Marva Collins

On A Mission

    In the 1930s and '40s, life wasn't easy for a little black girl growing up in Atmore, Alabama. But Marva Collins soon discovered a private escape. "I would read about England and France and I would sit down and write that I had actually visited those places," she said. Although people thought she was "crazy" to think beyond her hometown borders, it was through her imaginary journeys that Marva came to know herself. Boldly determined to rise above the limitations of racism, she set out on a mission: to become the best person she can be. "If I really focus on being my best, what someone thinks about me is really not my problem," she said. Adopting a "can do" attitude early in life, she said, "What everybody else says can't be done becomes a challenge to me. My attitude has always been that I can do anything anyone else has done. It's a matter of the choices I make."
    Marva chose to become a teacher, ultimately founding her own school (Westside Preparatory) in Chicago, Illinois, and gaining worldwide acclaim for her successful methodology. Once dubbed the "Angel of the Unteachable," Marva has received many awards in recognition of her work with children, including The Jefferson Award for Benefiting the Disadvantaged, The Humanitarian Award for Excellence, Legendary Women of the World Award, honorary doctoral degrees from universities such as Amherst, Dartmouth, Notre Dame, and Clark University, and the prestigious National Humanities Medal. She has written a number of books, manuals and motivational tracts describing her methods and has been featured on national television programs, 60 Minutes, Good Morning, America, 20/20, Fox News, and others. A made-for-television movie titled, The Marva Collins Story, starring Cicely Tyson and Morgan Freeman, first aired in 1982, and is still presented on television. Marva continues to offer seminars, consulting services and teaching materials to parents, educators and school districts throughout the world as well as speaking services to organizations and corporations.
    But today, she faces a new challenge. In July, 2008, Marva's beloved daughter, Cynthia, passed away at age 39, leaving behind an eight-year-old daughter, Nena, and essentially making Marva a mom again at age 72. "We each have life assignments," said Marva who, once again, turned to her books for strength and inspiration. This time, she chose the Bible. "I thought of Moses," she said. "I came to the conclusion that God knew what he was doing when he gave us this child. It takes away some of the fear and the questions."
    Nena attends St. Francis Catholic School, but you can bet she's getting a hefty dose of her grandmother's teaching as well. "I considered homeschooling, but I put her in school for the social interaction," said Marva, who encourages all parents to supplement their children's education. "I want her to grow up with morals and values - not just to know how to read. That's wonderful; but I think what we read molds our character," she continued. "Life is not a happy ever after episode for any of us. You're going to have your difficult times. I like to give children something they can hold on to."
    Beyond academics, Marva is giving Nena the tools to build her self-esteem, using classic literature to illustrate her lessons. When Nena was worried about what children said about her, Marva had her memorize the poem, Invictus: "I'm the captain of my fate; I'm the master of my soul. If you can't remember that, you are always going to be defined by what you hear," Marva told Nena. "When you believe what they call you, then you don't know who you are. And if you don't know who you are, you are every label anybody gives you."
    Leading by example and taking advantage of everyday events, she also instills values. "I want her [Nena] to realize we are not the sum of our things," said Marva. When Nena was embarrassed to ride in her grandmother's old Honda, Marva asked, "What kind of car did Plato or Aristotle drive?"
    "I believe Jesus rode a camel," Marva continued. "I know who I am, and I don't have to prove it by the kind of car I drive." Further reinforcing the lesson, she said, "Not a thing in this house gets up in the morning and hugs us. I would give up everything to bring back your mom."
According to Marva, getting people to live their best lives is her passion. "The houses and the things and the stuff can all be a disappointment if I can't say what I did with my life," she said. "We each are here to do different things, which takes away the envy. My question every day is, 'Why am I on this earth and what am I here to do?' It really puts things in perspective."
    As her mission continues, Marva does not concern herself with tomorrow. "I think the future builds itself by what we do today," she said. "None of us want to leave this world, but if I left today, I can truly say that I have done what the Lord put me here to do."

Up Close

Hilton Head Island resident: 13 years Family: husband, George Franklin; two sons, Eric and Patrick; grandson, Sean; daughter, Cynthia (deceased); granddaughter, Nena Describes herself as: positive and determined People would be surprised to know: that she has her weak moments. "Everyone thinks that I'm so strong. I weep and grieve privately and get through the bad times by writing in my journals, reading, meditating and being quiet. I find something that gives me peace. I usually look for it in a book." Currently reading: Bread for the Journey Person of inspiration: her grandfather. "He taught me to live a life of respect." Her attitude on aging: "Age is a privilege. I can truly say that I'm very proud of what I've done with my life, so every year really counts and matters." Read more about Marva's amazing accomplishments in the field of education at: For more information, call (800) 724-6650.