"You must be the change you wish to see in the world." - Mahatma Gandhi
"It is the greatest of all mistakes to do nothing because you can only do little - do what you can." - Sydney Smith
I read Push by Sapphire last night. I read it in one sitting because I had to. It grabbed hold of me and didn't let go until I read the last words on the last page. I had a box of Kleenex next to me, the librarian told me I would need it when I checked the book out last week. But I didn't need the Kleenex, because I didn't cry. Not because the book wasn't painful and gut wrenching and horrifying and moving. It was all of those things, but mostly it made me feel angry, angry and guilty. Angry that though this book is fiction, there are still so many kids that no one notices, no one helps, no one loves, no one feeds, and no one protects.
I should back up quickly and give you a brief summary of the book. I don't want to write a review, there are plenty of strong, glowing reviews out there. But to explain the impact that the book had for me you need to know the basic plot/premise. Push is written in a stream of consciousness style from the mind of Claireece Precious Jones, an obese 16 year old illiterate mother/junior high school student, pregnant for the second time by her own father, living in a house with her extremely violent and abusive mother. No one sees this girl, no one seems to care for her or watch over her. She gets suspended for being pregnant and is referred to an alternative GED educational program. And this school, and the teachers within it, are her salvation. Precious' hardships and challenges are extreme and could be off-putting to some readers. The blunt writing style is a punch to the gut. And ideally no single girl would have to deal with all the dire events and circumstances that she has to face including: rape, incest, physical and mental abuse, HIV, and a tragic lack of education. The sexual and physical violence in the book is horrific. There is no other way to describe it, bleak and horrific. But as disturbing as the events in the book and the characters of Precious' parents are, they seemed real to me.
The whole book seemed real to me. It didn't seem like an exaggeration or a myth or a stereotype of poor African American teen mothers, rather the story of one particular abandoned girl. Maybe my brief months of experience as a foster care social worker in Philadelphia gave me a glimpse into some similar lives. Site visits to homeless shelters with the mom who had seven kids, no job, no hope of a job and sixth grade education. Visits to an apartment where the floor had a hole big enough to see down into the hair salon below. Grandmother raising her four grandchildren on a monthly social security check. Mothers who were recovering addicts and prostitutes, just trying to keep that job as a CNA so they could feed their families. Parents and grandparents struggling to break the cycle of abuse and addiction they were raised within. But most of them were trying their best, working long hours, making sure their kids got to school, protecting their kids from addicted spouses, and trying. Just trying to make up for their mistakes, trying to make better choices, with very little help from the community.
For me the point of the book isn't simply the drama of Precious' life, it wasn't that all these horrible things happened to Precious, instead it was that despite all of the degrading, damaging acts perpetrated upon her, she is able to rise above, find support, and slowly dig herself out of a life she didn't ask for or deserve. Through education and the support of friends and teachers, Precious creates a better life. And that's why the book had such an impact for me. Precious is powerful, she is strong, she is brave. But she is also severely damaged, poor, struggling, and she may always be. But she is learning and trying. She's trying everyday to improve her life for herself and her son. And I felt guilty. If girls with the deck stacked so firmly against them like Precious exist, and clearly need more help, and I have the education, mental health and time to offer, then why am I not doing more?
My understanding and knowledge of what it must be like to struggle and fight constantly just to create a safe, peaceful and healthy life is limited. I am a white girl raised in the middle class suburbs of the Midwest. And here's where the guilt comes into play. Why was I so lucky to be born into the family and life I was born into? Why did I get new clothes, and healthy meals, and love and support from so many people when there are so many children who don't? But really that's a silly and selfish question. If this book bothered me so much, in part because it took 16 years for Precious to get the help she desperately needed, then what am I doing personally to change that?
I firmly believe that if you don't like something that's going on in your community then you need to figure out ways to change it. I couldn't continue to work as a social worker/case manager. I couldn't handle the depression and sadness I felt everyday while working in that job. I was too weak for it. The joy and satisfaction I found in working with children couldn't outweigh the overwhelming limitations and frustrations that exist within the child welfare system of our country. And so I quit that line of work to protect myself. I quit social work all together. And I think the idealistic young part of me died a bit when I made that decision. I felt like I had no impact, couldn't make the big changes that were needed, and couldn't keep myself together in the middle of it all. But now, ten years later, I've realized that my ability to make an impact doesn't have to be enormous. I just have to take action. Take some small action to get out and help others in my community.
So instead of just working in my career as a non-profit client administrator, thinking about Push and telling my friends to read it, I emailed the Literacy Kansas City program today and signed up to attend their Volunteer Orientation session in January. Reading and writing are enormously valuable and treasured parts of my life. I want to help someone else discover the power and beauty of reading. Maybe I can help in my small way, in my small corner of the world. And for me, that's the power of Push.