Brooklyn school.
“The other teachers would sit at the desk at the head of the class and read a book or newspaper to themselves, leaving the students on their own to play games quietly among themselves,” he added. “As long as you didn’t create a disturbance or get into a fight, you would get a star beside your name at the end of the period. If you collected enough stars by the end of the school year, you would be promoted without having the foggiest idea of how to read or write.”
Outgoing ICP president Andrew Blair of Australia said Martin is testament to the power in each person to make a difference.
“Once an inner city kid dismissed by society, his heart has been characterized by courage and hope,” he said. “He’s effected profound change in the lives of many, including his own.”
Last April, ABC Life Literacy Canada recruited Martin as its first-ever LEARN ambassador.