Break on Through

I recently read two books that don’t seem to be connected, but they are.


The first: Push.  The movie “Precious” was based on this novel by Sapphire.  I haven’t seen the movie; I like to read the book first.  And now that I’ve read the book, I don’t want to see the movie.  I’m sorry I read it.  I’m sorry I read it because I don’t enjoy stories in which children get hurt.  I guess in this case, arguably, it’s important for people to know that such things happen.  I guess readers and or moviegoers need to be reminded not to be too quick to think ill of another human being because she’s overweight, or illiterate, or pregnant while teenaged, or unable to speak standard English, because you have no idea in which circle of hell that person has been writhing in torment.  But I already knew that.


More interesting to me is the pedagogical problem presented by the overweight, illiterate, pregnant, non-standard-English-speaking teen.  Precious has learned nothing in school for her whole life, because she’s been busy writhing in torment.  And when you’re in high school, learning depends on being able to read.  Precious can’t read or even distinguish one letter from another—a fact she hides behind the sort of behavior that might make one think ill of her.


I’ll cut to the important part.  The cure for Precious’ illiteracy is this: someone teaches her to read.


I know.  Duh, right?  But it is not as obvious as it seems, when you are talking about one kid among many in the Educational Industrial Complex.  Consider: if a widget comes off the assembly line defective, the cure would be to take it apart and reassemble the parts correctly.  But the factory doesn’t work that way.  Most of the widgets come out good.  The conveyer belt keeps moving.  More widgets are coming down the line and the workers have to keep assembling them.  There is no system in place for fixing a defective widget.  In fact, the system itself is an insurmountable barrier to widget fixing.  Defective widgets, if they are acknowledged at all, are tossed in the trash.


High schools don’t teach kids to read.  They may offer tutoring or homework help sessions, and that’s probably sufficient for the kids who need a little help.  But the expectation that the student will be able to do the work at all, even with help, includes the presumption that the student can read.  There is no system in place for fixing an illiterate teenager.  The system itself is an insurmountable barrier to teenager fixing.


In the book, Precious winds up at an “alternative” school of last resort.  She is sent there not because she can’t read (the system does not acknowledge such defects) but because she’s pregnant.  There, outside the watchful eyes of the school reformers, a teacher who knows damn well that Precious can’t read or even distinguish one letter from another begins by teaching her the alphabet.  


Are you still with me, friends?  This is the critical point that almost no one seems to get.  If you want to teach somebody something, you have to begin wherever they are.  Not where you think they should be.  Not where their peers are.  Not where their brother was at the same age.  This is true of everyone, young or old, gifted or typical or cognitively impaired.  This is why large-group instruction is so often disastrous.  This is why my husband can’t teach me how to use the ever-increasing collection of household gadgets—he can’t see or just can’t accept my starting point.  Before you can teach someone from where they are, you have to figure out where, exactly, that is.  Ninety percent of what matters is what you do before you begin.


The high school teachers couldn’t teach Precious anything.  Her starting point was too far away for them to reach.  There’s no go-back-and-fix-it mechanism on an individual level. 


Now I’ve used up my blogging time and never got to the second book I wanted to tell you about. 





11 thoughts on “Break on Through

  1. On the assembly line, if the widget is non-functional it is often thrown away.  That’s what happened to Precious – she was thrown away.  What I loved about it all – the movie and the book, was that somehow she pulled herself out of the trash heap and never gave up.  You make an excellent point about teaching – begin where the student is.  Yes.

  2. See how great you are when you get off Facebook and blog?!  I personally enjoyed Push tremendously and I’m glad I read it.  For me that book read like a criminal record and I’ve read a lot of those.  What I loved about it is that someone taught Precious to read.  I also loved that a lot of people who are blind to kids like Precious had a chance to see into her life, just a tiny bit.  I loved that Precious was loving and brave even though she was surrounded by viciousness and ignorance.  It makes me hope for humanity, even if it was just fiction.  That book made me hope that there might be kids out there like Precious instead of kids who end up being my clients.  And re: your widget analogy and the Educational Industrial Complex, etcetera…SPEAK IT, SISTER!  I can’t comment on that part because it makes my hands tingle and my fingertips itch to go into an entire ranty blog right here.

  3. Maybe this is why most of us learn so much in elementary school, but so little in high school.  The elementary teachers are willing to start at the very beginning.  The high school teachers make assumptions about how far along their students are.  When they’re wrong, the kids fall through the cracks. 

  4. when I was on the site council at my son’s junior high I learned that we had a program in which ONE teacher was dedicated to TEN or so students who were English learners, most testing at a 2nd grade reading level although they are in 7th-8th grade.  The teacher met with them one period per day *plus* 3 additional periods per week, pulling them out of other classes because they can’t read and participate in those classes anyway.  She talked with their parents on the phone on a weekly basis.  This was seen as a last-chance effort to save these kids before pushing them through to high school.  It will come as no surprise that this program was cut from the budget for next year – no one could justify dedicating one teacher to “only” 10 students.   Really?  Because in many ways that was the most useful and probably effective line of the budget going on at the school…  Sad.  Anyway, you should have seen the movie instead!  I watched it last night and yes, it was stressful.  I almost backed out.  But it was well done – you don’t get assaulted (so to speak) by the images, as there are cut-aways to Precious’s fantasy life, her way of coping with the abuse.  In the DVD extras the director said that if the movie had been true to the book, it would have had to be X-rated, not R-rated.  So I don’t think I’ll be reading the book.  My heart can’t take it. 

  5. Welcome back, TR’s blogging mojo.I was thinking of reading that book, but maybe I will wait until I am emotionally stronger.  Anyway, I have yet to make a dent in my list of Books I Must Read in 2010 Or Be Forever Damned.  So maybe 2024.

  6. I’ve not read the book, but I’ve seen some of the people. High schools have push-graduated kids for years, leaving them functionally illiterate [although I’ve not seen one as far gone as Precious, personally, I know they exist.]I’ve seen kids in the shift-and-shuffle. I’ve seen adults who grew up under the shadow of child abuse, whose outbursts at school are stifled more by punishment and/or threats to tell the parents or guardians than actively investigating the core cause of the upsets.Quite frankly, it angers me fiercely.Welcome back to blogging. You’ve been missed 🙂

  7. Really, really, really late to the party, but for good reason–I kept seeing the book you read as I perused my subscriptions, and it just made me think about both the book and movie.  I’ve cried very few times after finishing a book, but I cried after reading that one.  Oh, my damn!  It was more than depressing–it was the kind of book that made you want to get out your champagne and barbituates and go to town. The part where her mother makes her overeat; the incest (by the mother); damn–I will NEVER forget this book.  Because of that, I will probably NEVER see the movie, just because of the damn previews–I mean, here’s Mo’Nique, foul-mouthed funnywoman (IMHO), turning in a performance that was, wow!  Mariah Carey–whom I didn’t recognize until seeing the preview several times, and the title character–all that, from a short preview made me want to never see what they did with that book.  It’d be like an unfunny version of what happened to The Witches of Eastwick. (Both the movie and TV versions…poor Updike, he’s rolling over in his grave, still sucking on those coffin nails!)

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