At 15, Lazarus "Lesra" Martin was at a dead end -- illiterate and living in one of the nation's toughest ghettos, Brooklyn's Bedford Stuyvesant neighborhood.
With the help of two Canadian men, he not only learned to read and write but became a lawyer. He also helped free boxer Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, who had spent more than 18 years in prison for three murders he did not commit.
Addressing the New York State School Boards Association on Saturday night during its annual banquet in the Adams Mark hotel, Martin held himself out as an example of how education can turn around lives.
The theme of the school boards convention, "Leading Our Children to Excellence," "is my type of language," he told the delegates.
Education is the best way to "achieve what seems impossible," said the Toronto lawyer, whose relationship with Carter was explored in the 2000 movie "Hurricane," in which Denzel Washington played the former middleweight title contender.
Martin's letter to Carter, which he wrote at 17 after reading the boxer's autobiography, "The Sixteenth Round," led to a lasting friendship.
During his talk, he stressed the power of hope, heart and the human spirit, which he said "can make you or break you."
But a helping hand can be equally important, he said, recalling how two strangers, Sam Chaiton and Terry Swinton, took him to Toronto at a time when he "couldn't read a word of standard English," and helped him learn to read and write.
Before that, he said, he was full of self-doubt and "en route to absolute destruction. They provided me with access to opportunity."
Martin's story was made into a documentary that aired on CBC.
Also Saturday, the association presented its Everett A. Dyer Award for distinguished service to Norma Barton, president of the Canandaigua School Board. She has been on the board for 21 years.