Right after college, I had one huge life-altering experience. I’m not sure I set out to have it, but it found me nonetheless.
Instead of going straight to graduate school or working in part of town where the I would be on a lifetime career path, I choose to use my education degree in a title 1 school smack dab in the middle of the city of Birmingham, Alabama. They were handing out teaching assignments there like cheap trading cards, so my 22-year-old self was an easy in.
An experience on how segregation, poverty, and hopelessness still reign in the inner city could barely describe the semester I spent teaching 5th grade.
Every one of my 30+ students was on free lunch.
Few students had parents or grandparents who ever read the notes I sent home or checked their children’s homework.
Most read below grade level yet continued to pass through the system without any concern from the school administration for how wrong it was.
And, the beat of poverty went on . . .
But, with all of this in my background, I didn’t expect to be shocked when I viewed the film, Precious: Based on the Novel by Sapphire this weekend.
But, I was.
Here’s the basic plot if you haven’t seen it:
In 1987, obese, illiterate 16-year-old Claireece “Precious” Jones lives in the New York City neighborhood of Harlem with her dysfunctional family; she has been impregnated twice by her father, Carl, and suffers constant physical and mental abuse from her unemployed mother, Mary. The family resides in a Section 8 tenement and subsists on welfare. After a visit from her high school principal, Mrs. Lichtenstein, Precious is invited to an alternative school where she hopes that her life can change direction.
Thus, the content of this film is not for the faint at heart. The story is intense, often painful to keep your eyes open, and provided such a heavy message of how despair and poverty go hand in hand.
Yet, the shock came for me after the film was over. Kevin and I were talking about what we thought about it on the car ride home. We had been warned by a friend to watch with caution.
And, still we had glazed looking eyes.
Kevin said: “It was too much to take in. I’m not sure what I thought about it.”
For me, I was bothered more and more as there was no huge moment of redemption as seen in Precious’ life. Yes, there were individuals who cared and how made major contributions, but what she needed, she never got: someone to take her in and not let her go. To break the cycle of poverty and poor education, she needed a larger than life figure in her life to make an extraordinary contribution. Why? Because Precious’ experience in life had been completely to the other extreme that nothing less than an extraordinary hand-up would do.
I was moved to think about how few extraordinary people are in the world. And how much our society, with all of its problems, needs ordinary people to rise up! We need ordinary people to fulfill a great purpose by embodying LOVE for those who define what the word need means.
I was also shocked by the honesty related by Precious’ mother to her at the end of the film. Thinking that if her mom had been given the tools earlier on in life to talk about her feelings and work toward wholeness, then possibly some of the horrible things would not have happened to Precious.
Because when you are in cycles of poverty and abuse, there simply just isn’t time to think of much else. As much as I value the reflective spaces of my life, I was shocked in remembering that such is not a privilege all have. It is a gift I have been given as part of the world that “has.”
I still think about those 30+ former 5th graders in Birmingham. I wonder how they are doing in high school now. I wonder which ones have dropped out. I wonder about which of the girls are pregnant. I wonder if any of them will go to college. I wonder if my semester with them made any difference at all.
Though the story of Precious hit close to home, I realized yet again, it did not hit close enough.
My time in the inner city of Birmingham feels like a long faint memory now. And as much as I try to hold it close, films like Precious remind me there is much extraordinary work to be done. There is more remembering to do in my new hometown. And so many blessings that you and I need to rise up and begin to share.
Check out Precious. And, when/ if you do, be prepared. It might just stir you a little harder than you are ready for. . .