Teacher of the 'unteachable' - Cicely Tyson's stirring new role

Inner-city schools have never been quite the same since ''60 Minutes'' aired a segment about a Chicago schoolteacher named Marva Collins in 1969. You may remember Mrs. Collins - a determined woman who abandoned the traditional school system and started her own school for supposedly unteachable ghetto children. Her almost unbelievable success has caused a great stir among parent and teacher groups.

Now CBS, following the lead of its own ''60 Minutes,'' has dramatized Mrs. Collins's story in an inspiring and touching program starring Cicely Tyson. Written and produced by Clifford Campion, directed by Peter Levin, who shot it all on location in Chicago, ''The Marva Collins Story'' (CBS, Tuesday, Dec. 1, 9 -10 p.m.) straightforwardly traces the path of this uniquely dedicated teacher in the Chicago public school system who became convinced that the failure of public schools was due to a horrendous combination of bureaucratic red tape and apathetic teachers.

With little funding other than her own pension savings (she refused federal aid because of all the red tape involved), Mrs. Collins and her family converted the top floor of their ghetto home into a one-room schoolhouse, allowing parents to pay only what they could afford. Dispensing ''good old-fashioned teaching, love, and discipline,'' she succeeded in helping her students attain extraordinarily high reading test scores. (All tested at least five grades higher than their own grade.)

But more important, Mrs. Collins instilled in her ''unteachables'' the idea that they were loved, that they were worthy of love. And she taught them to appreciate knowledge and literacy.

Some may question her obvious materialistic priorities. ''Are you a genius?'' she asks one child. ''Is your daddy a millionaire? No? Well, then, open that book and study.''

But few can question her record of success. According to Ed Asner, the narrator, Mrs. Collins recently refused an offer by President Reagan to make her secretary of education so she could continue her work with her own ghetto children.

This special stars Cicely Tyson, noted for her portrayal of Rebecca in the movie ''Sounder'' and as Jane Pittman and Harriet Tubman on TV. Once again Miss Tyson has delved deeply into the character of a strong black woman in her portrayal. She has avoided the stereotypes and come up with an unforgettable portrait of an unforgettable woman.

''The Marva Collins Story'' may seem just a bit simplistic to some disillusioned educators and scoffing pessimists about the role of today's poor in America's future. But to everybody else it has to be a moving lesson in the power of love when it is counted present in a place where too often it is absent: the classroom. Lunch with Cicely

How does it feel to be a kind of black superwoman, playing only heroic characters?

Miss Tyson, her hair glistening with the ''wet look,'' attracting admiring stares from other diners, smiles and shrugs her shoulders. ''I made a very careful decision to play only admirable role models a long time ago because of the kind of roles which were being suggested to me. I felt I could not be a part of the black exploitation films of the past decade. There was total lack of any positive image of blacks at that time. After I did 'The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter ,' it was six years before I did another film.

''I had decided I would only accept roles that spoke positively and meaningfully of black women or the black race.

''But I want to stress that although I believe it is necessary to portray black women in a positive light, I would rather have been just an actress, playing all roles that I found stimulating. Now I feel I have made my point and would like to act in any good role.''

Miss Tyson spent a week with Mrs. Collins when she was asked to portray her in the TV film. ''I lived in her home 24 hours a day for a week. I had the opportunity to observe and study her. She was very generous with her time and cooperated in every possible way.

''Marva Collins is a phenomenon. Anybody who bucks the system and takes matters into her own hands, to the possible detriment of her own home, family, and career, and who makes it work, turning all the doubting Thomases around, is definitely a phenomenon.

''But I don't do an imitation of her - I am not an impersonator. I wanted to get to the core of the woman, her essence. I hope I succeeded.''

What did Miss Tyson find most fascinating about the Marva Collins story?

''Her dedication. She has an unbounded love for the children she teaches. They seem to give her an added source of energy. And they respond. The kids know she genuinely loves them. Even when she reprimands them, she says, 'I love you, but . . . .'

''Love is the real key, what we all need and want most. And when you deal with children in a ghetto area, most of whom come from broken homes, many of whom don't even have one parent, love is often lacking.''

Is it possible that Mrs. Collins's philosophy can be exported to other cities?

''I don't want to be presumptuous, speaking for teachers, but teaching is a thankless job in our public schools. Teachers are, more often than not, forced to monitor children rather than teach them. The problem of rearing children no longer seems to be the responsibility of parents but of the folks who teach them.

''But teachers are not blameless, either. I remember the first time there was a teacher strike in New York. I was appalled. I never heard of such a thing. I asked what was happening to the children. I wandered the streets of Harlem and there they were, all over the streets, nobody caring.''

Miss Tyson reports that the ''60 Minutes'' story did a lot for Marva Collins's effort at Westside Preparatory School. ''She received a tremendous amount of mail from teachers all over the country. And now, every summmer, she trains teachers interested in her methodology. Last year she not only did that but took her system into the Cabrini housing development, where supposedly the most incorrigible youngsters were to be found. Just during the vacation months, she turned those children around.

''She took three or four of them back to her school because they showed such promise. All they needed was to know that somebody cared about them. The children who are said to be troublemakers have a tremendous amount of nervous energy, which, if not channeled into constructive activity, spills out all over.''

Miss Tyson recalls that when she attended public school in Manhattan she had lots of nervous energy. ''I drove my mother up the wall. She thought I was just nosy - but it was insatiable curiosity. Luckily I was able to channel it.''

Is Mrs. Collins also involved in the training of teachers?

''Well, first of all, she has a completely unique way of teaching the alphabet. You see some of that in the film. She trains teachers who seem to have the right attitude, and she also trains people to teach other teachers.

''With the money paid to her for the rights to this story, she has bought a new building in Chicago, so there is more room now. When I was in Chicago there was only one roomful of students - but now they are overcrowded, with around 1, 000 students. Parents pay only what they can afford to pay. She has been known to buy clothing for the poorer children. And every weekend she takes a different child into her home. It is really an unusual system. I believe it will spread as more and more people hear about it.''

What next for Cicely Tyson? Another superwoman role?

''Something very exciting,'' she says, her eyes flashing with anticipation. ''Several months ago I performed an evening of black poetry at the White House when Jimmy Carter was President. He was entertaining the President of Nigeria, who is also a poet. I incorporated some of his work into the reading, and he couldn't believe it. Then I was invited to do the evening of black poetry in Nigeria. So around Jan. 1 I will go to Nigeria, Senegal, Ivory Coast, and The Gambia to read the black poetry.''

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