A word of advice to students who might find themselves in any of Shirley Collins' English classes at Skyline High School:
Don't ever say "I don't know." She doesn't allow that. If you want to think about the question awhile, she'll be happy to give you the time. If you can come up with one word, she says, "We'll go from there.""I want the parameters pushed. I want students to reinvestigate every ethical and moral value they've ever had," said Collins. "I've never been afraid of the dark places."
The study of classical literature provides the opportunity to investigate the human condition and to apply its lessons in individual ways, she said.
Collins had a start-again, stop-again career in education. She attended college on a scholarship that required she teach for a year, but when her commitment was complete, she headed for New York and an anticipated career as a journalist.
"At that time, Salt Lake girls didn't leave home, especially for New York City," she recalled. But leave she did, with a girlfriend, a small suitcase, a very small amount of money and very large aspirations.
In New York, her first objective was to find the Algonquin Hotel, a gathering place of America's early 20th century writers, including F. Scott Fitzgerald and his "round table" of literary cronies.
"We went to the front desk and asked for a room. The man told us they didn't have any, but when we persisted, he found one, for $10 a night."
Ultimately she married and moved to California, but after a divorce, she decided to return to Salt Lake City and to teaching.
Collins' penchant for the offbeat carries over into her teaching. She has classes at both ends of the spectrum students who are gifted and talented and those who need a boost to get them up to par.
It's a great day when a student reports, "I've read the first six books I've ever read in my life," she said.
Challenging the extra-bright student at the other end is a different ball game. Collins encourages them to look beyond the classroom and to pursue whatever interests them in creative and rewarding ways. She looks for and monitors mentorships for them in the community.
"What truly separates Collins from other good teachers is the interest she has in her students outside of the classroom," wrote Gareth Orsmond when he nominated Collins for the "Most Influential Teacher Award" of the Deseret News/KSL Sterling Scholars competition this year.
"Many times I have discussed my music with her and been surprised at her own knowledge of music," the student wrote. "Being aware of my interest in music, she has often talked to me about writing to certain musicians in order to expand my knowledge and ideas. She does the same for other students and their primary extracurricular interests."
Collins agrees that her teaching is less prosaic than some. "I try to make learning circular rather than linear. I use literature to show how things coil in on themselves or link in certain ways with other things. I teach in paradigms and paradoxes."
She demands a significant amount of writing from her students, and that means she spends evenings and weekends buried in paperwork.
"I never do not have papers home," she said in a purposeful and telling double negative. Her criticism is tough and fair.
In recent months, she has added another topic to her real-life lessons cancer. She underwent surgery several weeks ago and is in the middle of debilitating chemotherapy and radiation treatments that sap her energy and add to the demands of her self-imposed extra-mile teaching.
Her personal situation has become an opportunity to explore and probe another of life's dimensions.
"I have been totally open with my students." One young man who is interested in medicine has been encouraged to look more closely at oncology, radiology and ultrasound as her treatment has progressed.
Like teachers since time immemorial, she can't know how successful she has been. Only the occasional glimpse tells her that she has made a difference.
Such as the young man who stopped her in a parking lot to say, "I'll bet you don't remember me. They wanted to kick me out of school and you fought with my counselor to keep me in, even though you really didn't know me. I'm an orthopedic surgeon today."
That's pay enough, Collins says.