Legacy of Literacy
There’s no accounting for fate, luck, or whatever you want to call it. For some people, things just seem to fall into place And for others, everything seems to go wrong.
Take, for example, a lady who grew up in Farrell, PA. She got a bachelor’s degree from Youngstown College, a master’s from Westminster, and a doctorate from Pitt. She has chaired and attended sessions of World Congresses on Reading in Australia, Sweden, Hawaii, Argentina, the Czech Republic, Jamaica, New Zealand, Scotland, the Philippines, Germany, Nigeria, England, and Hong Kong.
This lady has published and/or presented 17 professional papers, and has lectured at several universities. For six years, she taught at a college in Nigeria. And she has written and published several children’s books.
Contrast that with an African American girl born in Farrell in 1929. Her father abandoned her mother before she was born. Her mother died when she was eight. She and her sister were raised by their grandmother. In the summer of 1944, she was struck down with polio.
Now consider this: these two stories describe the life of a single person – Dr. Martha Bruce.
“My sister Shirley, who is two years older than me, got sick first,” Dr. Martha said. They thought she had rheumatic fever. I went to visit her in Buhl Hospital. When I left, I kissed her goodbye. And I didn’t wash my hands in the solution they told us to wash in.”
A week or so later, Martha began to get sick.
“I laid down on the couch,” she said. “When I tried to get up, I rolled off the couch onto the floor.”
It turned out that both Shirley and Martha had polio.
“I stayed in an isolation hospital in Pittsburgh during the incubation period, which was 15 days. I could move my legs, but I didn’t know I couldn’t stand up. My uncle brought me back home. He pulled up in front of the house. They opened the car door, and I thought I was going to get out. But when I tried, I just fell down to the ground.”
Not many hospitals at that time would take African Americans with polio. But after an extensive search, Dr. Patterson, the only black doctor in Farrell, learned about the Zem Zem Children’s hospital in Erie.
“They were really very good to me,” Dr. Martha said. “I owe my life to the Shriners. They did as much as they could for with physical therapy. Polio is a strange disease. Once it gets to where it’s going, it stops. Then you try to bring back as much as possible and to get adjusted to your capabilities.”
Her sister was able to go back to school in October, and graduated with her classmates. Martha wasn’t able to start back until the following school year.
She wanted to go to college, but didn’t know how that could happen. Her guidance counselors in Farrell High School worked behind the scenes to prepare her way. With several scholarships and state aid, she enrolled at Youngstown College. She was determined to catch up with her original high school classmates, so got an elementary education degree in just three years. She started teaching at Thorn Hill School in Youngstown.
“Then, after three years, I foolishly got married,” she said. “At that time you couldn’t teach if you were married. I worked as an occupational therapist at a tuberculosis sanitarium. But Youngstown needed teachers, so after one year I was called back. I had to work without a contract because I was still married. After I got divorced, I got a contract. I taught at Thorn Hill School for seventeen years.”
During that time, Martha earned a master’s degree in administration and supervision at Westminster College. Then she moved up from teaching into administration in the Youngstown schools.
She was greatly influenced by one of the professors at Westminster. “Dr. Clara Cockerille was the most brilliant woman I had ever known. She was severely handicapped. Her walking was very labored and difficult. She knew people in the education department of the University of Pittsburgh, so she suggested that I apply there. When I arrived there they already knew who I was.”
After earning her PhD, Dr. Martha continued for several years in school administration in Youngstown. But she had within her a latent desire for adventure. “I didn’t even own a house. I just rented, because I didn’t want to own anything I couldn’t put in a suitcase.”
In 1974, she decided to visit Africa. “I had wanted to go to Africa ever since I read about it in geography class when I was a child. There were so many things I couldn’t imagine to be true, such as people living in mud houses. I made mud pies, but if it rained, they were gone. I couldn’t imagine anybody living in a mud house with what I thought was a grass roof.”
Over the Christmas holiday in 1974, Dr. Martha took a 16-day tour of Ghana and Nigeria. “I learned that those mud houses were actually built with bricks, and the roof was a type of woven thatch.”
Her trip didn’t alleviate her hunger for adventure; it stimulated it. “When I came back, I wrote to the Nigerian embassy and told them that I would like to work there. I told them I would do whatever they wanted.”
Before long a Nigerian man in Boulder, Colorado, called her on the phone. He was recruiting people to teach at Alvan Ikoku College of Education in Owerri, Nigeria. She jumped at the chance.
Dr. Martha was supposed to start teaching there in September, 1975, but an administrative slip-up in the Nigerian embassy delayed her visa until late December. She finally departed for Nigeria on January 1, 1976. The college had a nice two-bedroom house ready for her. She started teaching immediately.
“The students were working toward a Nigerian Certificate of Education so they could become teachers or advance to higher teaching levels.” she said. “I taught methods of teaching reading and methods of teaching English. I also supervised a UNESCO-sponsored teacher training course in which teachers’ lessons were videotaped and critiqued by fellow students and the supervising lecturer.”
Soon after she got there, she started another activity that turned out to be as rewarding as her college teaching.
“The children there were very eager for education, so I started a story hour for them in my home on Saturdays. They called it Auntie Martha’s Story Time.”
Starting with eight children, she ended up with 135. The one hour expanded into three, with separate sessions for different age groups. Gradually, her home became an informal center for reading education.
“The children who lived closest to me would come every day during the week. They would just go into my living room and read. I had lots of children’s books on shelves.”
She loved to give them new experiences. She took many of them on a train ride and on an airline flight.
“One of the children asked another adult on the flight, ‘Are we going to see Jesus?’ She responded, ‘We hope to someday, but we also hope not today.’”
One of the parents was a teacher in the College of Education. He and the college provost nominated the story hour for a UNESCO prize for literacy. “I didn’t get it,” she said, “but it was nice to be nominated.”
When she moved back to Sharon in August, 1982, there was a surplus of teachers, so she got a job teaching reading to inmates of the State Regional Correctional Facility in Mercer. Always an innovator, she started writing little stories about the inmates’ activities, at a first and second grade reading level. The prisoners loved the stories, and the program received international attention. She presented a paper on it at the World Congress on reading in Hong Kong.
After working at the prison full time for three years, Dr. Martha was again hired by the Youngstown school district. She continued teaching part time at the prison for three more years, until her workload in Youngstown became too heavy.
Dr. Martha retired in 1996 – sort of. At age 79, she still works in the Youngstown City Schools as the coordinator of the school-business partnership program called Adopt-a-School. She also continues to write children’s stories, some of which she has had published in books.
“I tell people I’m not retired – I’m recycled.”
She enjoys gardening, sewing, baking, and cooking ethnic foods, especially African. And she likes to shock people.
“I describe some of the things I ate in Africa, like snails, goat meat, bush rat, and termites. I tell them I’m disappointed that you can’t buy good termites here.”
Maybe it’s this sense of humor that enables her to continue creative and productive activity in spite of a flare-up of post-polio syndrome.
“Post-polio syndrome sometimes comes 40 or 50 years after the initial onset of polio. Whatever you had partial use of before just leaves completely.”
Dr. Martha can still walk, but she has lost the use of her right arm. Strangely, her right hand is still strong. She can use her left arm, but her left hand is nearly useless. She uses her left arm to move her right arm into position to grip things with her right hand.
That is a metaphor for her whole life. She has never let her physical handicaps keep her from doing what she wanted to do. And all she ever wanted to do was give the gift of literacy to as many people as possible – and she has given that gift, directly and indirectly, to an astounding number of people throughout the world.
Which proves that fortitude matters far more than fate.
Excerpted from Lives of Quiet Inspiration, Volume 3, by Joe Zentis. Hermitage, PA: Green Street Press, 2009