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.