For 14 yars she taught in the Chicago public school system, and every day of the experience helped to make Marva Collins an angry woman.
Finally, in the fall of 1975, convinced the best way to get something done right is to it yourself, she opened her own school. Westside Preparatory, on the second floor of her Chicago home.
Today, accounts say, Marva Collins has worked a not-so-minor miracle. She insists she is doing what any good teacher could do, given the right background and a similar atmosphere.
In the one room that is Westside Prep, 30 children from 4 to 14 years old sit side by side delving into the sciences, mathematics, literary classics. A 5-year-old is engrossed in the Canterbury Tales. A 9-year-old gives Nietzsche a critical read. A 12-year-old ponders the intricacies of Rabelais.
These are not the children of Chicago's intellectual elite. Most are fresh off the streets of one of the city's toughest, predominantly black ghettos, and many of them couldn't even read before Marva Collins got her hands on them.
She believes she is succeeding where others have failed because her system is tough. There is, for example, no recess at Westside Prep.
"One thing a black child does not need," Collins says emphatically, "is more free time. Most of these kids have 'recess' for 16 hours a day. So they are going to work during the eight they are with me. Life is hard work, and they might as well know that now. There is no free lunch anywhere anymore, especially for a black child."
And so, from 9 a.m. until 3 p.m., they study, drill, memorize and recite. These are tests, compositions, vocabulary requirements. Collin's theory is "the older ones who haven't learned what they need will pick it up as the younger ones are taught, and the younger ones who are ready to advance will do that by listening to what the olders are learning."
Above all, there is no fooling around. No extraneous movement in the classroom. "You wouldn't go to the theatre and keep popping up out of your seat," she reasons.
A strict disciplinarian, Collins says, "When I tell a child not to do something, he isn't going to do it. Her technique does not involve corporal punishment; ("It's ridiculous that an adult has to hit a 5-year-old.') 'Instead, she says, "I know how to use a look to get my message across."
By all accounts, the children love it. Many arrive as early as 7:45 to work on projects or read, and often they stay after school and on into the evening.
At about this time each year many colleges and universities begin to offer honorary degrees, but Collins usually does not accept them. She made exceptions this year when Howard University and Ohio's Central State University selected her for honarary degrees.
"I decided to accept," Collins says, "because these are black schools and I have a special message for the black graduate. I want them to know that they have a responsibility to strive for more than a surbuban home and a two-car garage. They have to put something back."
Howard University spokesman say Collins will receive an honarary doctor of humanities degree Saturday because she has distinguished herself as a teacher and, according to a spokesman, "because as an educator and an innovator she shares some of our concerns. She added something to the process that we are about, which is offereing a top-notch education to people who might not otherwise have a chance."
Back at home, since many of the children she teaches do not have a comfortable home and family to welcome them at the end of the day, Collins, her husband Clarence, a draftsman with Sunbeam Corp., and their three children willingly share theirs. Youngsters are invited to dinner, outings and overnight or weekend visits.
"I want to stop the perpetuation of the WASP myth of what black families are like," she explains. "It's just not true. We struggle, we hurt, but we have a loving home life and three beautiful children.
"I think one of the reasons my husband and children are amenable to having other children here is because we want them to see this."
Two of the Collins children attend Westside where their mother says they are "finally learning something after years in a $2,200 private school where they were letting them spell "they' 'thay'."
All the attention Westside receives has disrupted the Collins' life style ("I travel far too much," she says), but the school goes on unchanged.
"There are days when I don't want to take one more phone call, make another plane trip or talk to another reporter. I'm just deluged with requests for interviews," she says wearily. "There've been so many lately that even the clipping service can't keep up . . . but this has not deterred me. My business is to teach."
Marva Collins speaks of teaching in almost reverential tones. She says she has always wanted to teach, and particularly to be a teacher to those without the advantage of wealth and privilege.
"I have alawys had an affinity for the underdog," she says. "There is no child who is too dirty or too poor for me to teach.
"When I was in public schools I'd hear black teachers say, 'I'm sick of these stupid black children.' Well it's my opinion that a person with that attitude has no business teaching children of any color.
"You and I know that these children have to excel because they will always be judged by different standards. When a rich child is behind he's creative. When a poor child, a black child is behind, he's dumb . . . these children have to be five times as good at what they do, and I tell them so. It's a heavy burden, but in the long run, I think that it makes them stonger."
She has little patience with those who cite teacher burnout of faulty school administrations as the reasons for the almost universally poor performance of this generation of students.
"It's so easy to keep making excuses," Collins says, "Meanwhile, we're turning out a nation of illiterates. Who says that life is composed of perfect situations? The challenge of any job is to take a bad situation and turn it into a good one."
This summer, Westside Preparatory will move from the Collins home to a larger building which has been rented in order to accomodate the growing student body and part of the waiting lists, which contains 850 names. There will be no summer school for Westside students, since collins is of the opinion that "summer school is just another way for teachers to make money. If you hold yourself to a plan, you should be able to make the necessary progress during the regular school year."
Collins, whose father was a cattle buyer and mother a homemaker, was born in Alabama. She moved to Chicago, after graduating from Clark College in Atlanta, to earn a master's degree in education. Her only sibling, a sister, is a teacher in Chattanooga.
"You can't worry about how long your're going to live or how you'll finally go," Collins says philosophically wnen asked how long she and Westside will keep at it, "The only thing you can hope for is to train a few good kids to carry on. I get a shot at that every day of my life."