The Blind Side's Blind Spot
Taking stock of what Hollywood left out of The Blind Side: That we all have the power and responsibility to help others.
Last month saw the release of The Blind Side, a movie starring Sandra Bullock that is based on real-life events involving a homeless high school student-Michael Oher-and the family that took him in. The Tuohy family helped Oher graduate from high school and get into college, where he became a star left tackle for the University of Mississippi football team before being chosen in the first round of the NFL draft in 2009. (The movie is based on Michael Lewis's book, The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game; for the short version, read Lewis's 2006 New York Times Magazine story on Michael Oher.)
It's safe to say that this is an uplifting story; the review from E! Online states that "at the end of the movie…You feel good." So how could I possibly leave the theater feeling otherwise? Well, I was concerned people might walk away thinking things like, "It's so good to know that even in this rough time, there are people who do things for others that become life changing"-as one commenter did online. Notice the word choice: "There are people." This view of good works as distant events-things that other people are doing-is dispiriting and worrisome.
Many have poked fun at President Obama's oft-repeated campaign line, "We are the ones we've been waiting for," but it actually carries a positive and true message that applies here. We can't sit around and hope that a wealthy family like the Tuohys will step up and help a child in need. The rest of us can do it, too. Of course, not everyone can take a child into their home and provide food, clothing, and a private tutor. But most adults can volunteer to tutor a struggling elementary school student after school, or mentor a middle schooler as she deals with the challenges of adolescence, or help a high school junior prepare for the SAT and the college admissions process. Regularly spending time with a student, especially over an extended period of time, can make a profound impact on her or his life.
We can't sit around and hope that a wealthy family will step up and help a child in need. The rest of us can do it, too.
From a moral perspective, this is the right thing to do. When children have positive role models and experience healthy interactions with adults, they have a better chance at a happy and successful life. But from a purely economic perspective, it is the intelligent thing to do. When children do not have positive adult interactions growing up, they are more likely to drop out of school and/or end up involved with gangs, drugs, and crime. A recent story in the Chicago Tribune cited the work of researchers Jens Ludwig (University of Chicago) and Philip Cook (Duke University), who "found that each crime-related gunshot wound costs society 'on the order of $1 million.' That includes such things as the expense of building prisons, taxes spent on policing and money for private security systems installed because of fear of crime." Meanwhile, for all the talk of how expensive the proposed health care bill might cost (between $80-90 billion per year), our country seems to have resigned itself to the fact that it's necessary to spend $60 billion per year on federal, state, and local corrections.
Providing students with extra guidance can go a long way toward preventing negative behaviors and consequences in the future. Dr. David Jewison, a family medicine physician and former Chicago Public Schools teacher, explained to me a few years ago how he had come to make sense of what he saw in his classroom and his clinic. "It's all about making choices. Many kids have never had good role models who they saw making good choices-which are often more difficult initially to make and accept-and they therefore don't know how to think through tough situations and make good choices themselves."
Unfortunately, those who might understand most what kids need are doing the least volunteering. According to a September, 2008, release from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 21.4 percent of adults-and just 17.6 percent of men-ages 20-34 were involved in volunteer activities during the previous year, compared with 30.6 percent of adults ages 35-54. Surprisingly, one third of adults with a child under age 18 spent time volunteering, while less than one quarter of adults without a child under age 18 did. Finally, although people with a bachelor's degree (or beyond) were more likely to volunteer than people at other education levels, 58 percent of them did not.
Understanding that these numbers can't tell the whole story, what we see generally is that millions of people who are young, college-educated, and without parenting responsibilities are not volunteering their time and talents. Where do we go from here? First, it is important to acknowledge that people who are not volunteering probably are not reading GOOD and will not get this message unless it is delivered to them. We cannot wait for someone else to deliver the message; it is up to us. I encourage you to talk to one person in your life who currently is not spending time volunteering. Approach that person with an idea or an opportunity that fits her or his skill set and interests-perhaps at a school serving low-income students, or with Big Brothers Big Sisters or Upward Bound-and present a compelling case about how that person's talents can make a meaningful difference in a child's life. If you encounter resistance, remember, many have never thought of themselves as a mentor or teacher. They are saddled with the "there are people" mindset. It's our job to convince them that, yes, there are people…and we are those people.
Michael Salmonowicz is a doctoral candidate at the University of Virginia's Curry School of Education and a contributing writer for trueslant.com. He spent three years as a high school teacher on Chicago's west and south sides and continues to mentor a number of his former students. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.