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TV & DVD Review: The Marva Collins Story (1981)

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This December 1, 1981 CBS television movie starring Cicely Tyson (Roots, Sounder) as pioneering Chicago teacher Marva Collins, who died this week while in hospice care at the age of 78, is very good. The 100-minute Hallmark Hall of Fame movie, co-starring Morgan Freeman (The Dark Knight, An Unfinished Life, Last Vegas) as her husband, was filmed on location in Chicago.

Hers is an untold but grand and heroic story. The classical education teacher, who wrote several books about her essentially Socratic pedagogical and motivationally-driven method, focused on the individual in her teaching. As I wrote in 2009 (read the post here), she was passionately anti-deterministic and pro-free will in her approach to reaching a student’s mind. In short, Collins did not think poor, black students were destined to play basketball or languish in poverty, illiteracy and despair. She held to the idea that each individual has merit and potential and that the young must be nourished, taught and loved.

The Marva Collins Story dramatizes the initial part of her epic struggle to break free from being a government education worker in Chicago’s dreaded public school system and creating her own school in her own home, all while married to a man (Mr. Freeman) who loved her and mothering three children.

In scene after scene, the Chicago Public School teacher refused to settle for less than the best quality for her Garfield Park ghetto students. Collins taught the classics in literature, emphasizing key themes as lessons for living in poverty and achieving self-reliance. When the classroom is vandalized by thugs, leaving her homeroom deflated and demoralized, Collins, who dresses smartly and expects the same of her young elementary schoolers, singles out one child who asks why? for a warm, loving explanation that life is hard for those who are of superior ability. She basically tells the boy to expect to be envied by those who are jealous. This is a lesson well learned and well played by Ms. Tyson, one of the best actresses of her time.

The woman the kids call Mrs. Collins is remarkable in her steadfast dedication to demanding that the fundamentally bankrupt institution matches her ability to teach her students. Collins mutters about the “bureaucrats” and finally strikes out on her own, opening her own school, Westside Preparatory School. Attracting the most deeply victimized students in the government-controlled educational system, few rally behind her. She pleads for help in the form of sponsorship from Chicago-based businesses. She writes to the media. She seeks the proper government approval, which only frustrates her efforts more because the government’s arbitrary rules are in constant self-contradiction. In one scene, when a bureaucrat comments on her behind her back, Marva Collins swings back into action and puts him—and, really, the whole damned state-sponsored educational system—in its lowdown place. She is indefatigable.

But The Marva Collins Story is about her free enterprise, not merely her character. It dramatizes the painstaking process one must undertake to defy the traditional, the expected, the status quo, especially if you’re a lone, black woman from whom others irrationally expect less. Add the fact that even less is expected of poor, black students and there you have the mindset of the welfare state, which Marva Collins identifies, defies and puts to shame. That she lines up students one by one—a boy who is fascinated with flight, a girl who’s been told she’s mindless, other outcasts lost in government’s ghetto schools—and praises them with love and encouragement for their ability, not scorn and indifference to the use of their reasoning minds, is the point of her story. Marva Collins climaxes with an example in capitalism, as the children take a field trip which is earned, not used as an excuse to indulge sloth and mediocrity, when Mrs. Collins takes her Westside Preparatory pupils to the Chicago Mercantile Exchange.

Whatever flaws in her approach, which is sort of a catch-all immersion in the basics and classics, she is honest and straightforward about her limitations to parents, students and family. Her devotion to her task is rewarded with a visit from a newspaper reporter and an epilogue explains how she turned down an offer from President Reagan to serve as a government cabinet secretary (of a department he’d pledged to abolish, a promise he never did keep). Marva Collins’ story is exceptional for its vision, nerve and entrepreneurialism and, with a powerful rendering of Rudyard Kipling’s poem If—, The Marva Collins Story shows and tells what’s essentially heroic about her tale as it is and ought to be.


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New Articles on New Trier’s Experiment

“You asked me once, what was in Room 101. I told you that you knew the answer already. Everyone knows it. The thing that is in Room 101 is the worst thing in the world.” — O’Brien, 1984 by George Orwell

1984It is with irony that this quote from Orwell’s classic novel comes to mind. I recently wrote for a suburban Chicago publication about what was for me a painful, if mercifully brief, modern education experience during my youth. It was a high school within a high school called the Center for Self-Directed Learning, part of a New Left educational movement that sprouted in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The Center, as it was known, occupied New Trier’s room 101.

The former study hall had been converted in 1972 into the place where 600 students, including U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk (R, IL) and actress Virginia Madsen, would enter and exit during the course of their high school studies. The Center existed for 10 years without grades, teaching or classes. I recently interviewed the school’s co-founder, Arline Paul (read the interview here), the only New Trier faculty member to serve during the Center’s entire existence. Mrs. Paul, who had taught me political science in the traditional high school, was assigned as my “facilitator”, and she was kind enough to grant me an interview for the local newspaper. I asked tough questions and she answered them. It is interesting to go back and revisit high school as a journalist covering this radical experiment. I also reviewed the book of faculty and student memoirs she co-edited (read the review here). I wanted to provide a clear, factual account of this example of modern education.

My overall experience in government-sponsored education was atrocious. It was so bad that the quote from Orwell’s 1984 – which, ironically, I read while enrolled as a student in the Center – strikes me as an apt prelude for these articles about the Center. I’ve already heard from one reader who defends the whim-based approach to education. I have also heard from another reader. He tells me that he is young and that he, too, experienced the ravages of today’s modern, anti-conceptual education. He wrote to tell me that, after reading what I reported about the widely acclaimed New Trier, he thinks that his experience was worse. This is what I hope to counter. This is why I wrote these pieces, which I intend as an honest report and review of the facts of modern education.

Book Review: Shane by Jack Schaefer

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Published in 1949, Shane by Jack Schaefer is an uneven but irresistible Western about a boy’s coming of age. With elements of hero worship, the short novel is narrated in retrospect by a Wyoming homesteader’s son named Bob, an only child whose parents take kindly to a dark stranger with a mysterious past.

The child describes Shane as possessing “a kind of magnificence”: “He rode easily, relaxed in the saddle, leaning his weight lazily into the stirrups. Yet even in this easiness was a suggestion of tension. It was the easiness of a coiled spring, a trap set.” When Shane agrees to stay on the farm and whacks at a stubborn old tree stump as he bonds with Bob’s father, Joe Starrett, amid a looming property dispute with a bullying cattle driver, the boy’s mother questions whether any of this is good for the family, including the boy and especially Shane, whom she and everyone falls for in a way.

It’s all there in Schaefer’s clipped prose. Even the kid is aware that, for all the mastery, fancy duds and shiny gun, “it puzzled me that a man so deep and vital in his own being, so ready to respond to father, should be riding a lone trail out of a closed and guarded past.” Tension builds as the cattleman villain, who seeks government contracts, taunts and baits Shane into a confrontation that envelops the whole town. As Joe watches over his property, the wife worries, the kid snoops and the cowboys, townies and homesteaders take up sides. The loner contemplates whether taking on the villain is worth being thrown off his own trail.

As the narrative alternates between life at home with Shane and the parents and the gathering storm, suspense builds and the boy learns life lessons from the man he idolizes. That Shane is portrayed as a better man than Bob’s father complicates and limits the story and makes it too elusive to have a lasting impact but there is good writing here. “Listen, Bob,” Shane tells the kid one day. “A gun is just a tool. No better no worse than any other tool, a shovel — or an axe or a saddle or stove or anything. Think of it always that way. The gun is as good – and as bad – as the man who carries it. Remember that.”

Schaefer interjects Shane into the Starrett family with aplomb and the result is a complex portrayal of a young Western family at the mercy of a stranger, which is what makes Shane a rare psychological mystery about how he impacts the boy, the Starretts and the town, which is “still not much more than the roadside settlement”. The character, portrayed by Alan Ladd in the 1953 motion picture version, is so remote as to render the plot almost surrealistic, though when he lets loose, Shane comes into focus. “And then the summer was over,” Schaefer writes in a plain, evocative transition. “School began again and the days were growing shorter and the first cutting edge of cold was creeping down from the mountains.” The way out West stays and lingers in Shane, culminating in a conflict that shapes a landscape, a family and a man and, mostly, delivers a simple campfire story that’s well told.

Book Review: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900) by L. Frank Baum

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In the introduction to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum, illustrated by W. W. Denslow, the Chicago author writes that he aspires to create a “modernized fairy tale, in which the wonderment and joy are retained and the heart-aches and nightmares are left out.” Since it was published in 1900, his Oz stories, and this one in particular, have earned an enduring literary and cinematic legacy. Whether Baum achieves his goal is open to debate. But his main character, Dorothy, embodies the virtue of loyalty to herself in this coming of age tale about developing good character as the essence of adulthood.

Not that Baum had that in mind or even explicitly identifies the theme in his short children’s novel (I read the Signet Classic edition). But that’s what his fairy tale means, with Dorothy, who lives “in the midst of the great Kansas prairies, with Uncle Henry, who was a farmer, and Aunt Em, who was the farmer’s wife”, as the child on the brink of becoming an adult. As in MGM’s classic 1939 musical, her loyalty to herself is often displayed through her fierce protection of her smart and scrappy little dog, Toto.

The fantasy’s three wise men, Scarecrow, Tin Man and Cowardly Lion, carry the action throughout the strange, dark world of Oz. Baum’s original tale is less fanciful than the film, of course, without music and Technicolor and with the Wicked Witch of the West relegated to a single short section toward the end of the story. Here, unlike the film, the witch does not track the quartet with a crystal ball; their misfortunes and challenges arise organically most of the time. This allows for the depth of characterization that comes from a resourceful trio that each already embody the qualities they seek.

For example, Scarecrow confides to Dorothy that, with his head filled with straw, he wonders: “how am I ever to know anything?” The Tin Man, among the most developed characters, tells her that when he was a woodsman, he fell deeply in love with a Munchkin girl that lived with an old woman who “was so lazy she wished the girl to remain with her and do the cooking and the housework.” Intent upon stopping their union, the old woman enlists the Wicked Witch, who keeps cutting off the man’s body parts until his whole body is made of tin. But he keeps coming back until, finally, the girl cannot return the love of the one who is no longer the man with whom she fell in love. One day, it rains and he is left without his oilcan to rust in the woods. As the Tin Man tells Dorothy: “It was a terrible thing to undergo, but during the year I stood there I had time to think that the greatest loss I had known was the loss of my heart. While I was in love I was the happiest man on earth…”

The Cowardly Lion, too, considers himself deficient in certain ways while struggling to find courage. Each of the three represents the three basic literary conflicts; Scarecrow, who through no fault of his own is born without a brain, represents man versus nature; Tin Man, who is decapitated by an old woman’s wicked accomplice, represents man versus man and the Cowardly Lion, who goes after little dogs to mask his own fear, represents man versus himself. With Oz as the place to get mystical resolution, each eventually discovers that there is no such thing. Instead, they learn that it’s a hard life and that they will have to achieve their fullest virtues in action and earn their way to a joyful life. As the wizard, who is flawed but kind, tells Dorothy, “everyone must pay for everything he gets. Help me and I will help you.”

For her part, the witch is cruel. When she learns that the girl whose house landed on and killed her sister is traveling with an entourage, she tells a pack of uber-wolves: “Go to those people and tear them to pieces.” The witch is both magical and evil but her powers are less than omnipotent and, as a villain, she is an ultimately small and insignificant slavemistress. The violence depicted is jarring and the subtext of a modern girl trying to make sense of the world around her is compelling, and, if Baum’s story remains unusual, dark and strange, it is also engrossing and still relevant over 100 years after it was published. The theme of making one’s own character in a cruel yet beautiful world remains a striking piece of fiction, especially for a character that’s a girl. At one point, take-charge Dorothy, whose journey in Oz differs in significant ways from the MGM film adaptation, steps up and plainly asks: “Can you straighten out those dents in the tin Woodman, and bend him back into shape again, and solder him together where he is broken?” This can-do Midwestern spirit permeates a classic American children’s tale.

Book Review: The Ugly Duckling by Hans Christian Andersen

TUDRipplecoverThe Ugly Duckling by Hans Christian Andersen (English translation by H.P. Paull, illustrations by Ripple Digital Publishing Corp.) is a brilliantly written fable. I recently re-read it and found that, in its own way, the tale repudiates collectivism and egalitarianism – the idea that everyone should be regarded as equal in everything – with a clever inversion.

Without revealing the story’s twist, the duckling is born ugly, which he can’t help. Other ducks ridicule, even assault, him just for being different. His own siblings spurn him. At first, his mother defends him until, seeking others’ approval, she finally says she wishes he had never been born.

After more rejection and abuse, he flees his family for another group’s domain, where he is told that he will be tolerated as long as he doesn’t marry into the collective. He moves on to a group of wild ducks, facing the threat of the huntsman. With shots firing, and birds falling around him, the Ugly Duckling chooses to think; he hides, waits and bides his time to leave when it’s safe. When he does depart, he is exceedingly cautious. He takes nothing for granted. It’s the first hint that he might be better than everyone else. This is made explicit in the next part of the story when he is castigated by a hen for thinking he’s better than others as he finds himself among a trio of misfits. “Do you consider yourself more clever than the cat, or the old woman?” asks the hen. “Don’t imagine such nonsense, child, and thank your good fortune that you have been received here.”

The Ugly Duckling refuses to be humble. In encounter after encounter, he senses that he might be special. He sadly moves on after each episode, seeking happiness, and the lonely path he takes exacts a heavy toll. That he sees himself as he truly is only when he makes himself ready to give up climaxes the moral of the story, which is a kind of fable about authentic self-esteem. Adversity makes you stronger is certainly part of Andersen’s point but The Ugly Duckling is not, as is sometimes claimed, merely about being different. It is also a tale about discovering and becoming aware of one’s potential. The notion that one should accept himself as he is, recognizing limitations and strengths and accepting that life is hard, and pain is temporary, is obviously relevant to those who are different. But this story is also, and not as obviously, meaningful to the one who is better than others yet unaware of the truth.