Mondays with Mr. Collins

A dedicated stranger and the game of chess help a troubled child turn his life around


Six-year-old Ashton Jordan watched the daddies, one after another, file into his classroom at Chesnut Charter Elementary School in Dunwoody. His classmates jumped up from their desks, and off they went, hand-in-hand with their fathers, to the cafeteria for a “Donuts for Dads” event.

Dressed in his school uniform of khaki pants and red short-sleeve shirt, Ashton stood alone. His dad lived in another state.

Embarrassed, he bolted out of the classroom and into a bathroom, where he plopped down on the hard floor, pulled up his knees and cried. In the distance he could hear applause and laughter echoing inside the cafeteria as fathers and their sons and daughters joked around and nibbled on doughnut holes.

It was more than Ashton could handle. He leaped to his feet, burst through the school doors and out into the schoolyard where he ducked behind a Dumpster. A gym teacher found him there, balled up and trembling.

Everyone agreed, Ashton needed help. He struggled with emotional outbursts. Despite his high intelligence, something as minor as a homework assignment or a teacher correcting him could set him off. He would shut down, refuse to talk or make eye contact and sometimes run away. On this fall morning in 2002, the school decided Ashton needed a male mentor — immediately.

They knew it would take an extraordinary individual to help rescue this troubled child.

♦♦♦

Ashton didn’t know what to think of the older white man sitting next to him in the media center. So he just stared into the computer screen, barely acknowledging the man with the white mustache dressed in khakis and a buttoned-up dress shirt.

But every Monday there he was, quietly watching Ashton tap away at the keyboard playing a computer game.

Finally, Ashton turned to the man one day and asked a single question: “What do I call you?”

“You can call me Mr. Collins,” he said.

2

Two unlikely friends

Dee Jordan had lived in Memphis her entire life, but in 2001 she decided to move to Atlanta. Two of her friends had recently moved here, and she wanted a fresh start.

Ashton’s father rarely came around to see him, and some of Dee’s cousins were getting in trouble with the law. She worried about their influence on her little boy. Still, she hesitated to make the move until one evening she saw Bishop T.D. Jakes on a TV program saying that God doesn’t intend people to live in misery. If you are not happy, he said, you should move. She saw it as a sign and started applying for jobs in Atlanta. She quickly landed one working in IT with IBM.

When it came to finding an apartment, she had one criterion: a good school.

Chesnut Charter School ranked well, and she loved how the kids in the neighborhood walked to school together, single file, every morning. They found a Baptist church nearby, too. Dee and Ashton moved into a simple, two-bedroom apartment with a small porch within walking distance to school where Ashton started first grade.

♦♦♦

Art Collins, 67 , was just five years away from retiring as a sales rep in the textile industry when he saw an announcement in a church bulletin seeking volunteer mentors at Chesnut Charter. He and his wife, Betty, were active at Kingswood Methodist Church in Dunwoody, attending Sunday services and dinners on Wednesdays, volunteering with the homeless ministry and Sunday school. The couple had met in a Sunday school class for young adults in 1956. Two years later they  married and raised four children. Two daughters live nearby and one lives in Michigan.

Their only son, Arthur, was finishing law school in 1988 when he first noticed his lymph nodes were swollen and tender. Diagnosed with HIV, he got progressively sicker and moved back home so his parents could take care of him. At the time, few antiretroviral medications were available.

“It just went right through him,” said Mr. Collins, shaking his head, his eyes red.

There was nothing they could do but watch their only son succumb to the disease. He died of AIDS-related complications in 1996. But the Collins’ faith provided a constant source of strength and inspiration.

♦♦♦

Mr. Collins always had a soft spot for little kids. He liked to have fun when he taught them Sunday school. One day co-teacher Claire Botsch was struggling to find an engaging way to teach a lesson on the story of Jesus stilling the storm from the book of Mark.

Don’t worry. I got this, Mr. Collins said.

That morning, he arrived early and flipped over all the tables, placing them onto their sides in triangular formations. He had transformed the classroom into a sea of boats. As children arrived, he instructed them to watch their step as they got inside their vessels, and the story came alive.

So when he saw the request from Chesnut Charter, located near his Dunwoody home, he thought, sure, why not?

He knew very little about the reclusive child he was assigned to mentor. In a student questionnaire, Ashton noted in big, over-sized letters that his favorite game was sword fighting, his favorite food spaghetti, and something he did well was play computers. Filling in the blanks with a pencil, he wrote: I think I am “nice.” I want to be “good.”

3

Resistance meets persistance

And so it went, Monday after Monday, Ashton and Mr. Collins settled into their quiet but tense routine. Ashton sat in a small blue chair, fixated on the computer, while Mr. Collins sat beside him and watched.

Eventually the cool, crisp days of fall turned colder and shorter before giving way to spring’s warmth. The school year would soon end, and Mr. Collins had not yet broken through to Ashton. One day he got an idea. What kid doesn’t love McDonald’s, he thought. He arrived with a cheeseburger and suggested they eat lunch outside. Ashton followed Mr. Collins to a bench under a canopy of trees. As he took the cheeseburger from Mr. Collins’ hands, he uttered two words: Thank you.” And then he ate in silence.

So Mr. Collins came up with another idea: checkers. Ashton had never played before, and for the first time, he interacted with Mr. Collins as they played a round. But the game was too easy for Ashton and failed to generate much enthusiasm.

Ashton continued to wrestle with emotional outbursts. He scored in the 99th percentile on standardized tests, but shuddered when teachers tried to engage with him. He was shy in class and had few friends. To entertain himself, he drew pictures of dragons and collected Pokemon cards.

His father visited a time or two, but Ashton felt a void in his life. Suffering from low self-esteem, he told his mother he was a “loser” and complained about his coarse hair. She found strands of it strewn in his bedroom — on the floor, the chair, the bed. Ashton was plucking out his hair, one strand at a time.

What on earth? Dee thought.

You are so cute, she told him time and again. And he was. His angelic face revealed the cutest dimples when he smiled. But he didn’t see it that way.

Meanwhile, Mr. Collins hatched a new plan that would change everything.

 4

A breakthrough

One Monday, Mr. Collins brought with him a chess board. He set up the wooden pieces, placing the rooks in each corner, the knights beside the rooks. He explained the game and how all of the pieces moved. He explained that the goal was to take his opponent’s king.

The game was far more complex than checkers and far more satisfying for Ashton.

The child sat quietly, contemplating his next move. Sometimes, he let out deep sighs of exasperation.

Hang in there kiddo, you’ll get there, said Mr. Collins.

The game stumped Ashton. But he was also hooked — even though Mr. Collins won again and again.

He could have let Ashton win, of course. But he wanted Ashton to push through, learn from setbacks and succeed on his own.

Now Mondays couldn’t come fast enough.

Mr. Collins talked through the moves: Which pieces are worth sacrificing? Are you protecting the king? All the while, he used the game to teach Ashton lessons about choosing his move next carefully — in chess, but also life. Be patient. Stay focused. Stay positive. Don’t give up.

Over the summer, the Collinses attended a couple of Ashton’s baseball games. After one, they invited Ashton and Dee to lunch at Chili’s. It was their first time spending time together outside of school. Over burgers Mr. Collins told Ashton he looked like a “mighty fine” catcher, and that he had “a great arm.”

For the first time, Ashton opened up and talked to Mr. Collins about the game.

It is great seeing you today, Mr. Collins said after lunch. You talked more today than the whole year, he said.

Are you going to come visit me again on Mondays my next school year? asked Ashton.

You bet, said Mr. Collins.

School started back in the middle of week, but all Ashton could think about was Monday. He couldn’t wait to see Mr. Collins and get a chance of winning a chess match.

Luckily, he didn’t have to.

Mr. Collins showed up the first day of school, a chess board and a couple hamburgers in hand.

“I remember thinking, he really cares about me and he’s going to be my friend forever,” Ashton said.

 5

Tenuous bond strengthens

“Who’s that white guy coming to all your games?” a teammate asked Ashton.

Sitting with Dee on the concrete bleachers for Ashton’s football game was Mr. and Mrs. Collins, toting seat cushions and Powerade.

“Oh, that’s Mr. Collins,” replied Ashton, now 8.

At the next game, the same question repeated itself: “Who is that white guy coming to your games?”

“I told you: Mr. Collins,” responded Ashton.

The boys badgered him. They needed to know who was the man in a royal blue Polo shirt and khaki shorts? Who was this older man with a white mustache? Who is the guy who looks nothing like you?

Who is that white guy?!

Fed up, Ashton blurted out: “That’s my white granddad.”

And that did it. His teammates nodded with approval. Mystery solved.

Ashton’s mom insisted they tell Mr. Collins what happened. After all, he might not appreciate Ashton referring to him as his grandfather.

Works for me, Mr. Collins said.

And after every game, Mr. Collins said the same thing: I am mighty proud of you.

“When he said those words, I could feel it,” said Ashton. “They were words I wanted to hear again.”

Mr. Collins lauded Ashton for doing well in school. He praised him for little, everyday things such as opening a door for someone. And even when the bright spot wasn’t obvious, Mr. Collins found it.

“At games Ashton did not play well, he would find the one minor detail Ashton did right,” said Dee. “He would say, ‘I like your football stance or ‘you looked like a mean football player out there.’”

 

6

Hard work pays off

In the fourth grade, Ashton transferred to Shadow Rock Center, a DeKalb County school for children with emotional and behavioral problems.

Despite the progress he was making with Mr. Collins, he continued to shut down in class. When teachers tried to help him, he wouldn’t talk. He dropped his head, stared at his desk, clenched his fists and breathed heavily.

It meant a longer commute for Mr. Collins, but he continued to make the weekly trek to visit Ashton every Monday.

Little by little, Ashton grew more confident and began to display coping skills.

“It wasn’t that he would never get upset, but he learned how to handle his emotions and to seek support when he needed help,” said Terri Dayan, a former special education teacher at Shadow Rock Center. “He also had strong support. Sometimes parents of children with emotional problems get so overwhelmed they give up. But Ms. Jordan never gave up on Ashton. And Mr. Collins never gave up either.”

In middle school, Ashton switched to Peachtree Charter Middle School, and there he began to flourish. He found his niche in the drama club. The once-shy boy discovered he loved being on stage, making the audience laugh in the role of Uncle Max in “The Sound of Music.”

Ashton was changing. He smiled more. He tried harder. He excelled in school. He had friends. He joined JROTC his freshman year and ran for class president. He lost — but he gave it another shot the following year and won.

Mr. Collins chipped in if needed. When Dee traveled for work, Ashton stayed overnight with the Collinses. Occasionally Mr. Collins chaperoned school field trips.

Occasionally, if Mr. Collins missed a Monday because he was traveling, he sent Ashton postcards. He always penned the same thing: “I am mighty proud of you.” And they continued to play chess. By his sophomore year, Ashton started winning every time.

Asked why he’s devoted so much time and energy to Ashton, Mr. Collins shrugs off the question. But his wife sums it up succinctly: “He loves kids and he loves his family,” she said. “And over time, Ashton became family.”

7

Heading off trouble

It’s not unusual for teenagers to push boundaries, and Ashton was no different. Early in his junior year, he got caught using Google Translator for a Spanish assignment. His teacher gave him an “F” and Dee grounded him. Ashton insisted he was going to a party anyway. His mother refused. So Ashton packed a couple of duffel bags. I don’t have to live with you anymore, he said.

Ashton had been staying out late with friends, slacking on his homework and not doing his chores, letting dirty dishes and clothes pile up. Now he’d taken off and didn’t say where he was going. A few hours and many phone calls later, Dee found Ashton. She picked him up and drove directly to Mr. Collins’ house.

Ashton slumped into a wooden chair at the round kitchen table. Sitting across from him was Mr. Collins, who slapped his own leg in anger.

Ashton, you have to be a man, said Mr. Collins. You cannot do this!

He demanded Ashton be more supportive of his mom. He told him to get a job.

Ashton placed both hands on the table, his right forefinger nervously rubbing his left wrist. And he listened anxiously.

I am not very proud of you, said Mr. Collins.

The words stung.

Back in the car with his mom, Ashton’s body felt heavy, numb.

Mom, what am I going to do? Mr. Collins said he isn’t proud of me, Ashton said.

You better fix it, his mother replied.

Once they got home, Dee went inside the house, but Ashton remained in the car for several minutes. He needed time to collect himself.

The next day, Ashton went to school in his Air Force ROTC uniform. After school, he walked up and down Savoy Street filling out job applications until he got a job bussing tables at Mad Italian restaurant.

He focused on his studies, determined to get his life back on track. He managed to bring up his grades, getting straight A’s that fall semester.

“I wanted to hear him say he was proud of me again,” said Ashton.

And he did — again and again.

Early in his senior year, Ashton started applying to colleges. He was looking at private, out-of-state schools, but knew paying for them might be impossible without a generous scholarship. So he started applying. Case Western Reserve University in Ohio offered more than $150,000. But Ashton had fallen in love with Elon University, a highly ranked, private liberal arts college in central North Carolina. It seemed like a good school for someone who wants to be a Supreme Court justice one day.

So he applied for more scholarships, writing multiple essays, sharing stories about falling in love with math and learning leadership skills through JROTC. He gave credit to supportive teachers, Big Brother volunteer Alan Cosby, his loving mother and Mr. Collins.

When I was 10 years old, my mentor Mr. Collins said to me in order to reach the highest levels of law and politics, I would need to specialize in my specialty. Therefore, I understood that achieving my desired level of success would require methodically thought out steps in order to achieve my dreams. I am also fully aware things do not always go according to plan, and in that case I will adjust, regroup and reprioritize my priorities.

8

Bright future ahead

One day in late April, just weeks before he graduated from Dunwoody High School, Ashton and his mom were going someplace in the car when they stopped to check the mail. Inside Ashton discovered a large white envelope. The return address said the Gates Foundation.

It’s thick. That must mean good news, Ashton said.

Dee couldn’t look. She covered her eyes while Ashton tore open the envelope. “Welcome to the Family,” it said.

I got the Gates! I got the Gates! he yelled.

The Gates Millennium Scholarship awards promising young people of color a full ride — tuition and expenses — to the college of their choice. Out of 50,000 applicants, 1,000 were selected, and Ashton was one.

Dee insisted he read more of the letter: “We commend you on your strong leadership, community service and academic achievements, and recognize you as a Leader for America’s Future.”

Ashton tossed the letter and jumped out of the car, shouting and punching the air: I got the Gates! Thank you, Jesus!

They called Mr. Collins, now 78, right away and put him on speakerphone.

Eleven years ago, Mr. Collins decided to mentor a troubled child. For him, it was simple: A child needed somebody, and he could help by committing an hour or so every week. He didn’t know what impact he would have. Would he make a difference? Do you ever know for sure? He was confident of just one thing: He would show up on Monday, week after week, and be a steady, positive presence. And with one simple, unwavering act, he helped turn around the life of a child.

Mr. Collins, Are you sitting down? asked Dee. Ashton won the Gates Scholarship!

I am mighty proud of you, said Mr. Collins.

♦♦♦

Under blue skies on a warm May evening, Ashton, clad in a navy blue cap and gown, was beaming as he walked across the stage to claim his high school diploma. Mr. Collins, sitting next to Dee and her parents, jumped to his feet, shouting Ashton’s name.

In the fall, Ashton will attend Elon University. Mr. Collins plans to call him every week — on Mondays.

HOW WE GOT THE STORY
I first heard about Art Collins and his experience mentoring Ashton Jordan from someone who attends church with the Collinses. Ashton Jordan and his mother Dee Jordan enthusiastically agreed to share the story. Mr. Collins, however, was reluctant initially. He said he never mentored Ashton for special attention and he downplayed his role, saying Ashton’s mother should get all of the credit. He eventually agreed to share this heartwarming story with the hopes that it will encourage people to mentor a child in need. In addition to spending several hours with Ashton, his mother, and Mr. Collins, I also interviewed Ashton’s guidance counselor at Chestnut Charter Elementary School and his special education teacher at Shadow Rock Center, as well as the Collins’ daughter, Marian Cunningham.

Helena Oliviero
Staff writer
personaljourneys@ajc.com

 

About the reporter

Helena Oliviero joined The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2002 as a features writer, following a four-year stint with the Sun News in Myrtle Beach. Growing up in Vermont, Helena enjoyed going to an ice cream parlor in a renovated gas station; behind the counter were Ben and Jerry. Helena lived in Mexico City for four years and worked there as a correspondent for Knight-Ridder. Her favorite part of living in Mexico was meeting her husband, Brian. Today they live in Decatur with their two daughters. Helena is often inspired by the people she writes about; those stories have changed the way she views the world and appreciates life.

About the photographer

Bob Andres joined the AJC in 1998. Born in San Francisco, he has held photography and photo editing positions in California, Florida and Georgia. A journalism graduate of San Francisco State University, Andres has also worked as the AJC’s metro photo editor, Sports photo editor and has taught photojournalism at UGA and Cal State Hayward.

Next week: A bullied child becomes a thriving artist with fans from around the world.


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