The boys of Sister Martha

A door opens abruptly to the classroom, and three adults awkwardly shuffle inside.

In their hands, each has either an arm or a leg of a seventh-grade student who dangles above the floor as best they can hold him up.

They gently set him down on the floor in a scene that, to a guest, is quite perplexing, but to them is rather ordinary. They don’t even see me watching.

Without hesitation, Sister Martha Reed scrambles from her chair to the floor to get eye level with her student. He is sitting upright now on the floor. She is lying down in full stretch like a wrestling referee would.

Their heads are about a foot apart as she questions him about his outburst that led to his removal from one class and return to her class in such a coarse manner.

He’s animated as he blames others. She is unrelenting in getting him to say that he could have behaved better. This back-and-forth goes on for 15 seconds but seems a lot longer.

He’s still sitting. She’s still lying. Their voices soften. The words slow. Their heads grow closer.

Then gently, he rests his forehead against hers.

There is some silence, and finally, order.

It’s just another moment in Sister Martha Reed’s class of six at the Potential Development School of Autism on Indianola Avenue in Youngstown.

It’s not your typical school setting, and the 60 students there require unique measures from some special staff driving the school. One of them is Sister Martha.

And to think, she should never had been there if she and her parents listened to experts.

“The doctors told my parents I would not be able to graduate school, or ride a bike, or live alone,” says Sister, matter-of-factly.

She was labeled “learning disabled” as a fifth-grader. The 47-year-old lived a childhood of never fitting in, first in Hawaii, then eventually, in Boardman. She had vision problems, attention-deficit issues. At times, it boiled into behavioral problems.

High school, where she read at a fourth-grade level, was brutal for her. Teased and bullied, she escaped by taking long walks alone. It was a very painful period.

Her most stinging memory of high school was from an official whom she recalls telling her that given her disabilities, she would not accomplish much in life.

But her family — her parents, a sister and twin brother — never lost faith in her.

And neither did she.

“I saw [the school official] one day years later, and told him ‘I know you. You said I would not be able to do anything in life.’ He just put his head down,” said Sister Martha.

She was hard to figure out as a kid, and all these years later, she has a chance to help kids equally lost and struggling.

“People didn’t get me when I was young. So when I am with my kids here [at Potential], it’s like, ‘I’ve been here before,’” she said.

There were many turning points in her life.

One was in 1986 during her second year at Youngstown State University. After a life of poor reading skills and grades and school struggles, she was diagnosed as dyslexic. She reads almost perfectly when pages are upside-down.

That same year, while spending time at St. Luke’s, she became more curious about a nun’s life. She called The Ursuline Sisters of Youngstown — twice — and hung up.

On a third call, she said, laughing, she did not hang up quickly enough, and a voice on the other end asked, “Can I help you?”

With that, she began to learn about life as a sister while also a student at YSU.

In 1989, she started her candidacy and began living in a convent. It was as if her life began anew. That year, she landed on the Dean’s List for the first time.

In 1990, she was received into the novitiate, and Martha Reed became Sister Martha Reed.

She eventually would earn a master’s degree in early childhood education, with a 4.0 grade-point average.

A couple of different career tries eventually led her to Potential Development five years ago.

Sister Mary McCormick said Martha’s life blends joy and perseverance, and that shows in her work with the children. Sister Mary is a current Ursuline leader and was an early mentor for Sister Martha.

“What I’ve always seen in her is a resilience,” said Sister Mary. “From the time I first met her, there was never ‘poor me, I’ve had a tough life.’ It’s always been ‘I’m going find a way — whatever it is.’”

Sister Mary said she’s not sure she could do what Sister Martha does, that she’s a blend of youth (she’s the youngest in the order at age 47) and attitude. It bleeds over, too, into Sister Martha’s nail colors. She rotates blue, purple, orange and red every week.

“With the colors, I get the kids’ attention when I am pointing on a piece of paper,” said Sister Martha, who added, “but I never wear colors for Sunday service. They come off Saturday night and a new color goes on Sunday night.”

Colored fingernails are not exactly the norm at the Ursuline House. Sister Mary remembers seeing them the first time on Sister Martha and wondering, “What is this?”

“It was a shock to us. It’s not her personality, either,” Sister Mary said.

It’s Sister Martha’s personality of being open and flexible that is most recognized by her Potential boss, Marilyn Fielding.

“With autistic kids, they will not change. You [as the adult] have to,” Fielding said. “It takes a special person to work with that and not be a ‘Here are the rules for today that you must follow.’ Martha gets it.”

She’s just “Martha” at the school of 60 kids. Potential, overall, has just over 100 students, including 25 at their new high school on Market Street. Most of its budget is drawn from a voucherlike program similar to charter schools. The state pays about $20,000 per child. The school’s staffing is about a 5-to-1 ratio.

Fielding’s talk shifts to one of Sister Martha’s students.

He was the student who was carried back into the classroom in this story’s opening scene. Fielding was one of those three adults. While she’s shorter in stature and nearing retirement age, Fielding gives off an impression that she’ll roll up the sleeves when needed. (It often is needed. Sister Martha took a shove to the face the day before our visit. She laughed it off, saying, “I didn’t get a black eye.”)

“That boy has made tremendous progress here because of her. He arrived, and would live under his desk. Martha was a 1-on-1 teacher with him, conducting lessons as needed under the desk.”

This year, both of them were promoted in a way.

Given his progress with Sister Martha, Fielding felt the boy was ready for a more social class setting. And that Martha was ready for a class of her own — six boys, including her 1-on-1 student.

“God has a great sense of humor putting me with boys in grades six to eight,” Sister Martha said, laughing. “But I wouldn’t trade my boys for the world. We have our moments. Then they sit back, and process and apologize. We need adults to do that, too.”

Don’t think that when she says that, she’s not recounting those painful high school days.

If only whoever thought she would not accomplish anything could have seen her last week when a frantic boy who was carried into her room became the gentle kid resting his forehead on hers.

Perhaps who she is now, which they couldn’t see then, is a lesson for all of us.

Todd Franko is editor of The Vindicator. He likes emails about stories and our newspaper. Email him at He blogs, too, on Tweet him, too, at @tfranko.

Don't Miss a Story

Sign up for our newsletter to receive daily news directly in your inbox.