I want to tardily commend The Blind Side, Michael Lewis’ book about a poor black kid and a rich white family, now a major motion picture. I liked the movie, which is mainly faithful to the book, but I liked the book better.
Michael Lewis is a great storyteller. He made me laugh out loud at least half a dozen times, and choke up occasionally too. A lot of the book is focused on the game of football—only moderately interesting to me—but the book’s core is a human drama of a kid redeemed from awful circumstances. Michael Oher never met his father, and his addicted mother had 13 kids whom she made no attempt to raise. Michael and his siblings had to scrounge for food on the Memphis streets from the time he was a little boy. He always ran from foster homes, and hardly attended school except to get the free lunches. When we first meet him he seems more animal than human. By sheer chance he was enrolled in a white suburban Christian school when he was 16, and he ended up taken in by a rich white family. The book is about how Michael managed to graduate from high school and get courted by football coaches all over America.
It took a massive effort. His adoptive parents invested time and emotion and huge amounts of cash. His senior year they hired a full-time tutor. He really didn’t know anything, not even how to ask a question. Several times the project seemed to crash. But the family kept trying, and Michael kept trying, and they succeeded.
“Of course, he wasn’t the first black kid to rise from poverty and make it in the white world. But Michael was different, because the white world had so unusually aided and abetted his rise. The white world had watched Michael Oher happen, or thought they had, and so could imagine how he might be replicated. He haunted that world.”
He haunted the Christian school, for instance, that had bent over backwards to help a kid with zero academic ability. After his success, a lot of other poor black kids applied to the school. The school decided they couldn’t absorb them, even though Michael Oher’s adoptive family volunteered to pay their tuition.
“He haunted that world” because, on the one hand, he proved that it could be done, if people were willing to give a lot. On the other hand, it took a lot. The Blind Side chronicles how much in considerable detail. It’s hard to imagine giving as much as Michael’s adoptive family did. And most people have a lot less disposable money and time than they did.
The family comes off as tough and street-smart, with a sentimental core. For several years, Michael Oher dominated their lives (and they had kids of their own, about Michael’s age). At one point, when Michael ran away and disappeared, it all seemed likely to go down the drain. “’You think this is it?’ Leigh Anne [the mother] had asked. And the truth was, Sean [the father] didn’t know. ‘Your mind does funny things when it’s idle,’ said Sean. ‘But that’s when I decided that the downside was that we’d helped some kid—so even if he’d been playing us all along there really was no downside.’”
But there is a downside, and that’s why The Blind Side is haunting. We could make a difference in the millions of lives decimated by the pathologies of urban poverty. Michael Oher’s case shows how. In order to truly help, though, we’d have to give a lot more than charity.