When Joyce Robley graduated from high school, she wanted to go places. She just couldn’t get off the ground – until the words of poet, Maya Angelou lifted her up and sent her on her way.
“I had unrealistic expectations and dreams when I was young. I thought I would go to college like my friends. But after working for a year in a restaurant, I realized there was no way I could save the money for college. I asked myself, ‘Is this what I want to do? I’ll be 30 years old until I get to college.’
One day, I was in the break room reading Maya Angelou. She wrote about listening to several different languages on a market place in Hong Kong. I put the book down and said, ‘I want to experience that. I want to be deep in the world.’ I was so moved by the line, the next day I called the U. S. Air Force recruiter.”
When it came time for Joyce to leave at the age of 19, reality set in and she had second thoughts.
“The only moment I had of regret was before I boarded the plane in Pittsburgh. I called my friend, Jody, and said, ‘What am I doing? She said, ‘I’ll come get you. They don’t have you. ’Yes,’ I said, ‘they do. I took an oath.’
That conversation was good. I had to confront an option, made the choice not to take it and got on the plane.”
Having no skills, Joyce said, put her on the ground floor of service when she arrived. “I was assigned to work in the “FRAT”, the Frankfurt airport terminal, sorting mail with other women for all armed services. It was more of an initiation. I had to work hard to earn my comrades’ respect.
I would usually finish first in letter sorting and when I was done, I’d help others load and unload trucks. That helped to get me out of the mailroom. They looked to see what you could do. When the Bosnian conflict kicked in, troops were mailing footlockers back to get laundered. The air bags could weigh 75 pounds.”
She had already made it through basic training, so earning respect by going above and beyond was nothing new. In fact, it was during this time that Joyce realized just how strong she was, inside and out.
“One of the biggest things I discovered about myself was that I was good at bringing levity to the situation and could make the girls see that in the grand scheme of things, it wasn’t so bad.
We all had to live together for six weeks and we learned to help each other out. I elected to be around positive people. We respected each other and had a bond. We all wanted to make it and to make our parents proud.”
Finding Her Identity
The biggest challenge, Joyce said, was an identity crisis she faced. “I turned 20 in basic training. All these years, I was close with my sister, Kara and I was living without her for the first time. I had to figure out who I was away from her. Not having that influence and knowing that I am loved. Those shared experiences. Not having anyone to look at you and say, ‘I get you.’
That whole experience forced me to acknowledge my values independent of everyone I loved and who loved me – independent of my town and anything familiar – really figuring out what matters to me and what I’m willing to do to keep it.”
Bonded by Strangers
Joyce said that she knew she was brave, but the four years she served in the U.S. Air Force made her strong.
“It was my first Thanksgiving that I felt the strongest. I was surrounded by good people who made a meal together, away from our families. We created something new. I didn’t know that existed. It was something so beautiful.
We were working and we ate at the chow hall together. We knew we were stuck there. We held hands and said grace. It was lovely. It wasn’t the rhyme. It was ‘thank you for being here in this moment.’ I didn’t know that bond could exist with strangers from different backgrounds. It was a kinship I didn’t know was possible.”
When Joyce returned home to civilian life, it was as if she was starting over. “I went to the employment office to find work. When it came to experience, there wasn’t a lot I could say that I did except for stacking trucks.”
She took a job in an envelope factory where she stood on her feet through twelve hour shifts. “I put envelopes in a box and then filled another box. It was mindless work.”
Except, that is, for one memorable day.
“I was on break sitting on a stack of flattened boxes reading a book and the boss said, “What are you doing? I thought I had lost track of time and looked at the clock. ‘I’m good,’ I said. ‘No’, he said, ‘What are you doing? As he looked at the book in her hand, he said, ‘That doesn’t look good.’
Married by then, Joyce came home and told her husband, I don’t want to be in a place where reading doesn’t look good.” Then she went to CareerLink to find other work. And that’s when her life really took off.
She got a call from a CareerLink employee who asked her if she had thought about applying for military education benefits. Joyce was overwhelmed that this opportunity existed for her and met with Ronald Shroyer, a vocational rehabilitation counselor with the US Department of Veteran’s Affairs.
“Mr. Shroyer asked me, ‘What do you want to do? What is your dream job?’ Never before was she asked this question.
I’ve been in love with poetry and I was a really fantastic writer, but what I learned in the Air Force was that I was good at creating community. My husband said, ‘You’d be a wonderful teacher.’ That was the answer. I wanted to be an English teacher.”
Off to School
As soon as Mr. Shroyer awarded this program, I enrolled at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown and I quit my job. I was so scared. Being a laborer, I was intimidated. I came home and said I don’t even know if I could do this.”
Joyce did do it and she did so in just three years. What was her motivation? I wanted to let Mr. Shroyer know that his time was not wasted. I wanted to show him that I was grateful for this opportunity.”
Now in her seventh year as a junior English and contemporary poetry teacher at Somerset Jr/Sr High School, Joyce has someone else to thank for her journey.
Connected by Poetry
“My English teacher at Northern Cambria High School, Dr. Erma Konitsky, encouraged me to write and was the first to introduce me to Maya Angelou. I keep her picture on the back wall of my classroom. In times of frustration, I stop and say I’m going to approach this situation like she would approach it. I’m not going to judge. I’m going to treat students with kindness.”
The most rewarding part of teaching, Joyce said, is witnessing the transformation of students when they express and give of themselves. Especially,” she said, through the “Poetry Out Loud Competition” she organizes at the school. Somerset High School students memorize poems from poetryoutloud.org and compete locally and statewide.
“Every year there are students – those gifted and those living in poverty who would have never come together. The poetry connects them and they celebrate each other during the competition.”
The Missing Pieces
Having just turned 40 years old, Joyce is undergoing a transformation of her own. Also a personal trainer, she quit a second job she had at a gym to have more time to connect with her roots. “I want to reclaim the missing pieces of my life.”
One of those missing pieces is to enjoy an art Joyce’s mother passed on to her children.
“My mom always sewed our clothes when we were little. One of my fondest memories as a kid was watching her make these Raggedy Ann dolls that were three feet high that she would sell at a clothing store. I can still see her wrapping the yarn around her fingers. Growing up, we never owned the dolls for ourselves. She made and sold them to make money.
When I was stationed in Germany, I opened a box she had sent from home and there was a Raggedy Ann and Andy doll. I was 23 or 24 years old and just wept in the Frankfurt Rhein Main Air Force Base.
Today, my mother and her sisters get together and have quilting frames. It’s such a beautiful thing to witness – the care in each stitch – and I want to care like that. They praise each other. It’s pure art. I can recognize whose work it is without looking the label.”
Joyce quilts too, although she claims, not well. Still she says, “I enjoy seeing my own hand move the fabric under the machine because I remember seeing my mother using her hands. Our hands look the same. They are working hands, not dainty hands. I remember thinking my mother has strong hands she can do a lot of things.
The quilt I am making now is for me and its ugly, but that’s not the point. I started this a while ago. My brother passed away and his death is huge in my life right now.
I have it pieced together. I think of it as a reflection of where I am. It’s whole and the ends don’t match perfectly. It’s a symbol of movement. It’s not about creating a masterpiece; it’s about getting back in the game.
Wings to Fly
Years ago, far from a mailroom, was a classroom where a teacher named Dr. Konitsky recited Maya Angelou’s poem, “On The Pulse of Morning.” Through these spoken words, there awakened in Joyce a love of poetry and teaching, ultimately giving her wings to fly…
Here on the pulse of this new day
You may have the grace to look up and out
And into your sister’s eyes, into
Your brother’s face, your country
And say simply