Mr. Collins, The Wonder Years, season 3 (1989-1990)


Mr. Collins was a math teacher on the TV show, The Wonder Years.  He appeared in a 3 story arc in the third season.  At this point in time the show’s protagonist, Kevin Arnold, is feeling pretty good about himself in junior high school.  He knows how to negotiate those hallways and where he stands on the social totem pole.  He is a good enough student who thinks he has things figured out.  Meeting Mr. Collins altered that.

Mr. Collins first appears in the second episode of the season, called “Math Class”.  He sets the tone on the first day of school.  There are no ‘getting to know you activities’ that are found in Kevin’s other classes.  Here is a man who is serious about math and imparting knowledge onto his students. He is s very traditional teacher who teaches the material and frequently quizzes his students on it, forcing them to work hard.  Kevin finds this very difficult, especially when he begins bringing D’s home.  At first he tries to question Mr. Collins, doesn’t he know who Kevin is?  Kevin is used to just getting by and doing well with just getting by.  As the episode progresses Kevin gets more and more frustrated until he comes to a point of giving up, failing one of Mr. Collins’ tests, unable to answer a single question.  What happens next is key in understanding the character of Mr. Collins.  As Kevin hands in his test in he speaks in frustration, stating, “you don’t have to mark it, it’s an F, I didn’t answer any of it.” He then admits he doesn’t understand any of it, Mr. Collins smiles and says, “Good, now maybe you are ready to learn.” And crumples the test up.

We meet Mr. Collins again, later in the season in an episode called, “Math Class Squared” (episode 9).  The episode begins with the statement that every boy needs a hero, showing the contrast between a baseball star and Mr. Collins.  Mr. Collins has become Kevin’s hero.  He admires him and he is working hard in his class, pulling what he calls, “a respectable C”.  As the episode progresses Kevin finds that not everyone holds Mr. Collins in high esteem.  A few other boys make fun of him, calling him a “middle aged man, teaching algebra in a bad suit”.  These boys have found a teacher’s edition of the text and have a plan to cheat through the class as Mr. Collins takes his quizzes and exams from this book.  Kevin is at first convinced that Mr. Collins will see through this plan and refuses to join in.  That is until he observes the boys blatantly cheating and Mr. Collins missing the whole thing.  The other boys receiving A’s on their quizzes brings Kevin’s respectable C down to a D as Mr. Collins grades on the Bell Curve.  Kevin tries to get Mr. Collins to see what is going on without actually telling him what he knows.  The only advice Mr. Collins gives is that “every problem has a solution” and leaves it at that.  Kevin begins to question the man he thought Mr. Collins was and joins up with the boys who are cheating.  As a result his grades go up and up until his 72 average turns into a 96.  Mr. Collins response is to place Kevin into the advanced math class, to which Kevin agrees in a panic.  It becomes apparent that Kevin is in way over his head, especially as Mr. Collins continues to call on him and not let him off the hook in the new class.  As Kevin struggles in advanced math he overhears the boys that he was cheating with complaining that they all failed their most recent math exam, Mr. Collins did not take that one out of the book.  Kevin decides to speak with Mr. Collins and before he gets the words out of his mouth, Mr. Collins asks, “Had enough?”  That’s when you know that Mr. Collins knew what was going on all along, “every problem has a solution”.

The third episode featuring Mr. Collins is titled, “Goodbye” (episode 20).  We find that Kevin is continuing on, working at maintaining his C’s in math.  He thinks everything is fine until he sees that Mr. Collins has commented on his friend Paul’s test, “Good job Paul”.  At this point Kevin starts to seek more approval from Mr. Collins.  He wants to hear, “Good job Kevin”.  Kevin approaches Mr. Collins to ask how he thought he was doing.  Mr. Collins looks at his grade book and states that Kevin is earning a C.  On his next test, Kevin works a little harder and earns a B and holds it up for Mr. Collins to admire.  Mr. Collins says nothing.   Mr. Collins decides that Kevin is looking for tutoring to help bring up his grade for the next exam and tells him to come in after school, they can begin to work together.  And so Kevin does.  He works diligently on his math, beginning to understand it better, answering questions correctly in class.  Then one day, a few days before the exam, Mr. Collins is not there.  Kevin finds him in the parking lot and asks what’s up?  Mr. Collins looks very rushed and says he has an appointment and can’t make it.  He says he’s sorry but Kevin will have to work on the rest of the material on his own.  Kevin becomes angry and says, “Hey, I thought you were my friend” to which Mr. Collins replies, “Not your friend, your teacher”.  Kevin decides to give up and on the day of the exam fills in all sorts of sarcastic remarks and drawings.  As he hands it in, he has this look that says, ‘what do you think of that?’  As he walks out Mr. Collins says his name, ‘Kevin’.  This is the first time he’s called Kevin by his first name, up to this point it has always been, ‘Mr. Arnold’.  Kevin keeps walking.  Later at home, Kevin starts to feel guilty, opens his books and starts working on his math in earnest.  On Monday morning Kevin approaches the Faculty Lounge to seek out Mr. Collins for a second chance.  Vice Principal Diperna tells Kevin that Mr. Collins is not there.  When Kevin shares that he would like to leave him a message, Diperna lets Kevin know that Mr. Collins had passed away that morning, they had just found out and were going to tell the students later in the day. In the scenes that follow Kevin is mourning the death of Mr. Collins and feels unsettled about the last time he saw him.  A week or so later Diperna asks to see Kevin.  Apparently Mr. Collins had marked those exams the weekend before he died, but Kevin’s was missing.  There is a blank exam left with Kevin’s name on it.  Kevin sits down and writes his exam.  As he hands it in, he says to Mr. Diperna, “You don’t have to mark it, it’s an A” .  As he walks away he says, “Good job Mr. Collins.”

Mr. Collins is a teacher who has left a significant impact on the life of his student, Kevin Arnold.  At first he appears to be this very traditional teacher, focused solely on imparting math knowledge to his students.  As you get to know him you begin to see the person that he is.  He is a person who genuinely takes an interest in his students, challenging them to not just get by.  He has these little moments where he just smiles that lets you (the audience) and his student (in this case Kevin) know that there is more to Mr. Collins than just a robotic math teacher.  He is the kind of teacher who inspires greatness in his students.

There are a number of contrasts within the show that demonstrate the impact that Mr. Collins has had in the life of Kevin Arnold.  The first, clearest contrast is between Mr. Collins and Kevin’s dad, Jack.  There is a point where Kevin brings home another ‘C’ and looks a bit down about it.  Jack (a blue collar worker) looks at Kevin and says, “There’s nothing to be ashamed of there”.  Mr. Collins redirected Kevin’s questions about a C with what he thought.  Kevin had responded, “A ‘C’ is better than a ‘D’, but not as good as an ‘A'”.  Mr. Collins then stated, I think you can be that student that gets that ‘A’.  A thought that has never crossed Kevin’s mind before.

One of the most telling scenes about who Mr. Collins is to Kevin happens in the episode, “Goodbye”.  Kevin had questioned Mr. Collins asking, “I thought you were my friend!” to which Mr. Collins had responded, “Not your friend, your teacher”.  The teacher/student relationship is a unique one that many find difficult to define.  Kevin is not the first student to confuse the kindness and attention of a teacher with that of a friend.  Great teachers are not friends to their students.  They are in a different role.  Mr. Collins takes on this role to teach, to model, to encourage, to guide and to challenge.  Kevin hasn’t experienced a teacher who has taken such an interest in him before and isn’t sure how to receive that attention.  Mr. Collins’ response to him is perfect.  He is in control of their relationship, giving his approval in a very appropriate way that Kevin has yet to understand.

It is very telling that Mr. Collins understands his student in the different ways that he responds to Kevin’s attitudes in his class.  Not many teachers would take a test that was incomplete and crumple it up.  Mr. Collins understood that Kevin was at the point where he was challenged enough to want to learn.  This is one of the places where Mr. Collins gives Kevin one of his secret smiles, turning him from a regular teacher to an inspirational teacher.  We know that Kevin has taken this challenge seriously as he compares Mr. Collins to a hero in the next episode and is clearly working hard to understand the material.  Mr. Collins also knew that Kevin would learn best about the effects of cheating when he placed Kevin in advanced math.  It becomes very apparent that Mr. Collins knew about the cheating all along, but had to deal with it in his own way, the way that would impact the students the most.  If he had let Kevin fail by letting him write the same exam as the others, he would have lost Kevin’s trust.  Putting him in the advanced math gave Kevin the challenge he needed to come clean.  This had a greater impact on his student.

There are two full circles that jump out in these episodes.  The first circle begins in the first episode when Kevin hands in a blank test to Mr. Collins and says, “You don’t have to mark it, it’s an ‘F'”.  In the final episode Kevin hands in his test to Mr. Diperna and states, “You don’t have to mark it, it’s an ‘A'”.  Mr. Collins has brought Kevin around from a frustrated student, not used to putting in much effort to a dedicated, challenged student who has worked hard for that ‘A’.

The second full circle happens within the episode, ‘Goodbye’.  When Kevin sees that Mr. Collins has written an approval comment on Paul’s paper, Kevin seeks to be singled out and have a direct approval from his favorite teacher.  While Kevin never does get that verbal or written, “Good job Kevin”.  He begins to understand that he had Mr. Collins approval all along.  Kevin’s last remark to the memory of Mr. Collins was, “Good job Mr. Collins”.  He finally gets it.  He understands who this teacher is and what he did for him.  That is the approval.  He doesn’t need more.

As I re-watched these episodes thought of these adjectives that would best describe Mr. Collins character: hard-working, dedicated, caring, and creative.  He has inspired his student to expand his realm of what he thought he was capable of.  Kevin can now go forward, understanding that there are more possibilities in life than just getting by and doing okay.  He can work hard to achieve greatness.


2 thoughts on “Mr. Collins, The Wonder Years, season 3 (1989-1990)

  1. I don’t know this story. I would be really interested in hearing about what you think of Mr. Collins’ approaches to teaching.



  2. For what ever reason I thought of these three episodes over the Thanksgiving weekend and watched them in one sitting. Then I watched them again.
    “Goodbye” may be the best 30 minutes of television ever.


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