I can still remember the exciting summer of ’91 before my senior year of high school, when educator Marva Collins came to my Oklahoma hometown. While I hadn’t heard of Marva Collins before that time, I learned she was a big deal in the education field who’d been featured in Time, Life, and Newsweek magazines. Ms. Collins and her good work had also been highlighted on the television show 60 Minutes.
I’ve thought a lot about Ms. Collins this week. In reading about her history, I learned that after becoming disenchanted with public and private schools in the Chicago area where she lived, she started her own school: Westside Preparatory. At the end of that school’s first year, every student enrolled scored at least five grades higher on standardized tests. As Ms. Collins garnered national attention (including that of President Reagan, who offered her the post of Secretary of Education), she went on to supervise schools on academic probation inside and outside of Chicago. She helped improve school ratings as well as train over 100,000 teachers and administrators in her teaching methodology.
It was this work of Ms. Collins—training fellow educators—that brought her to my hometown in northern Oklahoma, where she taught a two-week class to elementary students. Through a random drawing at my dad’s work, my younger sister was chosen to participate in that class. My sister and fellow classmates, who represented a range of ethnicities and learning abilities, proceeded to study Latin derivatives, memorize poetry, and study William Shakespeare. They learned to count in eight languages. They learned the Greek alphabet. They learned songs that affirmed all they brought to the world. Yours truly here can still sing every word to the song, “I am a Promise” that Ms. Collins taught her students.
“I am a promise, I am a possibility. I am a Promise, with a capital P…”
Those kids learned so much within those two weeks that even my self-absorbed, seventeen-year-old self was slack-jawed by it all.
How did Ms. Collins’s students’ progress as they did? One reason is because she believed all children were capable of success. Ms. Collins believed, “There was a brilliant child locked inside every student.” If a child struggled, Ms. Collins put the onus on herself. She stated, “I don’t make excuses — I take responsibility. If children fail, it’s about me, not them.”
I write a lot about belonging, and one of my biggest lessons learned to date is that in securing my own sense of belonging, it helps to think of myself as a Belong-Maker. I saw Ms. Collins’ life as an example of a Belong-Maker — before I had the words to express it. Like Jesus, the original Belong-Maker, Ms. Collins gave kids the gift of being seen.
She brought all children — regardless of race, economic or social status — into the circle of potential like few before her. She had a heart for them, and her actions sprang from that heart — His heart.
Ms. Collins not only brought all kids in to a standard of excellence; she helped remove stumbling blocks that prevented some kids from internalizing this standard for themselves. Ms. Collins had grown up in the South during the time of segregation, but she made sure kids knew excellence wasn’t just attainable for a few cherry-picked folks. It was a habit that anyone could adhere to — and grow towards. Also, Ms. Collins believed that building a child up from the inside out was essential to his or her success in school — and in life.
As a Belong-Maker, holding a spot open for someone — you! — comes very naturally to me. God gave me a welcoming spirit that loves to bring others in. But what doesn’t come so naturally to me is paying attention to obstacles that might prevent someone from moving toward the circle in the first place.
I’m working on not only being a Belong-Maker but an Obstacle-Remover too.
Right now, that looks like speaking up — like pointing an arrow to the injustices our Black brothers and sisters have faced for much too long.
That looks like listening up — so others voices can be heard.
That looks like praying for the Lord to expose the biases within my own heart — so His heart can be exposed.
That looks like hard conversations with those in my circles — so all can better understand what needs to change to fully welcome others in.
More than any other person who walked the Earth, Jesus was a Belong-Maker who gave others the gift of being seen. His death and resurrection removed any obstacle between God and us. What’s more, He also paved the way for us to follow as Belong-Makers and to kick any obstacles out of the way that prevent others from being welcomed in, too.
In this classroom of life, may my eyes and heart stay open to His direction in my location.
Because we’re all a Promise, with a capital P.
Bev @ Walking Well With God says
Ever since I read your posts here and in your blog, and then read your books, I have always felt like you welcomed others with a smile as broad as Oklahoma and a sweetness in your voice that always said, “Welcome y’all.” You don’t take yourself too seriously which makes you’re adept at looking outward to see the person standing as a wall-flower on the perimeter of the room. You’ve been there and so you know how that feels. I’m joining you in wanting to be a “Belong-Maker” in the image of Jesus. His love welcomed ALL and He especially extended invitations to His banquet table to the overlooked, the persecuted, the marginalized, and all sinners no matter what they’ve done.
Great invitation to a high calling!
Kristen Strong says
Bev dear, you are a natural Belong-Maker–you make all in this community feel seen and known. Thank you for the love here–for me and for the community at large! Here’s to widening the circle to keep welcoming all and to doing what we can to remove any obstacles in the way!
This is what teachers have done for over 55 years. That’s how long we have had integrated schools unless you were whisked away to a white flight school. We taught all students and wanted the best for them. Our schools, clubs, athletics, music , drama, etc all open to everyone.
Then as a counselor, worked to get scholarships for students, wrote grants to provide opportunities for young people outside the scope of the school, had parent meetings and home visits to forge an alliance between home and school and to try to get them to see their responsibility in their child’s’ success at school. In fact, received the Superintendent’s Good Apple Award for my work with students and families.. This is not a new phenomenon.
Kristen Strong says
Yes ma’am, when I was a teacher over twenty years ago, I certainly did my best to give my best to every single student I taught. (Although I never won an award for my work–congrats on that! Fantastic!) But from what I witnessed with my eyes and learned, Ms. Collins did have a remarkable approach to teaching. Of course, that’s not to say others–like yourself–weren’t remarkable teachers as well!
I had the wonderful privilege of learning as an educator under Marva when our school district brought her to work with our schools. She lives in SC where I do and she spent two weeks with us. I had changed careers after watching the movie about her so I was so excited for this opportunity to meet her. She was one tough teacher with us, the educators and also with the students. No excuses with her.
She made all of us, the students, teachers and administrators reach deep inside and pull out our possibilities. We were all treated fairly, respectfully and equally.
I remember one student had trouble with his shoe and he kept playing with it while she taught. She walked over, took his shoes off and said to not let little things distract you from your goal for that day. What impressed me was the very next day, she brought him a new pair of shoes and socks. It made this child feel so accepted and not “less than”
From that day forward I always kept my eyes and ears open for that student who needed a little more than an education. After 20 years of teaching, I just retired. I will miss my students terribly. I learned more from those little first graders. They were teaching me while I was teaching them!
Great post! Thanks for sharing.
Kristen Strong says
Kathy, thank you so much for sharing this–I love reading about your experiences with Ms. Collins! You sum up what I gathered from her, too–the encouragement to reach deeper and go further to “pull out our possibilities” as well as our students’. I never sat in her training sessions, but what I did see of her still influenced how I taught my own students in the classroom, too, and she still influences how I see myself as a Belong-Maker and Obstacle Remover.
Endless thanks for sharing here, Kathy!
Julie A says
I’m never “seen”
Kristen Strong says
Julie, I’m so, so sorry. I’ve certainly been in places and in seasons where I’ve not been seen, either. It hurts like the dickens. I’m praying right now that God speaks to your heart in such a clear, personal way, you can’t help but feel seen and known by Him. What’s more, He cares very much about you and wants you to know belonging within your environment, too. I pray He shows you a door you could walk through to find your place and people. God is ever for you, dear one, and sees you always! (Psalm 56:9)
Thank you, Julie, for bravely sharing this today. Know we are sitting with you right now and praying that God brings you a community within whom you feel seen, and that God shows you how you might be able to reach out to another and help her feel seen, too. Sometimes in the reaching out, we can receive so much in return. In the meantime, we *see* you, Julie. Sending you so much love.
Julie A says
Thank you for the beautiful reply. I cling to my faith because I know God knows everything about me and how I am in the world. Finding this incourage.me community has been a wonderful blessing.
Julie, I know how you feel. Like the vanilla ice cream that you have to scoop through to get the chocolate AND strawberry……
BUT (and it’s a big one) – You are a daughter of the King, the Most High, no human will ever love you or sacrifice for you like He does. Praying for a circle of God’s chosen to gather round you!
Beth Williams says
Praying right now for God to send friends your way. May He guide your path to the right circle of people who will make you feel seen & loved. Know that God loves you more than you could imagine. It has taken me many years to really feel seen & known. One thing I had to do though is step out of my comfort zone & introduce myself to others. Asking God to enlighten you as to the route He has for you. Just know that you have many people praying for you & your loneliness. It is hard to want friends & to be seen.
Please assist Julie in being known & seen. Guide her step on the path to friendships. She desperately wants some companionship Make yourself known & have her to feel you around her all the time. Give her the strength & courage to step out of her comfort zone. Show her activities or groups she could join to make friends. In Jesus Name. AMEN!
Camilla Hubbard says
What an insightful post, and beautifully said – I wish I could say I have never made the mistake of not “seeing” someone, but I hope never to make that mistake again. I do so wish our educators in Australia could learn from Ms Marva Collins. In any case, thank you,
And I want to say to Julie A., my heart goes out to you, and I join with Kristen in her beautiful prayer, thet God will make His presence felt alongside you, and connect you with those who will “see” you for the beautifuly person you are. May God bless you abundantly. Love,
Beth Williams says
You are definitely a belong-maker. Having been the newbie so much you understand the importance of belonging. Our country needs to open their eyes & ears more to make others seen & known. We need to erase the stigma attached to racism & make others feel loved & cared for like Jesus. All it takes is a little time & caring to look past the outside-black, white, Asian, Latin, etc & into the heart of the person. We need to tell each other that they are a promise & a possibility. No more judgement just sharing & showing God’s love to all. After all He made each of us unique. Not one race but many. Let’s go shine God’s light & love into this world. Let’s treat each person as an individual who deserves to be seen & heard.
Beautiful post! I love your analogies of Jesus, “Belong-Maker,” and “Obstacle-Remover.” It never ceases to amaze me how the Bible is so pertinent in any season. Jesus certainly made many people seen after he cured them or saved them from their sin. The beauty of being a Christian is, that when we learn to be a better friend, neighbour, acquaintance, to Black, First Nations or even elderly people, we are sharing Jesus’ love with them. With His help, we can change attitudes, so that everyone’s life is full of promise and possibility.