Sixteen years after retiring from teaching Berma Marshall is back in the classroom and loving it.
For the last eight years she has been a mentor with the Big Brothers Big Sisters of Pictou County, making her a frequent visitor to New Glasgow Academy. She was surprised this fall when school staff asked if she would consider coming back as a substitute teacher.
“I had no idea it was so hard to get subs. I said I’d give it a try because I’ve always loved children and I love teaching. It has been a little busier than I expected.”
One of Marshall’s earliest memories is of her father, who came from Barbados to work in the Glace Bay coal mines, talking about the value of education.
“He died when I was seven years old. I guess he had emphysema or miner’s lung, but we were just told lung disease.”
She is not sure if simple economics forced her mother to give up the nine children in the family or if they were taken from her.
“There was not much help for a woman in her situation back then. Four of us among the older children were sent to an orphanage in Sydney. All I remember is being in the car, driving away with my sisters and my brother. We may have thought we were going on an adventure.”
The eight or so months in Sydney were an unhappy time, her most vivid memories being of acts of racism and the Sunday dinner of pea soup which she still loathes.
“From there we were sent to the Home for Coloured Children outside Halifax. We were glad to go, not that anybody asked us.”
That was home for the four Marshall children for the next six years, a relatively happy time as she remembers it.
“We went there so young we didn’t know much different, but we were treated pretty well. We went to school, we had piano and voice lessons. We went to the Y, concerts and picnics.”
One of the matrons of the home was Mary Paris of New Glasgow and she had a friend who sometimes came to visit.
“I always took notice of this very stylish, very well-dressed friend of Mary’s, who always wore a beautiful hat. Sometimes she’d stay for dinner and I recall being at the table with her.”
One day, out of the blue, the Marshalls were told to pack up because they were going to live in New Glasgow.
“We were glad to be together, but we were not anxious to go, not knowing what to expect.”
The four children, ranging in ages from 12 to 16, became the foster children of Albert and Carrie Best who had already raised a son, Calbert. Albert Best was a railway porter and Carrie Best was a well-known social activist who championed rights for blacks, published a newspaper and had a radio program.
“We were in New Glasgow before I figured out this was the woman who used to come visit Mary Paris. Now she was telling us her home was our home.”
Carrie Best was 61 at the time and while she later joked about the insanity of taking in four teenagers she never said much about why she did it.
“She must have seen something in us that she wanted to encourage. She gave us chores to do and we were expected to do well in school. The classes at the time were A, B, C and so on. She said the A class was the only place for us and that’s where we strove to be.”
After graduating high school, Marshall, who had always wanted to be a teacher, won an IODE scholarship to attend Nova Scotia Teachers’ College in Truro.
“When I graduated there was an opening for a Grade 2 teacher at Temperance Street School. I had the feeling it was where I was supposed to be. It is where most of the black children were and I thought they needed to see someone like them teaching the class. That was 1969 and I spent the rest of my career, 33 years, at Temperance.”
Albert Best died around the time Marshall finished teachers’ college and she moved back in with Carrie Best.
“She was Mom to me and I was with her until she died in 2001 at age 96. She drove until she was 92 and then said it was time for me to drive her around so I got my drivers’ licence.”
After she started teaching, Marshall decided she wanted a university degree to go along with her teaching certificate, so she applied to St. Francis Xavier University.
“I didn’t want to give up my job so they helped me set out a plan to study part-time, going to night classes in New Glasgow and summer classes in Antigonish. In 1992 I finally got my bachelor of arts degree.”
Responsibilities to God and community were part of Carrie Best’s teachings and they took hold with Marshall who is active within First Presbyterian Church and well beyond.
“She believed if you put God first, everything else would follow and I think she was right. You know, she is remembered as a black activist, but she helped anybody she thought needed a hand, black or not. I see the world the same way, too.”
In addition to Big Brothers Big Sisters, she has been involved with mental health organizations, palliative care, the emergency response team of the Canadian Red Cross and other service groups, as well as The Trinitarians and Celtic Cords singing groups. For the past three years she has been involved with gardening program for prisoners at the Northeast Nova Correctional Facility.
“We all loved to garden at the Bests and I learned a thing or two so I’m happy to share. I don’t think people know but a lot of vegetables are raised at the facility and given donated to charity.”
When Marshall looks back it is not at her hard start in life but at her opportunities.
“I think of the wonderful life that Mom gave us. She was always being invited to conferences and special events and I often got to go along. We met former prime minister Pierre Trudeau a couple of times, we met Lincoln Alexander (Canada’s first black MP) and we supped with the queen when she came to Halifax, so I’ve been pretty lucky.”
Marshall has kept in contact with her birth mother and siblings through the years and they gathered in Toronto two years ago to mark her mother’s 100th birthday. She believes her late father would be proud that all his children managed to get a good education and worked in such professions as business, law, social work and nursing.
“My sister Sharon was also a school teacher and we both got teaching awards. To be recognized by colleagues and students, that is something we treasure.”
Marshall also has quite a collection of funny stories from her classrooms, past and present. A recent one involves a young boy who wanted to know how old she is. When she told him he didn’t need to know and should start his work, he persisted, saying he had something very important to tell her.
“Do you know if you are between 50 and 75, you can get insurance?” he asked.
Rosalie MacEachern is a Stellarton resident and freelance writer. She seeks out people who work behind the scenes on hobbies or jobs that they love the most. If you know someone you think she should profile in an upcoming article, she can be reached at email@example.com