Marva Collins Way
Marva Collins got Freddle Harris to take off his St.Louis Cardinals jacket and hang it on the back of his chair.
It was shortly after the bell rang on the first day of school, and teachers at Delano Elementary School on Chicago’s Near West Side were being unusually tolerant of
students because no one was up to a challenge so soon. In fact, short of a knockdown fight, teachers were overlooking just about everything as they shuffled class cards and gave out seat assignments. No one wanted to march a student into the principal’s
office and admit things had already gotten out of control just ten minutes into the new 1974-1975 school year.
It didn’t seem particularly significant whether or not Freddie was wearing a jacket in class, until Marva noticed how defiantly his fists were shoved into the pockets. Actually her only concern was that it was too hot for him to sit in class all day wearing that jacket. The room was already choking in a late-summer heat that promised to get worse by midmorning. When she moved closer to him and saw how tightly his lips were pressed together and how his shoulders were hunched up around his neck, she realized that Freddie Harris was working hard at being tough.
Freddie expected his stay at Delano, and in particular this class, to be brief. At nine years old he was a repeater in second grade, a troublemaker whose file down in the office bulged with psychologists’ reports and harsh evaluations from previous teachers. Last May he was suspended for the remainder of the school term for fighting. The time before, he was kicked out for throwing food in the lunchroom. Before that, he had cussed at a teacher. He was readmitted now for the new fall semester with the principal’s warning that the next infraction would get him thrown out of Delano for
That suited Freddie just fine. He didn’t like school, and he didn’t like the other children any more than they liked him. The children his age thought he was a baby for being stuck in second grade, and the second-graders thought he was just big and dumb. Besides, he figured, once he was out of Delano, he would be finished with school. His old lady, the thought, wasn’t going to pay for any private school, and she didn’t like churches much so there was no chance of his being sent to a parochial school. All he had to do was get kicked out of this class and he could hang around all day and do what he wanted.
So when Marva asked him to take off his jacket, he just slumped further down in his seat, his fists stuffed into his pockets and his legs stretched out under the chair in front of him.
“Peach,” Marva said softly, “You don’t need to wear that jacket in class. Let’s take it off and get out a pencil so we can do some work.” She knew Freddie was trying to bait her, and her technique in this kind of situation was to be matter-of-fact. She was not sure yet how far Freddie would push it. Was he just introducing himself or trying for something more? She looked hard at him, wondering how many other teachers had fueled his fight.
Freddie turned his head away sharply, fixing his stare on the broken pane of glass
in the third window.
“Sweetheart,” said Marva, “it’s so hot in here you’re going to roast yourself.”
He didn’t move. She reached out and teasingly mussed his hair. “Besides,” she said, “you’re such a handsome, strong boy, I don’t see why you want to cover up those big muscles of yours.”
Marva thought she saw his mouth relax slightly, even hold back a smile, so she cupped his face in her hands and slowly drew him toward her. New children have such dull eyes, she thought, such sullen looks and empty expressions. At seven, eight, and nine years old they have already resigned themselves to failure.
Freddie refused to look up at her, though he allowed her to caress his face. “Come on, peach, we have work to do,” she said, standing straight and tall before him. Marva always stood tall, being easily six feet even without the high heels she liked to wear, never stooping under her height, not even when she was a long-armed and skinny-legged child with a size twelve shoe and the other children teased her that she could knock the roof off the church. “You can’t just sit in a seat and grow smart, ” she said. Her eyes, which could turn dark and cold when she was angry,
were soft on his face.
Then, because he hadn’t jerked away from her touch, she let one hand fall to the collar of his jacket, and with the other she started to pull apart the front snap. His hand shot out of a pocket and locked tightly around her wrist.
“You are so very angry, ” she murmured gently, “but I know you’re not angry with me, because I haven’t done anything to you. We all have a good me and a bad me inside us, and I know that you have a good you. Will you help me find it? I’m your friend and I’m going to help you all the time and I’m going to love you all the time. I love you already, and I’m going to love you even when you don’t love yourself.”
She pulled him close to her, his head resting against her hip. Her long fingers kneaded the tension from his shoulders and stroked the back of his neck. Marva worked painstakingly to know each child, training herself to catch the gesture, look, or remark that would tell her what a child needed.
Freddie pushed back into his chair, sat up tall, and with quick, short pulls began popping apart the snaps on his jacket, shipping his arms out of the sleeves. Marva bent over him, balanced his chin on the crook of her finger, and titled his head back so that he was looking straight at her. The subdued tone of her voice gave way suddenly to a new firmness. “I promise, you are going to do, you are going to produce. I am not going to let you fail.”
Marva walked up to the front of the class. She had been teaching for fourteen and a half years ----- two at Monroe County Training School in Beatrice, Alabama and twelve and a half in the Chicago public school; and while she had grown to hate the teaching profession as a whole, she loved to teach. Septembers were always the same. She expected the anxiety would have worn off by now. It never did. She didn’t sleep the
night before school started, uneasy as a child going off for the first time. With every new class there was so much to do. Somehow her room at Delano had become a way station for the castoffs the other teachers didn’t want. There were always
children like Freddie Harris, the discipline problems. Last year she had her hands
full with James Thomas. James had acted up all through kindergarten and first grade, and most teachers couldn’t stand him.
When James misbehaved in her class during the first week of school, Marva called him over to her.
“James, do you know how to spell your name?” she asked.
The child nodded that he did.
“Well, fine.” Marva said, “you go over to the file cabinet, open the drawer, and see if you can find your cumulative record card and read it.”
James took out the card, glanced at it, and brought it to Marva with a puzzled look on his face. School had just started and Marva had already given him a grade of “Good” in conduct.
“Do you think you deserve that grade?” asked Marva.
“No,” he answered.
“Do you want that grade?”
“Uh huh,” he whispered.
“Then you go back to your seat and earn it.”
James Thomas was not a problem the rest of the year.
Besides the troublemakers, Marva had children like Bernette Miller, the heavy-set, slow-moving girl in the first row, whose drawn-out speech prompted a previous teacher to dismiss her as a child with a learning disability. And there were children like pigtailed Wwanda Lewis, who had never learned how to spell her name or which side of the notebook paper to write on. She had been passed on to the next grade simply because she was so quiet.
Marva stopped beside Bernette Miller’s desk. She said noting, but the children instantly shuffled around in their seats and faced forward. She had a commanding authority, and almost hypnotic presence.
Marva was a striking woman with high cheekbones and strong angular features, which she inherited along with a love of jewelry from a great-grandmother who was a Choctaw Indian. Slender though not willowy, Marva was immediately discernible in a crowd——even without the visibility afforded by her height——for she had acquired
a poise and sophistication that gave her appearance a deliberate style. Marva would rarely wear slacks, and she never wore loose-fitting shifts or casually assembled bloused and skirts. Sloppy dressing showed disrespect for oneself, for the children, and for the profession. From the first day of class Marva was teaching that self-respect is the most important thing a person can have. For herself and for the children Marva dressed impeccably, favoring cashmere sweaters, suits, and herring-bone tweeds. Her clothing was tailored and stylishly simple, but she usually added an ornamental touch: a carved belt cinched over a sweater, a gold medallion on a chain, an organdy boutonniere, or perhaps a lace handkerchief fanned in pleats across a pocket and held in place by a beaded lion’s-head brooch. In Marva’s opinion,
it was important to have a unique imprint. She felt she was different from most people and delighted in her difference. It was an attitude often mistaken for arrogance. “I am a teacher,” she said to the class on this first day. “A teacher is someone who leads. There is no magic here. Mrs. Collins is no miracle worker. I do not walk
on water, I do not part the sea. I just love children and work harder than a lot of people, and so will you.
“I know most of you can’t spell your name. You don’t know the alphabet, you don’t
know how to read, you don’t know homonyms or how to syllabicate. I promise you that
you will. None of you has ever failed. School may have failed you. Well, goodbye to failure, children. Welcome to success. You will read hard books in here and understand what you read. You will write every day so that writing becomes second nature to you. You will memorize a poem every week so that you can train your minds to remember things. It is useless for you to learn something in school if you are not going to remember it.
“But you must help me to help you. If you don’t give anything, don’t expect anything.
Success is not coming to you, you must come to it.”
The Children looked puzzled. They were accustomed to warnings, threats, and rules of order on the first day of class. If nothing else, Marva vowed she would get through to these children because she was so determined. Or just plain stubborn. She was, in fact, more strong-willed than most, maybe even a bit too strong-willed for her own good. Over and over her mother used to warn her, “Marva, you’ll never come to any good ‘cause once your mind is set, there’s no telling you what to do.’”
Marva Collins was not going to let any child make her a bad teacher. “The first thing we are going to do in here, children,” Marva told her class, ”is an awful a lot of believing in ourselves.”
Freddle Harris decided to give this teacher a try ’cause she sure was different from
all the other teachers he had messed with and ‘cause it seemed like he was getting nowhere by acing up, at least, not for now. He finished helping Marva hand out excerpts from Emerson’s “Self Reliance.” Freddie and all the other children began riffling through the mimeographed pages, shaking their heads in disbelief at all the print, mumbling an occasional “Wow” or “No way, man.”
“what are you all getting so worried about?” Marva said. “I don’t expect you to know how to read this. I will read it to you, but you must listen to what is says.”
She liked to begin the school year with “Self Reliance.” Marva believed that it was one of the most important things a student, especially a black student, could ever learn.
“Now let’s look at the title. The first thing you must always look at is the title.
What is the first thing you must look at, children? The t——.”
“Title,” a sprinkling of voices offered shyly.
“Very good.” Marva walked to the blackboard, picked up a piece of chalk, and printed
“Self Reliance” across the newly washed surface. “The title is ‘Self Reliance,’” she repeated, marking the vowel sounds with colored chalk. “These are called diacritical marks, and they show us how to pronounce vowel sounds. The e in self has the short sound eh, so we put a breve over it. The first e and i in reliance have macrons, which tell us those vowel sound are long; the vowels say their own names.”
Marva moved down the aisle by the windows. “Now we are going to read an essay called
‘Self Reliance.’ What is the title?” Marva asked the boy in the fifth seat of the
third row, who was rubbing his fingers along the edge of the desk. The boy lowered his head, chin resting against his chest, and moved his fingers up and down in a nervous rhythm, waiting for his turn to pass.
“What is the title, sweetheart? Don’t just sit there with your mouth shut. If you don’t know, then say, ‘Mrs. Collins, I don’t know.’ Don’t ever be afraid of making a mistake. If you can’t make a mistake, you can’t make anything.”
She sidled around the desks until she was beside him, her hand resting on his shoulder. Then she asked the same question of the child behind him.
“’Self Reliance,’” the girl answered.
“Very good,” said Marva, unfastening the girl’s barette and repositioning it to hold back a few stray strands of hair. “Let’s keep the hair out of your eyes, pet, so you can see.” Marva continued down the aisle, asking each child in that row to tell the title, getting each child accustomed to speaking in class, and with each answer she said, “Very good,” “très bonne” “Laudo,” or “Sehr gut,” explaining
that she was praising them in French, Latin, and German.
“Now, she said, “self-reliance means to believe in yourself. What does
self-reliance mean? To be——.”
“To believe in yourself,” echoed a few faint voices.
“Everybody, in big outdoor voices, what does it mean?”
“To believe in yourself,” the children said, more boldly.
“Very, very good, children,” Marva told them in a steady businesslike voice, her
eyes looking down on the paper as she calmed their rising enthusiasm and signaled them on to the next thought. Marva could lead with her eyes and her voice, winning control by a look or and inflection. Now her tone seemed to belie the praise she had just uttered, as if she were waning the children not to be too satisfied with one small success but to remember how much more there was to learn.
“The author of ‘Self Reliance’ was a man named Ralph Waldo Emerson,” she continued. “You must always read the author’s name. If you like what an author writes, but you don’t know the author’s name, then you won’t be able to find any more of his stories to read.” She paused, gauging the children’s interest. A few were wriggling in their seats. Wanda Lewis, in the back of the class, seemed lost in herself, staring out the window, tapping a pencil against her pudgy cheek.
“Darling.” Marva motioned to Wanda, “If you just sit and look, you are going nowhere. Come up here beside me so we can keep track of one another.” Marva helped the girl
push her desk up the narrow aisle, maneuvering it the the front of the row as the other children shuffled their desks aside.
“All right, children, ” she quieted the class. “Mr. Emerson was a writer, a poet, and a lecturer who lived in the 1800s. A lecturer is someone who talks before an audience or a class.” Marva wrote the word on the board, underlining lecture.“The base word is lecture, which is a talk or a speech. Someone who gives the talk or speech is a lecturer. Freeie, what is a lecturer?”
“Someone who gives a speech to a lot of people.” Freddie murmured, smiling.
“That’s very, very good, sweetheart.” Marva told him. “See, you’re so used to being wrong, you’re afraid to be right. But speak more loudly next time. When you
whisper, it means ‘I don’t like myself. I don’t believe what I say.’ What you say is important. Each of you is the most important child in the world. “Now, children, Mr. Emerson was born in Boston in 1803. Where is Boston?” She waited for a response. “Come on, children, think, think, shake your brains! James, come up here to the map and show us where Boston is.”
“A stocky boy with short-cropped hair walked hesitantly to the wall map. Marva straightened his collar, telling him what a handsome shirt it was. She put her arm around him. With her free hand she guided his index finger to the correct spot on the map.”
“That’s wonderful, James, Boston is the capital of Massachusetts. Thank you, James,
you are just so bright,” she told him as he sat down grinning. “Ralph Waldo Emerson
was born in Boston, Massachustees, and his father was a minister. Where was Mr. Emerson born, children?”
“Boston,” they answered.
“Very good. Boston. Now when Ralph was not quite eight years old, as old as some of you, his father died. The family was so poor that Ralph and his brother had to share the same winter coat. Yet Ralph and all of his three brothers studied hard and they all went to Harvard College when they grew up.”
She move around the room as she spoke, patting a head of caressing an arm. “When
he graduated, Ralph Waldo Emerson became a teacher for a while to help pay for his brother William’s college education, and then he became a minister. Mr. Emerson was always questioning life, and he didn’t always agree with the church or the other
ministers. How many of you question life? How many of you wonder why things happen the way they do?”
Two students immediately raised their hands. The rest watched curiously, surprised by their classmates’ willingness to respond.
“Do you mean to tell me that only a few of you question the way things are?” Marva asked, exaggerating her amazement “Well, I guess most of you think life is wonderful. Everyone always has enough to eat, a good place to live. There is no suffering, no poverty„”
Her words were muffled by the children’s groans and giggles.
“Of course, you don’t,” she continued slowly. “Every time you say ‘That’s not fair’ or you wonder why something is the way it is, you are questioning life, just as Mr. Emerson did. He believe that every person has a free will and can choose to make his life what he wants it to be. I believe that. I believe that you can make your life anything you want it to be.”
Marva read aloud passages from the essay. She felt the children’s restlessness as she read. Their eyes were roving around the room. A few had their arms slung over the backs of their chairs, their feet swinging sideways into the aisles. But Marva continued. When she finished, she sat on the edge of a child’s desk and looked at the class.
She said in a lower voice, “So you think this work is too difficult for you? Well, do not expect to do baby work in here. School can teach you how to lead a good life. We all come here to make life better. And the knowledge you put in your heads is going
to save whom? You, not me. Mr. Emerson is telling us to trust our own thoughts, to think for ourselves and not worry about what other people tell us to think. Tanya, what does Emerson tell us to do?”
“Trust ourselves,” replied Tanya.
“Very, very good, Tanya,” Marva said, “James, what does Emerson tell us to do?”
“Very good, James. You’re so clever, but I don’t want to see you put your head on the desk. If you are sleepy, you should be home. This is a classroom, not a hospital or a hotel. I don’t ever want to see any of you napping in your seats or just sitting with your hands folded, doing noting. This is not a prayer meeting. If I see your hands folded, I’m going to put a Bible in them.”
The children giggled and Marva smiled. A bond was beginning to grow between them. What she said and did this first day would determine the rest of their year together. She left nothing to chance.
It was Marva Collins’ attitude that made children learn. What she did was brainwash them into succeeding. She was forever saying “You can do it,” convincing her
students there wasn’t anything they could not do. There were no excuses for a child’s not learning. There was no point in fixing the blame on television, or parents, or a child’s environment. The decisive factor was the teacher up in front of the class.
If a child sensed a teacher didn’t care, then all the textbooks and prepackaged lesson plans and audio-visual equipment and fancy, new, carpeted, air-conditioned building facilities weren’t going to get that child to learn.
“Children,” she began, “today will decide whether you succeed or fail tomorrow. I promise you, I won’t let you fail. I care about you. I love you. You can pay people to teach, but not to care.
“Some teachers sit behind a big desk, like a king in a castle, and the children are
like the poor peasants. The desk isolates them from the children. But I don’t sit behind a big desk in front of the class. I walk up and down the rows of desks every day and I hug each of you every day.
“Have you ever been afraid to go up to the teacher’s desk? Did you think someone
would laugh at you if you made a mistake?”
Marva didn’t wait for an answer. She knew each child was following her closely. “Tell me when I’m wrong. You must never be afraid to tell a teacher if she is wrong. I’m
not God. My mouth is no prayerbook. We shall work together. How many of you have been afraid to ask other teachers questions?”
Hands immediately went up.
“Why were you afraid to ask, Michele?”
“I was afraid the teacher would holler.”
“Why were you afraid, Jerome?”
“I was afraid I would get hit with a ruler,” he said flatly, expecting the snickers
that came from his classmates.
“When you were afraid of a teacher, Bernette, what were you afraid of?”
“I was afraid she would make everyone laugh at me. My other teacher used to act like
she was perfect or something. She used to make me feel dumb.”
“Sometimes I don’t like other grown-ups very much because they think they know
everything. I don’t know everything.” Marva said. “I can learn all the time.”
There was excitement building and Marva worked the momentum, like an entertainer who felt the pulse of an audience. “Oh, I love to see your eyes dance, ” she said. “New children have such dull eyes, but yours are already coming alive.” She continued more seriously. “How many times did you feel old enough or smart enough to do something and then some grown-up told you ‘You don’t know how to do that’? I never
like to hear grown-ups say that to a child. I don’t know what you know. I can’t wriggle down inside your skin or get into your brains. I am just another human being who has lived longer than you. I’m not smarter. I’m not greater. I bleed when I’m hurt, and I’m tired when I don’t get enough sleep. But I am always here, to what? To help you. Freddie, tell me what you learned from Mr. Emerson’s essay.”
Freeddie looked attentively at Marva but didn’t answer.
“You have a right to your opinion. You say what you think.” Marva told him. “Don’t care what anyone else thinks. What’s inside of you is important.”
“I learned about self-reliance.” Freddie whispered.
“Speak in a big voice, peach. What does self-reliance mean? Believing in——.”
“Believing in yourself?”
“Of course it does, but say it with confidence so we all know you believe in what you’re saying. Let us all know how bright you are.” Marva said, nodding. “Chris, what did you learn from Mr. Emerson?”
“To trust my own thoughts.”
“Very good, Chris. See how much you already know? Marcu, what did you learn?”
“If you don’t think for yourself, other people will tell you what to think.”
Marva’s eyes glistened. She laughed, sweeping her arm dramatically to her brow as she held herself up against the window sill, feigning a swoon. “Oh, I just can’t stand it. You’re all so bright. You’re all so sagacious. Sagacious means smart and
wise. What does sagacious mean, children?”
“Smart and wise,” they chanted.
“And who is sagacious?”
“We are,” they shouted.
“You certainly are.” Marva put a throaty emphasis on certainly as she walked the rows of desks ruffling hair, pinching a cheek, squeezing a shoulder. It was a beginning. The skills would come later with the daily drills of sounds and words over and over until Marva was tired of the litany. First she had to convince the children she cared about them, convince them to trust her, and make them believe they could do anything they wanted to do.
On the second day of school, Marva taught the English folk tale “The Little Red Hen and the Grain of Wheat.” She had long believed that fairy tales and fables were effective in promoting emotional, intellectual, and social development. Most of the students were intrigued by the modulation of her voice and the changes in her face as she read aloud, shifting from one character to the next.
After the fourth round of quacking and squeaking and grunting “Not I,” Marva noticed
that Bernette Miller had taken off her locket and was looping the chain around her fingers, twisting it into a Cat’s Cradle.
“You knew how to play with a chain when you came to school,” Marva said, “Playing with a chain is a good way to get a job, isn’t it? Put it away and listen to the story. I am not reading it just to entertain you. There is a lesson here. And we all better start paying attention to lessons like these, or this world we live in is surely headed for trouble.”
Marva added, “I love you children all the time, even though I may correct you or disagree with you some of the time.”
Marva finished the story. She closed the book, clasped it to her with one hand, and raised the other, index finger extended like a maestro’s baton. Without losing the
intensity delivered in the last line of the story, the discussion began. “Do you think the little red hen was right in not sharing her bread with the duck, the mouse, and the pig?”
Heads nodded in agreement.
“Why was she right?” Three were various demonstrations of squirming and fidgeting but no volunteers: after a while they would enjoy the heaping doses of teacher-student dialogue, but for now it was still a new and intimidating proposition. “Come on, come on, ” Marva said, “I am not going to leave you alone to become workbook idiots. You are not going to spend your time in here pasting and coloring and circling pictures. We’re going to do some thinking in here. Now, why do you feel the hen was right?”
“She done it all. They was lazy.” Came a voice from the back.
“She did all what? She did all the work, didn’t she? She had to sow and cut and thresh the wheat, and she had to carry it to the mill to be ground into flour, and she had to bake the loaf of bread. The other animals were lazy. They didn’t want
to help do any of the work. They only wanted to help eat the bread. What is the moral of this story? What lesson does it teach us? If we don’t work, we don’t eat. If we don’t work, we don’t——”
“Eat.” Came the unanimous reply. There was safety in numbers. Getting a child to
take a chance and venture his or her own answer was another matter. “Now, what would you say if I told you I think that hen was being selfish. She should have shared what she had with the other barnyard animals. What do you think about that?”
“No.” they all shook their head.
“Why not? Don’t grown-ups always tell children that they should share their toys or their cookies or their candy? Freddie?”
“It ain’t the same, ” he said.
“Isn’t, sweetheart, it isn’t the same. Children, listen to me for a moment. To
succeed in this world, you must speak correctly. I don’t want to hear any jive talk in here or any of this stuff about black English. You must not just think of yourselves as black children or ghetto children. You must become citizens of the world, like Socrates.”
“Now, Freeddie, why do you think there is a difference between the little red hen
who did not share her bread and little children, who are always being told they should share their toys with others?”
“The hen had to work hard for the bread.”
“That’s wonderful, Freddie. You are absolutely right. The hen earned what she had. There is no comparison between the two situations. They are not analogous. You all know the word same. Let’s try to learn some big words. Analogous means same or
“Suppose I ask a child to help me do some chores, and when the chores are done I give the child some candy. Does the child have to share it with you because you say ‘Give me some?’”
They shook their heads again.
“of course not. You have a right to be rewarded for your work, for your efforts, and you also have a right to keep what you have earned. You don’t have to give it away every time someone comes up to you with a hand out asking for something. A person who has his hand out today is going to have that hand out tomorrow. You are not going to solve his problem by giving him something free. He has to learn to solve his own problem. If you give another student in this class the answer to the homework, are you helping that student? No, you are cheating him out of learning how to find the answer himself.
“So the lesson of the story is one of the most important lessons you can learn. The person who does the work will be the one who has plenty of food, good clothes, and a fine house. The lazy person is always going to be standing there with his hand out. You have the choice, the right to choose which kind of person you want to be.”
There it was. Marva had played her full hand. A teacher had to sell children on the idea of learning.
Oddly, Marva had not planned on becoming a teacher. She had not, in fact, given much thought to what she would do. As a child she had had the usual fleeting sort of girlish aspirations. One day she wanted to be a nurse, the next a secretary. With a child’s
fickleness she moved on to each new thing, her wishes shaped by a character in a book or a picture in a magazine. In that she was no different from other children. But what distinguished Marva’s life from those around her——from the black children
living in the wooden shanties with whom she went to school——was that she could
entertain the vagaries of ambition beyond the age when others had to reconcile or surrender theirs. Necessity made no such demands on her. She grew up wealthy, pampered, and sheltered by small-town innocence and a doting protective father. She lived the freedom other people only dreamt.
I was born on August 31, 1936, in Monroeville, Alabama, about fifty miles north of mobile, I grew up during the Depression, but while I can remember hearing the grown-ups talk about how times were hard and there was no money, none of that really affected my own life.
My father, Henry Knight, was one of the richest black men in Monroeville. We lived in a six-bedroom white clapboard house that had polished wood floors, store-bought furniture, and oriental rugs. Ours was one of the finest houses in the northern end of town, which was where all the blacks lived. People used to joke that our house