The Mind Learns When the Body Heals

One day, Lesra Martin came to town.

I was looking forward to hearing Mr. Martin speak. I'd seen his video as well as the movie (thorough review here), and was interested in both his and Hurricane Carter's story. (Boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter was wrongly convicted and spent many years in jail, during which time he corresponded and met with Lesra, to the benefit of both.)

I was looking forward... but I can't say the evening began well.

In fact, it began with short video clips from Oprah, and all the swelling music and emotions and close-ups daytime television thrives on. Then Mr. Martin plunged into a classic "believe in yourself and everything is possible" speech. He used the standard metaphors and slogans all motivational speakers use, and I thought, "This is the kind of speech you could give to a room full of stockbrokers."

Well, he is a motivational speaker, I thought, and settled in glumly for a dull night.

Here's a quote from a 2002 article the Lantern (Ohio State University) that gives a good sense of how he talks:

"I encourage people to be steadfast, take power of the human spirit and watch out for negative people and negative voices in your head. Take hold of opportunities and coincidences that come your way and don't let yourself be deterred by difficulties."

There's more of Lesra Martin on his website, and I'd encourage you to go there if you're interested. All I'm saying is that, by halfway through the speech, I stopped being interested.

At last, the speech ended. Then, in the question-and-answer discussion that followed, Lesra Martin began to tell a much more interesting - and honest - story.

He talked about a process of recovering his physical health. He said, "When I came up to Toronto I was basically malnourished." He needed access to healthy food for a sustained period of time. "I was almost blind", he said. His eyesight was poor and he needed glasses.

He also described a process of recovering his mental and emotional health. He spoke of the new sense of security he grew into as he came to trust his new environment. He talked about his long struggle with self-doubt, and his triumph over that as a result of being in a place where patient people believed in him.

He talked about an individualized or tailored curriculum and a one-on-one learning environment. Lesra Martin was allowed to learn at his own (increasing) pace and learn whatever he wished. His tutor began with his strength - command of a New York ghetto dialect - and slowly helped him translate his speech, and then his writing, into more standard English. More famously, his tutor allowed him to use the Hurricane's 1974 autobiography The Sixteenth Round as his core learning tool. Lesra Martin's interest in the story - in the tale, yes, but also in the words, the writing - nurtured a growing ability in the use of words and writing.

Finally, he also talked about the wealth of these young Canadians who brought him to Toronto. This was a self-funded outreach of theirs (they having made a bundle in an earlier business deal). That meant they were in a position where their ability to help him was not limited by funding or the demands of funders or the dictates of civil servants. There were no organizational or institutional barriers of the sort so common to literacy providers.

This doesn't mean Mr. Martin's self-perceptions or the stories he told himself as a young man were not important. Surely they were! But his remarkable progress was not a matter of him believing in himself. He came to believe in himself in the context of appropriate funding, significant physical and emotional care and safety, and an intensely self-paced and learner-centered curriculum. More, he indicated in his follow-up remarks that his academic improvement "really began" (his words) after his physical and emotional needs were met.

Well, this was a story you can't tell stockbrokers: addressing our country's literacy problems means first addressing issues of physical and emotional health and safety, and then protecting learners from the vagaries of funding fluctuations or the whims of funders, accountants and bureaucrats.

It's not a story of believing in oneself. It's a story of spending so much money on our kids and families that they grow up with all the advantages and potential of the rich.

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