Around Delaware, turkey dinners and turkey bowls will soon give way to impromptu class reunions.
On one such recent occasion, my grade school classmates gathered to reminisce shortly after one of our favorite teachers, Jack Collins, passed away. Looking at the pictures on Facebook the next day, I thought about the significant and lasting influence one teacher had on all of us, and so many more.
Earlier that week, I had been driving by our old parochial school when I happened to switch on the Springsteen channel on satellite radio. The lyrics seemed to be written for Mr. Collins…
“Who was that man? She said — ‘Just a local hero. Local hero,’ — she said with a smile. ‘Yeah, a local hero. He used to live here for a while.’”
Picture a day in the life of Jack Collins, circa 1980. He was up before dawn to drive Yellow Bus #1. After the first group of kids was delivered, the same bus had a new name, Yellow Bus #2. Jack’s second entourage would arrive at school just minutes before the bell rang.
Right from the bus and into the classroom. Jack spent mornings teaching social studies and reading. At St. Mary Magdalen, he shared his students with Mrs. DiMuzio, Mrs. Kingston, Mrs. Luongo, Sister David Ann and Mrs. McMenamin. He was truly a man blessed among women. He thought he kept the ladies in check, but they had the upper hand. Oh and I can’t forget the stout, slow-moving, and spectacled Sister Michael, a 110-year-old nun of sharp tongue and quick wit. Mr. Collins always showed her complete respect with a dash of humor and made damn sure that we followed his example.
Students and athletes looked up to him. We only had last names. If you had a problem with Mr. Collins, it wasn’t personal. You probably didn’t study hard enough. Maybe you didn’t give it your all at practice. He held you accountable.
He ate lunch in our classroom. Twenty minutes later, it was time for recess and intramural football. As the league commissioner and referee, he ran an 8-classroom league complete with standings. When the bell rang, regardless of the score, he clasped his hands up high and bellowed, “Ballgame!” Head and shoulders above us, he led us back to class with a twinkle in his eye and a grin of satisfaction. No sympathy for the losing team.
Afternoons were for “Current Events Trivia.” Girls against the boys. If you knew the president of Peru or the secretary of state, you might be the champs. If not, you were a chump.
Exams were hand-written in purple ink. Jack didn’t care about aesthetics, just material. Fill-in-the-blanks, multiple choice and matching with extra points for knowing the score of the girls’ basketball game the day before. You should have been at the game to support the team.
One night Jack arrived home late from a game and found a bowl full of meatballs in the fridge. When he complimented his wife on her great cooking, she said, “Jack, that was the dog’s food!” The next day he had a special snack in his brown lunch bag. As he sat at his big metal desk, he shook his head with a chuckle, held up the dog biscuit and told us about his dinner. He taught us not to take ourselves too seriously.
Monica, one of my classmates who played basketball for Mr. Collins, summed it up well:
“Honestly, outside of my dad, he was the biggest male influence on my young life, and certainly remains a huge influence as an adult.”
He was a leader. He treated us like adults. He told us stories about his grade school. He was simultaneously in charge of us and one of us.
With Jack Collins, it all boiled down to what was important for his students: Teaching them to prepare. Teaching them to compete. Teaching them how to participate with respect and compassion in the game of life.
Jack’s job was to sculpt a group of rag-tag middle-schoolers into respectable, hard-working young men and women. He did it well year after year after year.
We have all had a Mr. Collins in our lives. So when you are out there with old friends over Thanksgiving weekend, don’t forget to raise a glass for that teacher that made your world a special place and helped you become the person you are today.